MLB Expansion: The Way of the Future!

8 11 2010

Posted by WAMCO:

Back in 2001, Major League baseball was considering contraction, going from 30 teams down to 28. At that time, the two teams that were to be contracted were the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins. Since 2001, the Expos have moved to Washington and are in the process of establishing their identity. The Minnesota Twins? They have won six central division titles. This is the biggest reason I do not believe contraction is the answer.

The Twins have come a long way in a short period of time, going from baseball’s chopping block in 2001 to multiple time central division champs in 2010

Major League baseball is a $6-$7 billion industry. The Twins looked like a hopeless franchise that could never compete and was on death’s doorstep. But given the chance, they have managed to persevere and enjoy a relatively dominant stretch. Now, they have a new ballpark and are in the top ten in major league payroll. As hopeless as any team looks, it can turn it around and be successful. The industry is big enough to support these teams while they do. In the majority of cases, once there is success on the field, attendance and television viewership will follow. In fact, with such a large income base across the entire league, I believe the time is right to expand and grow the game in new markets.

In order to properly balance the schedule (which is a topic for another day in another article), there needs to be an equal number of teams in each league. The obvious question is: where should the expansion teams go? It is important to look at more than a city’s population. The size of the media market, the population of the metropolitan statistical area, and the city’s current ties to minor league baseball should be considered. Below I will examine four potential expansion sites.

Before I get into the examination, I will explain some of the factors that I looked at. One, was the ability of the area to support other major professional sports teams. I chose the four traditional major sports. Perhaps I could have included MLS as well, but I did not in this case. I also reference average and total attendance for minor league teams in the area. The highest minor league average attendance in 2010 was the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs of the International league, who averaged 9227 fans per game. There were only ten minor league teams that averaged over 8000 fans per game, to give you a sense of what the below numbers mean. There will be many reasons a city has good or bad minor league attendance, but I did not get too much into that in most cases. I also considered looking at unemployment rates in the individual areas, but felt that this was mostly a non-issue, as there are places with high unemployment rates that still draw well (Detroit) as well as places with good unemplyment rates that do not draw well (its all about winning!). I also reference the size of the media market in relation to other metropolitan statistical areas in the United States, keeping in mind that Cincinnati and Milwaukee are 34th and 33rd respectively in media market size, for reference purposes.

Portland, Oregon: The area around Portland is underrepresented in professional sports. The only other major professional sports franchise in Portland is the Trailblazers of the NBA. The metropolitan statistical area of Portland/Vancouver/Beaverton had an estimated population of 2,241,841 people as of 2009, and the 23rd-largest media market in the United States. The Portland Beavers AAA baseball team drew an average of 4265 fans per game in 2010, and 294,332 fans in total, despite the knowledge that the team was leaving the city at the end of the year due to a stadium dispute. This attendance ranked 71st in the minors, which is obviously not terrific, but I believe their stadium issues would have largely contributed to this. A natural rivalry with the Seattle Mariners could develop here, which would be great for baseball in the Pacific Northwest.

Charlotte, North Carolina: It is hard to say that the sports market in Charlotte and the surrounding area is underserved. The Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA and the Carolina Panthers of the NFL are both quite popular in the area. Charlotte has the 27th-largest media market in the United States. The Charlotte Knights AAA baseball team in the International League drew an average of 4247 fans per game in 2010, and a total of 305,842, which ranked 73rd in the minor leagues based on average attendance. The metropolitan statistical area of Charlotte/Gastonia/Concord had an estimated population of 1,745,524 in 2009. Greensboro, NC, is less than 90 minutes drive from Charlotte, and this area had an estimated population of 714,765 in 2009. A potential rivalry with the Atlanta Braves is intriguing here. Despite the current number of teams located in the eastern United States, Charlotte would seem to be a decent fit, as there appears to be a geographical dead area in the Carolinas, which would be helped immensely by an MLB franchise.

Nashville, Tennessee: The home of country music is also the home of the Nashville Predators of the NHL and the Tennessee Titans of the NFL.  Nashville has the 30th-largest media market in the United States. The Nashville Sounds of the AAA Pacific Coast League drew an average of 4764 fans per game in 2010 (ranking 64th in the minors), and a total of 319,235 over the entire season. The metropolitan statistical area of Nashville/Davidson/Murfreesboro/Franklin, Tennessee had an estimated population of 1,582,264 in 2009. Nashville has often been criticized as a poor market for the NHL (I hear this a lot in Canada). However, their attendance numbers have been decent since the NHL strike in 2004-2005, filling their arena more than 85% capacity since then. Obviously this is a different sport, but it paints a picture that the city can get behind a major sports franchise. Nashville is directly between St. Louis and Atlanta, which could lead to an interesting rivalry between the cities.

Salt Lake City, Utah:  The home of the 2002 winter Olympics boasts one major professional sports franchise, the Utah Jazz. Salt Lake City has the 36th-largest media market in the United States. There is clearly interest in baseball, as the AAA Salt Lake Bees drew an average attendance of 7292 people per game, ranking 14th in the minor leagues, and a total of 510,484 over the entire season in 2010. The metropolitan statistical area of Salt Lake City had an estimated population of 1,130,293 in 2009. A franchise in Utah would be ideal, from the standpoint that the area does not really have any other franchise even close in proximity, and if paired with an expansion team in Portland, would really stretch Major League Baseball further into underserved areas of the country. A potential natural rival would be Colorado (battle of the four corners, anyone? I guess Arizona would have to be a part of that as well).

Obviously, there would be major and minor details to decipher (revenue sharing, ownership groups, ball park construction, territorial rights, etc.). We all know that these things would need to occur before any expansion would be possible. I feel that all of these sites would be viable major league towns, but there are many other factors that would need to be considered before an expansion team was placed in any of these cities. My preference? I think that Portland, Oregon is the first logical place, because of the geographical gap that it would close. For my second team, I am torn between Salt Lake City and Charlotte. I think Charlotte would be more successful from a monetary standpoint, but there is the potential for a place like Salt Lake City to rally around a team. Based on money, I guess I would go with Charlotte, but its really close. To me, though, the important thing to remember is that all of these teams can make money. The sport is a multi-billion dollar industry. I believe it is worth it to expand to areas without access to major league baseball, for the purpose of growing the game, and reaching more people. Isn’t that what this should be about? 

Would any of these sites actually work? Are there other sites that should be considered? Comments and discussion is appreciated.

*All data for metropolitan statistical areas obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov

**All data for minor league attendance obtained from Ballpark Digest, http://www.ballparkdigest.com

***Media market rankings obtained from Pro Advance, http://www.proadvance.com

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