Sunday, July 22, 2012

New Frontiers for Baseball, Part 1

On the surface, at least, this doesn’t seem like a particularly good time to be talking about new locations for Major League Baseball. We’ve just come to the end of a string of newly constructed stadiums from Baltimore to Miami; today only 9 of the 30 teams play in ballparks built before 1992, and most of these parks (such as Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium) have aged well and are not considered candidates for replacement. Furthermore, the economic downturn in the United States has probably ruled out another round of expansion for the foreseeable future. But this does not mean we should rule out the possibility of a new team completely.

Two teams have conspicuously been left out of the recent ballpark-building spree and could certainly be considered candidates for relocation. The Tampa Bay Rays have consistently had among the lowest attendance in baseball since their creation despite fielding good teams in recent years. Tropicana Field is widely despised, and its location in St. Petersburg is a significant distance away from most Tampa Bay Area residents. Owner Stuart Sternberg’s proposed new stadium in St. Petersburg was denied funding by the city, and the Rays and MLB have been exploring other options (with MLB commissioner Bud Selig recently calling the Rays’ low attendance “inexcusable”). At least one member of the Rays front office has acknowledged that, in general, “baseball hasn’t been very successful here in Florida.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Oakland Athletics have found themselves in a similar situation; the team plays in an outdated stadium (which it has occupied since moving from Kansas City in 1968) and has become a familiar presence at the bottom of the MLB’s attendance rankings. After attempts to construct a new stadium in Oakland or nearby Fremont, owner Lew Wolff is currently trying to gain approval to move the team to San Jose (a considerably larger city than Oakland), but this depends on the San Francisco Giants giving up their rights to the area, and it is unclear whether this will happen. It still seems likely that the A’s will stay in Northern California—in addition to San Jose, Oakland is making another push to keep the team, while Sacramento is positioning itself as an alternative after being jilted by the NBA’s Kings—but a move farther afield is not impossible. And an improved economy could conceivably lead to expansion at some point in the future. Recent changes such as the expansion of the playoffs and of interleague play appear designed to excite and attract fans, and it’s possible that MLB could go so far as to expand (in a hypothetical future in which the economy is solid) in order to generate a buzz.

So as a thought experiment I plan to look at potential future destinations for Major League Baseball. And to start with, I’ll consider what may be the most intriguing possibility for baseball: moving beyond North America.

South of the Border?

The advantages of placing a major league team in Latin America are obvious. Baseball is wildly popular in several countries in the region, and a large and increasing percentage of players and fans hail from there. A team would help solidify MLB’s fan base in Latin America. Perhaps more important would be the precedent a move to Latin America would send. No major professional sports league in the United States has ever fielded a team outside the U.S. and Canada. (As a side note, the AAA International League did include a team in Cuba, the Havana Sugar Kings, during the 1950s; it would be interesting to consider whether MLB might eventually have ended up in Havana if the Cuban Revolution had not succeeded.) In a period when MLB has been steadily losing ground to the NFL and NBA, such a risky move could help shake up baseball’s aging fan base and, combined with other measures, get more people excited about the game. Other leagues have also seen the possibilities that could stem from a global presence; NBA commissioner David Stern, for one, has spoken openly of his desire to place a team in London at some time in the future. An effort to globalize baseball could be the very thing needed to place the game on a stronger footing at home as well.

MLB has given Latin America serious consideration in the past. In this post I will look at the three cities that have been considered in the past: San Juan, Mexico City and Monterrey.

All are big markets. Mexico City’s estimated city population of 8.9 million and metropolitan population of 19.5 million make it the second-largest urban area in the Americas after São Paulo and one of the largest in the world. Monterrey has over a million people in the city and over four million in the metropolitan area, which would likely rank in the top 15 in the United States (its exact ranking depends on how a metropolitan area is defined). San Juan proper is quite a bit smaller, but its metropolitan area has over two million people (more than half the population of Puerto Rico) and, while not as large as Monterrey’s, would still be larger than several metropolitan areas that host MLB teams (Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee). San Juan would have an additional advantage in that, despite being part of Latin America, it is also part of the U.S. (and may become a state in the near future), which would enable MLB to avoid problems such as political instability, visa issues and the Mexican peso while still reaching out to Latin America. A San Juan team could also attempt to build up a fan base among the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, which is larger than the population of Puerto Rico itself (though doubtless many of these fans would remain loyal to the Yankees or Mets).
Baseball previously considered San Juan as a destination in 2004, when the Montreal Expos were looking for a new home; the team played a fraction of its “home” games in 2003 and 2004 at San Juan’s Estadio Hiram Bithorn, where they drew more fans than in Montreal (though this admittedly says much more about Montreal than about San Juan) and inspired a push by Puerto Rico to lure the team there permanently. While this effort was not successful, MLB did return to San Juan in 2010 with a highly anticipated series between the Mets and the Marlins. Mexico City and Monterrey haven’t hosted MLB games, but both have large, enthusiastic fan bases and have been considered as destinations for baseball teams in the past.

Despite all these pros, a move to Latin America in the near future seems unlikely. The main problem is simply one of money.

For a Mexican team this is not quite as glaring an issue as many Americans would assume; Mexico City and Monterrey are the two richest cities in Mexico. Based on the Human Development Index, generally used as an indicator of quality of life in a country, both Mexico City and Nuevo Leon (the state that contains Monterrey) are at levels of human development equivalent to many European countries, and many people have high levels of disposable income. However, these statistics obscure the high levels of income inequality in Mexico; while wealthy Mexicans would likely be able to afford tickets, most people do not make enough money to be able to easily afford to attend games at major league prices. Mexico’s Gini coefficient, a measure of the extent to which income equality in a country deviates from a perfect equality (higher means less equal) is considerably higher than that of the United States, and over a third of people in Mexico City itself (which, again, is one of the richest parts of the country) live below the poverty line. Considering its huge population Mexico City could conceivably have enough wealthy citizens to form a fan base capable of paying for major league tickets, but having a team that can only hope to draw a minority of the population even in a best-case scenario seems like a losing proposition. (The same goes for Monterrey, only more so due to the city’s smaller size.) And that doesn’t even take into account other problems, including finding or building an MLB-quality ballpark in either location, Mexico City’s high altitude (it would be the highest in the majors) and low air quality, and the ongoing Mexican drug war, which has turned once-safe Monterrey into a hotbed of violence and would undoubtedly loom over any effort to find investors for a Mexican venture.

San Juan doesn’t have the last two problems, though it would likely need a new ballpark (Estadio Hiram Bithorn has a capacity of only 20,000), but the wealth problem would still likely cripple a team based there. An estimate of Puerto Rico’s median income in 2009 placed it at only $18,654, around half that of the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi (and considerably lower than Mexico City as well), which would likely make it impossible to consistently draw fans without setting ticket prices at unsustainably low levels. MLB games in San Juan have been priced at levels similar to games in the U.S. (in the 2010 series, while bleacher seats could be had for $13, other seats sold for $34 and up), which would make it very difficult for most Puerto Ricans to attend more than a few games per year, but lower ticket prices would make it harder to pay operating costs (as will be explored in my next post, MLB teams cost quite a lot to operate). I can’t think of a realistic means of solving this problem. (Incidentally, this is also why a team in a more exotic locale such as Caracas and Santo Domingo, where interest in baseball is high but the standard of living is low, would also be a losing proposition.) One way a team in San Juan might try to keep itself viable would be securing a lucrative television contract in order to appeal to Puerto Ricans on the mainland (who now outnumber Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico itself), but success in this would seem to be improbabe at best. Besides the challenge of getting people to watch, teams can’t survive on TV alone. Without a fan base able to regularly attend games, a team cannot survive. The same factors that prevent teams in excessively small markets from thriving would likely doom a team in San Juan.

As tempting as the idea is, then, movement into Latin America does not seem like a realistic idea at present. It is possible that in the coming decades conditions will change enough to make this work—Mexico’s economy has been projected to expand even further, and the possibility of statehood for Puerto Rico might ultimately change the economic and social conditions there. For now, however, if MLB wants to make a change, it will have to start at home. This will be the subject of my next post.


  1. Yeah, DF is actually a much better place to put a basketball team (or a football team) than a baseball team. Right now in urban Mexico basketball really is the game of choice for teens and young people--i.e., your long-term market of fans--and for rich Mexicans (American) football has a weird status thing going on. (Witness the Tec de Monterrey's collegiate teams, for example.)

    Also, Lew Wolff didn't really try to put a stadium in Oakland--the city was for the Jack London Square stadium--and the Fremont, CA stadium violated the development compact of Bay Area cities in about 900 ways (e.g., massive car-centered development when building car infrastructure is unpopular with planners, etc), which looked to me like it was *always* a fake-out to try and go to San Jose. YMMV.

  2. Florida was less successful ie; the Marlins because the business who were building a franchise, sold off their winning team in the face of a loyal new fan base. After that they started dwindling in attendance, but then they put together, somehow another winner, only to get cheap again. Actually the TV and Radio fan base for the Marlins is quite good.

  3. Move the Rays to Alabama. There is a big baseball contingent down there and Florida is over saturated.

    Oakland to Portland