Monday, July 30, 2012

New Frontiers for Baseball, Part 2

            In my last post I brought up the intriguing idea of baseball expanding into Latin America, before essentially shooting it down. For reasons I've already gone into, I believe the idea of a new location for baseball in the foreseeable future is very possible, and if this new location isn’t south of the border it will have to come from inside the U.S. and Canada. This post will take a brief look at what options might be feasible for MLB going forward.
            I was a little apprehensive about writing this because I knew that a proper analysis would require the use of a lot more statistical know-how than I possess. As it turned out, though, I didn’t need to worry, because the kind folks at the Business Journal newspaper chain have already conducted a study of all metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada, evaluating their ability to support a team in any of the “Big Five” professional sports leagues. A handy chart of these findings can be found here.
            I have a couple of issues with this study, which I’ll get to in a bit, but in general it seems like a very useful tool to see which areas could realistically support a team and which clearly don’t make the cut. (Sorry, Pocatello.) The methodology of the study is explained here, but basically it adds up the annual income of all the residents in a metropolitan area and compares it to the cost of running a team in each league. So the focus is entirely on the financial side.
            One thing this study takes into account, which I had not realized before, is the high cost of running an MLB team as compared to teams in other sports. Based on the average price of tickets and the operating costs associated with baseball, the study finds that an MLB team must have an income base of at least $85.4 billion in order to be viable. By contrast, an NFL team would need $36.7 billion and an MLS team just $15.4 billion. Because of this, the study suggests that over a dozen cities could support a new team in any of the major leagues except MLB (including such locales as Tulsa, Rochester, New Haven and Honolulu).
            If we take the study on faith, the outlook for MLB seems grim. Only six metropolitan areas are rated as being definitely able to support a new team—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Houston and Riverside-San Bernardino—and of these six five already host at least one MLB team. While on paper these cities would certainly have the capacity for a second or third team, in practice it seems difficult to imagine a new team building a fan base; the only instance I can think of in which MLB expanded into a city already hosting a team was its creation of the New York Mets, and in that case two previous teams had already moved out of New York, leaving a fan base ripe for appropriation. A new team in New York or any of these cities today would have no such advantage—with baseball fans generally committed to the existing team(s), and with the existing team(s)’ quality of play probably higher than the new team’s for some time, except perhaps in the case of a second Houston team (zing), it seems hard to imagine a new team gaining much traction in a city already represented in MLB. If we eliminate cities with existing teams, then, Riverside-San Bernardino—the region of Southern California known as the Inland Empire—is left as the only guaranteed viable destination according to the study. Among the other possibilities, Montreal is rated as close to ideal, and several other cities are rated as borderline, including Bridgeport-Stamford, Las Vegas, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Providence, Austin and Hartford.
            This study’s weakness is that it is, by its own admission, incomplete; while it measures the vital question of viability, it does not take other important factors into account. One of the biggest issues I see is that of existing teams’ territory, both in terms of official territory and fan base. Territorial rights nearly prevented the Montreal Expos from moving to Washington and have been a stubborn obstacle to an A’s move to San Jose. A new Inland Empire team—they would have to be called the Stormtroopers—would face just such a problem, as the Dodgers and Angels (and possibly the Padres as well) would likely resist an attempt to move a fourth team to Southern California. This might also derail attempts to move a team to New Jersey (not designated as a separate area in the Business Journals study but proposed in the past), Providence or Connecticut; existing teams would undoubtedly try to block such an effort. Another problem is that of existing fan bases. A New Jersey team—which could perhaps be named for the Newark Bears—would struggle in the shadow of the Yankees and Mets; there is certainly a precedent for teams identifying as New Jersey teams, but these have had, erm, mixed success. A better case could perhaps be made for a team in southern Connecticut (we could maybe call them the Connecticut Wasps, as I understand the name Yankees is taken). In addition to its wealth, Connecticut fans have been supportive of Connecticut teams in the past, and a state without a professional team of its own would probably respond well to MLB. Still, competing with the Yankees and Red Sox for attention seems chancy at best. I’m not sure how much of a problem this would be in the Inland Empire, since I am far less familiar with Southern California than the Northeast, but since much of the region shares a television market with Los Angeles, it seems likely that the Dodgers and Angels would have a significant following.
            Having gone over some areas with nearby existing teams, let’s look at some completely unoccupied markets. From a financial standpoint, the Business Journal study identifies several borderline viable markets: Montreal, Las Vegas, Hampton Roads (the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area of southern Virginia) and Austin. Las Vegas seems alluring at first glance, but besides the obvious unsavory association with gambling it has been hit extremely hard by the current economic climate, has few nearby populated areas outside the immediate urban core and, as a city of expatriates and tourists, would likely struggle to build up a fan base. (Its AAA team, for example, has had dismal attendance; more on those numbers in a bit.) Hampton Roads and Austin would be intriguing if unproven options—neither has hosted a major league team in any sport—but I would argue that Montreal might actually be the most viable market without a current team. Besides its large population, it has a preexisting (if relatively small) fan base left over from the Expos. In their heyday (around the 1980s) the Expos were a viable team, and with a modern facility replacing Olympic Stadium a revived franchise could conceivably be viable again. However, even putting aside the unlikelihood of securing a new stadium, it seems all but impossible that MLB would risk a return to Montreal in the foreseeable future, considering the fate of the Expos. While I would argue that a Montreal team would have a shot at success, it would still be a significant risk, and one that MLB would be especially reluctant to take. (MLB should, however, seriously consider giving Montreal a AAA team, which seems eminently doable.)
            Plenty of other markets are worthy of consideration. Besides Austin and Hampton Roads, several cities such as Portland, San Antonio, Columbus, Charlotte, Vancouver and Salt Lake City are worth a look based on size alone. (I’ll get to Orlando, Sacramento and San Jose shortly.) An additional factor not addressed by the Business Journal study comes into play here as well—namely, the intangible question of whether a place would make a good baseball town, with fans that would be likely to support a team even if it struggled in its early years and a population likely to help finance a place to play. This is obviously very subjective, but we can look at the turnout for minor league baseball and other sports to get an idea of whether an area could possibly keep a team afloat despite not quite making the cut income-wise. High AAA attendance figures make Austin and Columbus look like more appealing destinations and put such locales as Louisville, Indianapolis, Albuquerque, Buffalo and minor league-leading Allentown (surprise!) on the radar screen. In particular, Indianapolis and Louisville strike me as good places for sports; both have a long professional and college sports tradition and do not overlap any of the current markets.
Another city I would definitely add to this list is Omaha, which, besides having solid minor league attendance, draws large crowds to the College World Series each year as well as to college basketball and hockey games (as one writer points out, Creighton University’s basketball team is among the NCAA’s attendance leaders and only drew 1,500 fewer fans per game than the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, despite not being in a major conference). In fact, despite being smaller than most of the competition, Omaha may be one of the more appealing possible destinations for MLB for the simple reason that it is one of the few cities with a usable ballpark already available. TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, which opened last year, is a state-of-the-art facility which, while currently only able to seat 24,000 fans, can be expanded to 35,000 if need be, big enough to house a team. Omaha’s willingness to build such a large facility to be used largely for college sports speaks well of both the economic climate and the locals’ interest in baseball. Compare that with Portland, which lost the AAA Beavers after consistent local opposition destroyed several plans for a new ballpark (which would have been considerably smaller than Omaha’s). This is not to say that Portland couldn’t work for baseball—the city is the largest U.S. market without a team apart from the Inland Empire, and it has proven it can support professional sports—but the comparison illustrates how a smaller market could potentially beat out a larger one in attracting an MLB team. (This actually had a shot at happening in 1991, when the success of Buffalo’s AAA Bisons led to the city being seriously considered as an expansion site, along with the much larger markets of Washington, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Denver. Sadly, as you may have guessed, the last two cities were eventually chosen.)
Nevertheless, a team in any of these cities would face the considerable disadvantage of being in a small market, a serious problem in an era when the wealth gap among major league teams seems more significant than ever before. All of the cities I've listed would qualify as small markets, and an expansion team in such a market would find it particularly hard to remain viable, at least at first. An inability to turn a profit in the early years could cripple the Portland Beavers or Tidewater Tides or Omaha Crickets or whatever before the team could really get off the ground. Many of these places are also untested as far as major league professional sports are concerned, and such expansion into totally new markets has had mixed results. The obvious goal for a small-market expansion team would be to emulate Basketball's Oklahoma City Thunder, whose success on the court has been appreciated by a highly enthusiastic fan base. But there are plenty of less successful examples such as the recently sold Memphis Grizzlies (not to mention their previous iteration in Vancouver) or the consistently mediocre Columbus Blue Jackets. Starting a team in a new market, even a relocated existing team, is a significant gamble, and the relatively small population base of most of the sites I have proposed makes success even more of a challenge. Everything has to come together for a new team to succeed, and particularly during difficult times for the game it could be tough to convince MLB's front office and/or a potential owner to get behind a move to a new market. So while there is certainly a great deal of potential in moving, the risks are high, and the challenge of developing a fan base while building a competitive team, not to mention the problem of finding a place to play in most of the potential home cities, is a daunting one.

For existing teams, then, another option might be more appealing: movement within the home region. As discussed in my previous post I believe that the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays are probably the most likely candidates for relocation in the near future, which means that the local options realistically consist of San Jose and Sacramento for the A's and Tampa and Orlando for the Rays. All four cities are considered by the Business Journal study to be below the required income to sustain a team, but my suspicion is that the population growth in all three, as well as the proximity to Oakland/St. Petersburg (meaning that fans are already in place), would allow any of the cities to sustain a team. Sacramento's case would also likely be helped by the likely departure of the NBA's Kings for Anaheim in the near future, leaving a professional sports void. One problem would be finding a place to play and, in the case of San Jose, getting permission to play there; this problem has prevented a deal for a San Jose ballpark from being solidified. Sacramento and Orlando are also considerably further from the current homes of their teams than the other two, and a team moving to these cities would be hampered by the need to develop a new fan base. This is especially true of Orlando; the A's are far more established in Northern California than the Rays are in Florida, and the presence of a popular A's AAA affiliate in Sacramento has likely created a fan base that could be appropriated. San Jose, being part of the San Francisco Bay Area, could likely draw fans from the Oakland/East Bay area and from San Francisco proper, and Tampa is already the center of the Rays' fan base. (This article has assumed from the start that the Rays would be able to find a way out of their oppressive lease with St. Petersburg, which tethers the team to the city; if this can be done, a move seems not just possible but likely.) Still, a new stadium would have to be financed, and the teams would still need to be competitive in order to thrive.

The final option? Staying home and building a new stadium near the old one. In the end, that might be the safest choice, particularly for Oakland. This article has provided plenty of options for new homes, but all are fraught with risk, and moving within the region carries the risk of losing a fan base if support in the new city cannot be built up (this is not as much of a problem for the Rays in Tampa since, as I mentioned, their fans frequently come from Tampa anyway). A new destination for MLB has the potential to generate new interest in the game or the potential to fail miserably. Particularly under difficult economic conditions, a renewed effort to stay home would be a safer way to guarantee at least some measure of viability.


  1. What about Ottawa, Ontario. I'd buy season tickets.

  2. San Antonio has a strong minor league tradition, large Hispanic population, and warm weather. With the Astros move, Texas no longer has National League baseball.