Where Should MLB's Next Expansion Teams Go?

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Where Should MLB's Next Expansion Teams Go?
(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
The most sensible two locations, based on where expansion teams could thrive, would be Northern New Jersey and the Inland Empire (western San Bernardino and Riverside Counties in California). 
The greater New York metropolitan areas could easily support a third team, and at this point in time, I think a team located somewhere between the cities of Ontario, Riverside and San Bernardino could easily support a major league team also.

In fact, according to wikipedia, the Inland Empire now constitutes the 14th largest metro area in the country.  It would certainly have great baseball weather all season long.

Unfortunately, expansion in these areas won’t happen any time soon.  Four of the 10 richest, and thus most powerful teams in baseball, are the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, and Angels.  

They consider Northern New Jersey and the Inland Empire their territory, and there’s probably no way anyone could pay them enough to allow third teams to cut into their markets.

As far as game attendance goes, I don’t think third teams in the greater New York or Los Angeles metropolitan areas would hurt the existing teams at all.  Third teams would immediately generate a strong rivalry with the existing team in their league.  Such rivalries are good for baseball and good for attendance.

What the existing teams would object to is having their respective television markets split between more teams. 

The Yankees are so unbelievably rich and can throw more money at top free agents than anyone else mainly because of their obscene TV revenues.  Because they play in the two largest markets in the country by far, all of these existing teams have enormous advantages over all the other teams in terms of television revenue. 

They won’t agree to anything that potentially cuts into those revenues, even if it were in the long term benefit of MLB or even these teams themselves.

The two locations talked about most now that Washington, DC/Northern Virginia have been taken by the Nationals are Portland and Las Vegas.  Are these two locations really the best? 

Let’s see.

The single most important factors for a city to get an expansion team are:

(1) whether the potential ownership group can come up the the expansion fee MLB (meaning the other owners) charges;

(2) whether MLB thinks the proposed ownership group has the financial wherewithall to survive the early lean years of a new franchise;

(3) what kind of a package local and state government are willing to put together to get the expansion team into a new stadium with all the revenue-raising bells and whistles. 

As a matter of general principal, owners of professional sports teams prefer it when someone else pays for their stadiums or arenas.

Since expansion is not currently on the table, there’s no way to know what locales will put together what ownership groups or will pony up the money for a shiny new ballpark. 

Instead, this article will consider other factors that are perhaps just as important to the long-term success of an expansion franchise: namely size and growth of the potential markets into which expansion teams might be placed.

Here are the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. that do not currently have major league franchises according to wikipedia [Note that rate of growth is from Apr. 1, '00 to July 1, '08]:

Metro Area      Rank    Population   Rate of Growth*

Portland              23            2.21M                14.5%

Cincinnati 24

Sacramento       25            2.10M                17.4%

Cleveland 26

Orlando               27            2.05M               24.9%

San Antonio      28             2.03M              18.7%

Kansas City 29

Las Vegas           30            1.87M               35.6%

San Jose, CA     31             1.82M                4.8%

Columbus          32             1.77M              10.0%

Indianapolis    33             1.72M               12.5%

Charlotte           34             1.70M              27.9%

Virginia Bch.   35             1.66M                5.2%

Austin, TX        36            1.66M               32.2%

Providence     37             1.60M               0.86%

Nashville         38              1.55M              18.2%

Milwaukee 39

Jacksonville  40             1.31M                17.0%

 

Here are the only two metropolitan areas in Canada worth serious consideration [Note that rate of growth is from May 15, '01 to May 16, '06]:

Montreal         2                3.64M               5.4%

Vancouver     3                2.12M               6.5%

Of these 16 metropolitan areas without existing teams, a few can be dismissed out of hand.  San Jose is less than 45 miles from both the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s.  If any team moves to San Jose in the near future, it will be the A’s. 

However, San Jose has been officially designated Giants’ territory, and the A’s likely won’t be able to move there unless the A’s or MLB makes a big payment to the Giants to get their consent.  The upshot is that no expansion team will be placed there.

We can cut out Providence for the same reason.  Aside from its stagnant population growth in the last eight years, Providence is only 50 miles from Boston and almost certainly part of the Red Sox territory. 

The Red Sox are another of baseball’s wealthiest and most powerful teams.  It is extremely unlikely that another team will be placed in New England in our lifetimes.

Both Nashville and Jacksonville are too small right now to support major league expansion teams.  However, based on their current high rates of growth and their great distance from other major league franchises, they should both be real contenders in about 30 years.

The next round of cuts I’d make to this list are Sacramento, Orlando, Columbus, Virginia Beach, Montreal, and Vancouver.  The problem for Sacramento and Orlando is that they are too close to existing major league franchises. 

Sacramento is no more than 90 miles away from the Giants and A’s; and Orlando is about the same distance from the Tampa Rays.  Obviously, the existing franchises will scream if MLB tries to put expansion teams in these cities. 

That being said, both Sacramento and Orlando are large metro areas growing rapidly.  If they continue to grow at their present rates, in 20 years the nearby teams may not be able to block expansion any longer.

My gut feeling is that an expansion team needs to be at least 100 miles, and probably more like 150 miles, away from the closest existing team in order not to meaningfully impact the existing team’s attendance. 

The smallest-market teams now in existence, the Reds, Indians, Royals and Brewers, are viable in large part because they draw extensively from areas well beyond their immediate metropolitan areas. 

The Reds and Indians essentially split the great State of Ohio, the Brewers claim most of Wisconsin as its fan-base, and the Royals draw extensively from points north, west and south, where there is no major league baseball.

The Royals have long had their AAA team in Omaha for this reason, and the Reds have recently and wisely moved their AAA franchise to Louisville, which is only about 100 miles from Cincinnati and a large metropolitan area in its own right (currently 42nd).

That’s why I’d cut out Columbus.  It’s about 100 miles from Cinci and 140 miles from Cleveland.  It’s hard to imagine that MLB would put another franchise in Ohio, when the state already has two small market franchises there.

Virginia Beach gets cut because it’s small and it’s rate of growth is low.

I cut the two Canadian cities, because MLB can’t have much enthusiasm for Canada after the Expos couldn’t make a go of it in Montreal.  Nevertheless, Montreal is too big a market to ignore completely, and Vancouver is up-and-coming. 

In 20 years, there’s a good chance one or both of these cities will be a prime target for expansion.  One day, I think Mexico City will be considered for the same reason, but I just can’t see a major league team placed there in the next ten years.

That leaves Portland, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Charlotte, and Austin/Round Rock.  Because San Antonio and Austin are only about 80 miles away from each other, I consider that essentially one market, which I discuss below.

The strongest contender is Portland.  Aside from being the largest market in the country without a major league team, it has strong growth and will pass Pittsburgh for 22nd in two or three years at current growth rates. 

Also, a team in Portland would draw support from the entire state of Oregon.  The closest team is the Seattle Mariners, about 175 miles away.

The next round of expansion will be in the AL, and Portland should definitely be an AL team in order to take advantage of the obvious rivalry that would develop between a Portland franchise and the Mariners.

Las Vegas is a market with great possibilities and great draw-backs.  The possibilities include that metropolitan Las Vegas is already quite large and is growing explosively.  Also a team there could potentially draw large numbers of out-of-state baseball fans, who schedule their vacations to Vegas around when their home teams are playing there.

The problem with the latter is that no one really knows what that tourist attendance would be like over the course of a season, since there is no other current major league city that is comparable to Vegas as a potential baseball tourism destination.

Other problems with Vegas are that it is the gambling center of the country, potentially exposing MLB to more opportunity for gambling scandals (think 1919 Black Sox).  Also, once you get outside of the greater Las Vegas Metropolitan area, there’s no one there. 

The largest town within 100 miles of the greater Las Vegas Metropolitan area is Bullhead City, Arizona, which has about 40,000 inhabitants and is about a 100 miles away. Finally, as a tourist town, it is getting hit hard by the current recession.

In short, there are definitely some risks putting a team in Vegas.

In terms of population and growth, an expansion team that could draw from both the San Antonio and Austin/Round Rock metro areas would be in a good situation indeed.  Such a team should probably be based in San Antonio, currently the larger of the two metro areas. 

San Antonio is further away from Houston and Dallas, about 200 miles from the former and 275 miles from the latter.

A stadium built in the Northeast corner of the San Antonio metro area on the road to Austin, perhaps around Live Oak, Texas, that could draw fans from both San Antonio and Austin, would have access to a large potential fan base. 

Also, given the size of Texas, both in terms of population and distances, a team in San Antonio would likely increase interest in baseball throughout the state and benefit the Rangers and Astros for this reason. Again, it would also likely create intense local rivalries.

I also like both Charlotte and Indianapolis as dark-horse candidates.  Charlotte is the stronger of the two, based on its explosive growth and its distance from any other major league team.  A team in Charlotte would obviously have North Carolina to itself.

This is also what I like about Indianapolis.  Except for the northwest corner near Chicago and the southeast corner near Cincinnati, a team in Indy would immediately be Indiana’s team. 

Further, Indy’s growth rate, while nothing like Charlotte’s, is still a very respectable 12.5 percent over the last eight years.  Indy is only about 115 miles from Cincinnati, though, which might give MLB pause about locating a franchise there.

 

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