MLB Realignment: 7 Cities the Tampa Bay Rays Could Relocate to If Needed
Relocation and contraction are words no fan wants to hear, especially if it involves their beloved team. But it happens, even to the best of teams, the best of fans and even the most successful of franchises.
But while sports is a passion for most of us, for the select few who own and operate a sports franchise, it is a stressful business, and sometimes the product has to go where a demanding market wants it.
In the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, relocation and contraction have been words that have plagued the franchise, both through years and years of frustrating on the field struggles and during a still-running streak of division winning success.
And while the STORY of the Rays (small fries defeating the big time spending giants) is great dramatic fodder, no one, at least in person, is seeing it. And even if the Rays create a mini-dynasty and win four of the next five championships, the current situation (crappy stadium, poor attendance, terrible local access) at a consistent rate will cause the owners and operators to question the viability of a Tampa franchise.
And while this Rays fan would be immensely sad if his home town team lost it's major league baseball franchise, there is no reason, in the worse case scenario that they DO, indeed, leave, for me to think the franchise, as changed as it would be, couldn't flourish somewhere else.
Here is a look at seven cities that could benefit from the addition of a major league franchise, in this case, the Tampa Bay Rays.
Other Franchises: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (average attendance: 49,000-plus; one championship), Tampa Bay Lightning (average attendance: 17,000-plus; one championship)
Baseball Legacy: Tampa and its bay area is, of course, a major player in the MLB spring training. So it came as some surprise that the attendance for a 'home' franchise is so low (with, at least, fans originating from Tampa without ties to other franchises). Tampa, mainly, services minor league teams.
Analysis: I'm not joking when I put this as my choice. Not only is it the most reasonable, but it is the most likely, at least in my opinion.
The Rays currently play in St. Petersburg which is, at first glance, right "next to" Tampa (though, to be fair, part of the Tampa Bay area and the Rays are the Tampa BAY Rays). However, at its closest, St. Pete is six to eight miles from the city of Tampa and much, much farther coming from surrounding suburbs.
This is why the Rays rank in the bottom half for attendance (at roughly 18,000-plus per) and even then, you have a large portion being visiting fans (snow birds or local residents who hailed from other states before the Rays existed).
However, the key stat here, is the Rays television audience. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the Rays have almost 100,000 fans watching their games (per game) at home due to the long trek from Tampa to St. Petersburg.
If the team were moved to the city in which is takes it name from, would that attendance increase?
Tampa, while a great city, is not exactly a great sports town, even during the best of times (the Bucs and Lightning have won championships but consistent attendance is a problem. However, as a former resident, I will add that even during the WORST of times with both the Bucs and Lightning, there were very dedicated fans that came).
On a personal note, I am a Rays fan living outside of Florida (though born and raised in Tampa, represent!) and I recently flew into Tampa for a three game series and getting to Tropicana Field from Tampa itself was a pain in the butt.
I was at the infamous David Price Tweet game last year when the Rays had a chance to clinch a playoff spot against the Orioles. On that historic night, there were only over 12,000 fans at the ballpark and, from my point of view, a lot of them were Orioles fans.
Can this problem be solved with money and a stadium move to Tampa proper? I'd say yes. Imagine converting one-fourth of that 100,000 television audience to home games live. That's an extra 25,000 and a total attendance of 43,000-plus.
Sounds good to me.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Other Franchises: Charlotte Bobcats, Carolina Panthers
Legacy: Charlotte has never been much of a baseball town. It has had a AA and AAA squad (the current incarnation is the Charlotte Knights, who are the White Sox affiliate), but most professional sports have been basketball (the former Hornets and now the Bobcats) and football (the Panthers, who despite varied success, average in the top 10 in attendance).
Analysis: With the Tampa Bay area splitting residents up all over the place, an increase in population could work in the Rays favor if they moved to Charlotte.
With two major franchises already in tow, one being the Bobcats with an owner in Michael Jordan, and the Panthers, who have had their share of regular season and playoff success, the idea of a MLB team in the city doesn't seem outlandish.
The team's AAA affiliate has not had a lot of attendance success so the expectation of fan excitement and fan attendance may need to be studied further. It should be noted though that MLB had Charlotte as a finalist for the Expos franchise when relocation was being considered (and eventually acted on).
Other Franchises: Indiana Pacers, Indianapolis Colts (five total championships, two Super Bowl victories), Indiana Fever
Legacy: Besides the two major sports of basketball and football, in which the Indianapolis crowd has been lucky to have very storied franchises with big names, Indianapolis is home to prestigious racing, WNBA, and, as of late, major college basketball success with Butler.
But as for baseball, Indianapolis has the AAA affiliate for the usually awful Pittsburgh Pirates. There have also been professional leagues but, if substantial, it was back in the 19th century.
Analysis: While the legacy for baseball is not great, Indiana, and Indianapolis in particular, has a strong group of fans behind them in whatever sport they decide to follow.
Pacers fans are immensely loyal and, regardless of talent or win totals, it always seems the Pacers are blue collar and supported as such. Same goes for the Colts.
So while baseball might take some getting used to, Indianapolis is fond of many sports and has the population to support it. That said, on this list, I find this destination the least likely.
San Antonio, Texas
Population: 1.3 Million
Other Franchises: San Antonio Spurs (four championships), San Antonio Silver Stars
Legacy: San Antonio is known as a basketball town with the two major franchises being the NBA and the WNBA. San Antonio, despite immense basketball success, is considered small market.
The city has experimented with five different minor league baseball teams since 1903 with limited success.
Analysis: Baseball can work in Texas. The Rangers and Astros have been centerpieces of MLB for decades. So getting people to go to games wouldn't be a problem (and heck, out of 1.3 million people, someone has to like baseball there, right?).
I think the loyal sports followers would go, but I think the biggest problem would be how spoiled the fans would be. The Spurs have been world class for...well...ever it seems. To see a team that appears on the decline (at least from the perspective of two 90 win seasons in the last few years) go to a new city and perhaps, stink, may give San Antonio pause.
Like Indy, I find the market perfect due to the population numbers and lack of in-city competition during the high-ratings portions of the leagues but see the fan expectations as an issue.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Population: 1.6 Million
Other Franchises: Montreal Canadiens (24 championships)
Legacy: Montreal once had the Expos. Then they lost them. They had 35 years with very little success (one NLCS appearance and the best record in baseball in 1994. Well, until the strike hit anyway).
Analysis: Fool me once...while the Expos had its fair share of ownership issues throughout its troubled history, the Expos also had very lousy attendance and, not for the last time, a Canadian team playing a United States game, had to go elsewhere.
So would bringing a team back there make sense? Sure, the Expos had their legal fights, and they have their legal fans, but does a Tampa franchise struggling with attendance and stadium issues want to go back to the same problem but this time in a country that might be indifferent?
Montreal was viable once so, of course, it can be again and the Blue Jays, through thick and thin, have stuck around. So is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? Perhaps not. But the infrastructure is there, in case the idea is ever there.
Other Franchises: Portland Trailblazers (one championship), Portland Timbers
Legacy: The Portland Beavers have been a AAA affiliate (or minor league affiliate in some capacity) since the beginning of the 20th century.
Analysis: For a city with very little exposure to professional sports (only two major sports franchises exist now and the only exposure to baseball has been a minor league affiliate) Portland has been a target for an MLB team for years.
Along with other list member Charlotte, Portland was a finalist for the Expos franchise but lost out to Washington. And any time a team threatens or considers folding, Portland is in the cards.
So is it their time yet? One thing I can say is that Portland folks are extremely outgoing and very loyal. The Trailblazers, in thick and thin (mostly thin in the last few decades), have stuck by them, and the Portland Timbers, a new MLS franchise, is making soccer viable in the US in at least one section of the country.
Related to that, and with a potential move there by the Rays, you'd have instant rivalry potential with the Seattle Mariners. Portland folk love to rival up against their northern state rivals and a MLB showdown 10 to 15 times a year would get the fans raring to go.
Other Franchises: No major sport franchises
Legacy: Hartford is perhaps more known for its former franchise, aka The Whalers, then anything else. Hartford hasn't really experimented in any of the other major American sports and when they lost the Whalers, they lost all access to major sports.
Analysis: Being about 20 minutes from the worldwide leader in sports, ESPN, might help you get the stakes up, but will it provide the lasting touch into sustaining a franchise long term?
While the Whalers were a popular franchise in Hartford, Hartford is just plain inexperienced at handling major league sports.
But the population, mostly consisting of people aged between 20 and 50 and with a solid but still lower-to-middle income, might enjoy a change of sports scenery. It might be easier to root for the Red Sox or Yankees if you live in Connecticut, but I just have a gut feeling a Hartford team would be a resounding success.
One of the drawbacks, however, would be the very low population. Right now, even as it struggles for in-person fans, Tampa draws close to 15 percent of Hartford's entire population per game. Is it reasonable to assume 15 to 30 percent of the entire city would go to a baseball game?