The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are obviously big-market teams. The Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates are notoriously small-market clubs.
The new collective bargaining agreement makes these distinctions more important than ever, because it best serves big- and medium-market clubs. It could conceivably create an underclass of teams unable to compete for reasons financial and infrastructural.
Most fans, though, might have a mistaken vision of what that means for a dozen or so teams around the league. That's roughly the number of squads whose designation (are they big-market, mid-market or small-market?) by most fans and analysts misrepresents the truth of the matter.
Why is it important?
Well, for one thing, half of the 30 current teams in MLB get some share of revenue from the other half, under rules established to encourage competitive balance at the very beginning of the 21st century. The 15 who get the money, though, are not the same 15 who play in the smallest markets, or who have the smallest revenue potential.
For another thing, like it or not (I do), baseball is still a relatively free-market enterprise. Teams can spend as they see fit, so things like market size and fanbase matter insofar as they can impact a team's ability to make the right decisions without regard to cost.
Here are all 30 MLB teams, ranked according to their market size, i.e., their overall revenue streams.
An even breakdown of all 30 MLB teams would leave us with three 10-team tiers, and it almost comes out that nicely. It's a bit more complicated, though.
In reality, there are nine teams that register as truly big-market, 11 who fill up the middle and 10 on the bottom end of the spectrum.
Within those umbrella categories, smaller factions exist. The top three teams should be a tier unto themselves; so should the bottom four. As you read, draw lines between these franchises in your mind:
- Brewers and Padres
- Indians and Rockies
- Astros and Giants
- White Sox and Nationals
- Mets and Phillies
The jump from one to the next in each of those cases is pretty large.
Renovations to Kauffman Stadium in the last few years have re-opened some revenue valves for the Royals, and if fans turn out to support a young and very promising team, Kansas City could finally find itself with a few resources.
The question, of course, is from whence those fans will come.
Kansas City is the third-smallest media market and second-smallest metropolitan area among all MLB cities. It needs to draw really, really well in order to make money, because its TV contract and other revenue streams will never get truly lucrative.
Drawing from such a small populace is not easy.
Oakland is part of a three-city media market with San Francisco and San Jose, and by far the smallest and poorest of the three. That's one reason the A's are desperate to get to San Jose: They're currently penned into a mini-market because of MLB territorial rules about TV rights.
Another is their cavernous hole of a stadium.
They are the last team forced to share their home facility with a second full-time tenant, the Oakland Raiders. That stadium is football-first, old, uninteresting and ill-suited to the sort of advertising baseball teams use regularly within their parks.
The A's have no respectable revenue stream, and the deck is cruelly stacked against them.
A case could be made that the Rays derive certain advantages, at least financially, from playing in the AL East. Playing many games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays makes their TV contracts more valuable and lures extra fans to the park.
Tampa is also a middle-of-the-pack market, according to media consumption and sheer population.
Unfortunately, the Rays have the worst home park in MLB to which to draw those folks. It's an absolute dump. It's horribly located, poorly lit, utterly lacking in both charm and intelligent design.
For mostly that reason, the team simply cannot draw fans, and therefore, has a hard time making any kind of money.
Wisconsin is a strange place. Though none of the state's three key metropolitan areas are within even the top 30 of all U.S. cities, its sports teams receive excellent, even overwhelming support.
The Green Bay Packers are the most noted and best example, but the Brewers are an equally salient one.
Miller Park is a nice place, but not the league's best and brightest cash cow. The media market available to the team is tiny, as it's penned in by the Chicago teams to the south and the Twins' market to the west.
No element of the Brewers' economic situation favors them, really, other than that they have masterfully marketed and monetized their brand and now draw some three million fans every year.
San Diego is another small market in terms of total personage, but the unique twist is that some percentage of the Padres' support comes from Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who are not part of that calculus at all.
Fenced in by the big guns in Los Angeles, the Padres have to derive a fair amount of their revenue from attendance and ballpark-based ads, as well as merchandise. PETCO Park is a fine joint, potentially up to that task, but it does one thing that makes it unsavory for that purpose: It robs home runs and kills offense.
Whether or not chicks dig the long ball, there's no doubt that big-spending fans do.
They like to watch home runs, or at least games with a strong potential to feature home runs. An interesting study could be constructed to determine whether, and to what degree, playing in such a pitcher-friendly park has hurt the Padres' marketability and bottom line.
Cincinnati is neither a bustling metropolis nor a massive media market, but the Reds have a lovely riverside ballpark that has been a cash cow for nearly a decade. They also have a unique sort of X-factor when it comes to revenue streams.
Indianapolis, Louisville and Columbus are all larger cities than Cincinnati, yet each has only a Triple-A ball club. While Indianapolis and Columbus are split between Reds, Cubs and Indians fans, Louisville is almost exclusively Reds territory. So, too, are Lexington, Ky., and Dayton, Ohio.
The Reds fans diaspora is considerably wider than that of most teams. They also get a boost from baseball tourism, owing to the city's proximity to Louisville (home to the Louisville Slugger Museum).
On top of that, the region is relatively baseball-mad.
The Bengals do not intrude much on the Reds' market share for sports in Cincinnati, nor does the city host an NBA or NHL team. Civic pride in a franchise nearing 150 years of age cements the team's place, and allows it to occasionally act like a mid-market team.
The truth of the matter, though, is that the changing baseball economy is only going to emphasize its small-market status in coming years.
In addition to being an insufferable tyrant with whom no GM wants to work, it seems Orioles owner Peter Angelos is also a poor negotiator. He got entirely insufficient concessions from MLB in exchange for the league's muscling the former Montreal Expos into his market, making them the Washington Nationals and making the O's a permanent second act.
Baltimore is not, in and of itself, an MLB-caliber market. It's about the size of Cincinnati, although until 2005, the Orioles were able to utilize Washington, DC and do basically what the Reds do, but on an even larger scale.
Orioles games are still available for viewing in Washington, but with the Nationals rapidly becoming one of the most exciting teams in MLB to watch, Baltimore doesn't stand much chance of grabbing the spotlight.
The Orioles are in a poor situation, and it's only getting worse. The one bright spot on their revenue checklist is the gem that is Orioles Park at Camden Yards, which is still a top-10 (maybe top-five) big-league park 20 years after it opened.
Seattle lost the SuperSonics in large part because the city and county refused to build the team a new arena. If it weren't for Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson, the Mariners might have beaten the same path out of town a decade earlier.
Fortunately, those four and a bunch of others led the Mariners to the 1995 playoffs in thrilling fashion, then helped the team become a perennial power during the late 1990s and early 2000s before they departed (or in Martinez's case, retired).
Ichiro's arrival in 2001 ensured the long-term viability of the franchise in its new home, Safeco Field.
The media market is middling and the city itself is more inclined to football (and sometimes even soccer), but the Mariners have an underrated park, a wealthy owner (even as MLB owners go) and enough star power to keep fans coming to the park even in lean times.
It's a small market, but the Mariners are making the best of it.
The Pirates would love for the public to view them as one of the league's sob stories, right alongside the Royals, Rays and A's, but the truth of the matter is that they simply have been so bad and so aesthetically displeasing for so long that fans do not want to waste their time.
Pittsburgh is a small market, but not a tiny one.
The city is not an overwhelmingly affluent one, but throughout the area, there's money enough. PNC Park is baseball's best venue and should boost the team's revenue potential by tens of millions each year.
As the Steelers demonstrate, fans will follow where wins lead. With new management doing new things to turn the team around, the Pirates might have the chance to step forward soon.
Not unlike Pittsburgh, Cleveland is a Rust Belt city briefly devastated by industrial losses and suburban flight. Not unlike Pittsburgh, the city has found new revenue streams and recovered somewhat despite the down economy.
Not unlike Pittsburgh, though, mismanagement of the team during the past decade has led to fans abandoning a park they once packed to the rafters.
Progressive Field is not the potential piggy bank PNC Park is, in that it is several years older and a bit more functional, but it remains a nice place to take in a ball game, and the Indians should be able to capitalize on that. They briefly whipped up a frenzy when they made a run at the AL Central title in 2011.
The biggest downside in Cleveland is the size of the media market.
The Indians' radius is tiny, thanks to competing teams to their south (Cincinnati), north (Detroit) and east (Pittsburgh). They grab much of western Indiana, but the Chicago Cubs' wide regional appeal intrudes on them somewhat as well.
Without major TV revenue, the Indians are in trouble when they don't win and draw fans.
Denver is a mid-sized market and a large urban area, but there's a problem of isolation there. While the sheer area of the Rockies' TV rights territory is large, the number of viable fans to be reached in that area is small.
The region is hardly conducive to travel, and the prevailing sporting interests are outdoor sports like fishing and hunting, not baseball.
On the other hand, the Rockies have done a few things well. They have always prioritized star power, which is a good strategy in their market, and they've successfully monetized Coors Field from day one.
Capitalizing on some very successful local conglomerates, they have also found ways to print corporate money when it's really important.
A strange history makes strange the Cardinals' current circumstances. They were, for years, the westernmost and southernmost team in baseball, and as such, the Cardinals cut a wide swath of the American South and the Heartland out for themselves.
Of course, expansion and relocation have cut away most of that territory, and the Cardinals now occupy a region of average size and below-average population. Still, they have a rabid following.
Having been wise enough to keep their Triple-A affiliate across the river in Memphis and many of their other affiliates near key support bases, they maintain some pockets of very devout fans in unlikely places.
Busch Stadium is a lovely facility, and the team has profited nicely from it. They remain a small mid-market operation, but they are hardly as poorly off as teams (like Baltimore, Seattle and San Diego) in very similar environments.
Minneapolis-St. Paul is a region well-suited to weather the hard economic times, since much of its economy has been built on technological foundations for years.
Moreover, the Twins have been a fiscally smart organization from the beginning, and when they built Target Field, they did it with purpose and a vibrant vision.
The Upper Midwest poses a strange climate for sports, as Wisconsin proves. Minnesota is the same, only different. Intimacy is currency for the people of the Twin Cities. Hometown guys are worth something extra; Joe Mauer is worth everything.
Objectively, the contract extension the team gave him after his 2009 MVP performance is a bad one, but so long as Mauer is around, the fans will come to the team's gorgeous bank of a ballpark, and despite a sprawling area and a small media presence, the Twins should not suffer for their indulgence.
The Phoenix area itself is large and growing every day. The Diamondbacks have avoided certain of the key expansion-team pitfalls, and they have a ballpark that operates more along the lines of a shopping mall.
Unfortunately, the team does not own the market the way many teams in one-club cities do. Spring training is an annual raid on the Diamondbacks' territory, and for many fans, loyalties were in place before 1998 based on which team called their town home in February and March.
It's not hard to shake those moorings in all cases, but that, along with little in the way of a populated circle around the main metropolis, makes Arizona a mid-market team with below-average resources.
For sporting climate, it's hard to beat Miami. Year-round warmth, a university famous (and infamous) for producing elite athletes, cultural diversity and a major tourist presence make the city a great potential sports city.
It had been a while, though, since the city really felt like a major sports center. That was true until the middle of the past decade, when the Miami Heat traded for Shaquille O'Neal, won an NBA championship, sparked some serious civic pride and helped get the Florida Marlins a new stadium built.
Since then, it's been a whirlwind.
The big names for the Heat are LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, not O'Neal. The (now Miami) Marlins are about to open that brand-new park. Things are changing fast, as evidenced by the team's winter spending spree.
That spree was more about compensation for years of fraudulent miserliness than it was a true sea change, but it certainly made waves. It proved that, like many other teams around the league, the organization could spend much more money than it usually does.
The Marlins will never be much more than a middle-market team, but the past year has proved they were never the guppies they pretended to be.
Houston has a massive population, the kind that should never relegate a team to mid-market status. It's possible that new owner Jim Crane will lift the Astros out of those doldrums in the near future.
Crane can't simply wave a wand and make that happen, though.
The media market in Houston is considerably less appealing than the raw population data would suggest. Football still rules the city, and for that matter, the state. Infrastructure problems make it tough for fans to get to the park at times, despite its downtown location.
Time will tell whether the rising tide in the AL West lifts this boat, but the Astros need to get creative in order to get the kind of revenue stream flowing that, by rights, they deserve.
Though part of a split market, the Giants have the good half. They also have a gem of a ballpark, a World Series title and three or four stars off whom a savvy team can make money.
AT&T Park participates nicely in the China Basin area of San Francisco, but fans who come to the park leave most of their money inside. That's a skill carefully cultivated to ensure the park is more than an aesthetic wonder.
Meanwhile, the team not only draws many fans to the park from San Jose, but it gets all of the TV revenue out there. The Giants may not be a top-10 market, but for the moment, the team is sitting pretty.
The tragedy of the Blue Jays' situation is that the team need not feel intimidated by the Yankees and Red Sox. Its owners, Rogers Sports Net, should well be able to capitalize on the tremendous media revenue potential in Toronto.
The city itself is as large and affluent a metropolis as Dallas-Ft. Worth, and the competing interests are not as fierce. For some reason, though, the Jays are not willing (or else able) to spend like the top-10 team they should be.
The ballpark in which the Blue Jays play, once at the cutting edge, has decayed a bit. The team has lost the fans, and despite the savvy and delightfully sabermetric moves made recently by GM Alex Anthopoulos, they don't seem in danger of getting them back soon.
Yu Darvish going to the Texas Rangers was a huge loss for Toronto. He would have been an impact arrival. Now, the team needs to figure out how to leverage its revenue streams into some other on-field investment.
The city has been to Hell and back, but the Tigers have not been set backward over the past decade. Mike Ilitch, their benevolent owner and pizza maven, refused to let that happen.
Feeling he owed the city something after getting Comerica Park built, Ilitch has been as good a community steward as he has been a steward of the team itself.
That park remains a great source of recurring revenues for Detroit, as does the entire state of Michigan's fealty thereto. Like the Reds, the Tigers benefit from the duration and intimacy of their bond with the city they call home.
Here it becomes important to separate market size from certain other, unseen factors. The Braves, for instance, play in a booming business environment and recently had a national TV network at their disposal.
They keep their farm system closer than any other squad, which strengthens their presence and their bond with smaller communities throughout the South. Turner Field is not state-of-the-art by any means, but it certainly lends revenue potential.
Liberty Media, however, does not have great interest in availing itself of those resources. It spends (and at times, even endeavors to earn) like a small- or mid-market team, running away from the free-wheeling legacy of the Ted Turner era.
Though Chicago is a huge market, the White Sox are dominated therein.
Even since the 2005 World Series title the Sox brought home, Chicago remains a Cubs town, and the Cubs will always gobble up most of the tourist money, merchandise money, ad revenue and prime media real estate in the city.
That's one element of the problem here. Another is that U.S. Cellular Field is a bit of a dump, by modern ballpark standards. It has relatively little character. It sits in a poor South Side neighborhood, where the expected economic impact has never developed.
The revenue exclusivity of the area helps in a way, but the removal from downtown Chicago is a disadvantage, too. The Sox are no poor cousin, but they're functionally a mid-market team, albeit the richest once imaginable.
Call them the sleeping giants of the National League.
The Nationals have a home park tailored to high-income fans seeking amenity. They have stars who bear unprecedented hype, one already arrived (Stephen Strasburg) and one on the way (Bryce Harper).
They have the wealthiest owner in baseball, a sweeping media market with avid baseball interest, and somehow, for another few years, the Nationals are also receiving revenue-sharing money as one of the league's poorer teams.
By the time that money stops flowing in, Washington should be a perennial contender more than capable of generating its own revenue.
The famously rich TV contract that kicks in in 2014 should make the Rangers even bigger spenders in coming years. For the moment, they lean on the playoff revenues (and attendant attendance boosts) of two straight runs to the World Series.
After decades of trying, they have successfully branded themselves as Texas's baseball team, a bad omen for the Astros but a good sign for the Rangers.
Whereas the Cowboys and Mavericks had always been in charge, the Rangers are becoming a bigger and bigger player each year. They have personalities to appeal to every sensibility and sensitivity. They have athletes who make the games fun to watch. They have Nolan Ryan at their head, a Texas baseball icon non pareil.
They also have terrific depth on the farm, owing mostly to their ability to spend big in amateur markets over the past few years. This is big-market baseball at its prettiest.
It's fully understandable, but the fan mutiny against the tyranny and villainy of Frank McCourt will cost the Dodgers. The Angels beat them to the huge TV-money jackpot for the LA market; expect the Dodgers to get considerably less on their new deal.
Meanwhile, Dodger Stadium is starting to lose its charm. It's out of the way, lacks state-of-the-art convenience but makes up for it only modestly with Golden-Age charm.
If McCourt successfully sells the team to a multi-billionaire with the wherewithal to turn things around quickly, great, but for now, internal factors pull down a team blessed with almost unparalleled external opportunities.
While it's still a joyous place to take in a game, Wrigley Field is not the ascetic baseball temple (or tomb) it once was. And that's a good thing.
With so many things making the park impossible to raze and replace, the Cubs needed to make it work better for them financially. That does not mean trampling its charm with splashy and ill-considered advertising; it does mean making the park modern, branded and self-contained.
In other areas, the Cubs anxiously await a chance to re-jigger their current broadcast rights contract, as their current arrangement worked better in the baseball economy of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
They will be able to draw more fans to the park and more money in from TV viewers under the terms of some new deal and should be capable of running $175-million payrolls within the next five years.
C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols would not have been possible without the Angels' new TV deal, which is the richest ever signed by an MLB team and should easily cover those two salaries for the entire lives of the respective deals.
Angels Stadium is a better place after recent renovations than it once was, though it's hardly top-of-the-line. The area is blended between Angels and Dodgers fans, with Arte Moreno and company fortunate enough to have won a lot of young fans over the past decade in myriad ways.
They are not there yet, but the Angels could be minting money alongside the Yankees and Red Sox within a few years.
I'll put the Mets up here in the rare air because, as it stands, the money can still be made in many ways.
Citi Field is great. The Mets' TV network is a cash cow. The city, the market and the unique relationship between the fans and the team all still stand on the Mets' side.
The ownership situation, though, is flying out of control.
The Wilpons need money the way Bud Selig needs to retire. The Mets might be on the verge of bankruptcy. If they aren't, they are creeping nearer. That has pinned down the team monetarily at an utterly inopportune time.
For years, the Phillies observed the Yankees' models for team-building, from talent acquisition to branding to broadcasting, and waited for the right time to begin emulating the same. Their chance came when they opened Citizens Bank Park.
Since then, the team has drafted and signed young players aggressively, focusing more on landing premium talent in amateur markets than on hedging bets.
It has traded from the strength of its system for top-tier pitching and complemented its elite batters with some role players and relief aces other teams could not have afforded.
Rights and royalties money played a role. So did the ballpark itself. As much as anything, though, the growing affluence of Philadelphia itself during the 2000s helped the team capitalize on its chance and become the Yankees of the National League.
They need not stop spending money any time soon.
What's not to like?
The Red Sox have spent huge money on everything since John Henry and company purchased the team 10 years ago. They have invested enormous sums in updating and monetizing Fenway Park. They have claimed what was always theirs for the taking in terms of media revenue throughout New England by essentially ruling the sports network up there.
They have successfully turned Boston's long-time team into a team that belongs to the entire region again, and the money has poured in as a result.
Of course, they have hardly faced fierce challenges. No city or state bears as much natural allegiance to a team nor as much inherent interest in sport for sport's sake as does Boston.
The formula was simply to make sure the rabid fans paid enough for their obsession.
If this one had you in suspense, I can't help you.
The Yankees have a billion-dollar stadium. The Yankees have a $200 million payroll. They have the richest history in MLB and the star power to keep fans coming even if they don't give a damn about history.
The YES network is a smashing success. The branding of the interlocking "NY" on a national and global level really helped the team maintain pure dominance during an era (the 1990s, especially) when money was relatively up for grabs in the baseball landscape.
No one can spend with the Yankees; they have only to outsmart them, and even that is harder than it used to be.