Sunday, May 9, 2010

An idea for MLB realignment, Part One: Two Expansion Teams

This will run in two parts: Part One will look at two suitable, if not likely sites for MLB to expand, while Part Two will cover how the divisions and leagues would be best re-aligned.

I've talked about the idea of expansion before, and as things stand there's really not a market for MLB expanding domestically. However, time, an economic revival and rich men's ambition (including the rise of a new commissioner following Bud Selig's retirement) could lead to an opportunity for MLB to add two new teams in the next decade or so.

I don't foresee any potential expansion happening overseas or in Mexico. Every major US sports league has explored the idea of going to Europe, Mexico or Pacific Asia, but the reason you haven't seen it is simple: Travel logistics would simply make basing 1-2 teams overseas infeasible (domestic jet travel, let alone international jet travel, is expensive, and not getting any cheaper or easier), and Mexico's political and crime issues, not to mention the nation's relative poverty, make basing a team in Mexico City, Monterrey or similar cities too difficult to make it worth a league's while.

But while the recession has hit America hard, and while (as I mentioned before) many of MLB's potential markets aren't attractive fits right now, there could be development in two markets that would provide the opportunity to expand to 32 teams, even out the leagues and finally re-align the leagues and divisions in a way that makes competitive and geographical sense. This probably doesn't happen anytime in the next few years, but as the economy settles and evolves, and as Bud Selig hands the MLB keys to a new Commissioner, the league could look to finally fix their fractured league alignment, expand their revenue streams and give two new domestic markets an expansion team.

Here are the two markets that would be best equipped to take on an MLB franchise. One is fairly obvious. The other is such a psychological outlier than your first reaction may be "No way" but in light of the shortcomings in other markets and what this 2nd market has to offer, this market is probably the best fit for Expansion Franchise #2.

#1. Charlotte, NC: Yes, earlier I said that pro sports hadn't taken well to the area despite being a hotbed for college and minor league baseball. But continued economic growth despite the recession (even in banking, which was the hardest hit sector) and consistent or growing attendance figures in the NFL, NBA (as the Bobcats have finally began winning) and even with the AAA (not quite) Charlotte Knights indicates that interest in pro sports in the area is growing instead of waning, and that the economy not only hasn't swayed fans from buying tickets, but sees Charlotte fans patronizing major pro sports even more than ever before. The market Nate Silver once called the "one place that would clearly be viable for the 31st major league franchise" has tried in the past to lure an MLB team (Expos, Marlins), but their best bet for a team is likely as one of MLB's expansion markets should they expand to 32.

Charlotte's biggest challenge would be funding and building a baseball stadium. With no model in place to throw one up in the foreseeable future, the hard sell would be convincing an owner to eat a loss playing in MLB-capable Knights Stadium (which even with hasty expansion probably wouldn't seat more than 20K-25K) way out in Fort Mill, SC until a new stadium could be built in Downtown Charlotte. The AAA Knights have been repeatedly stymied in getting funding for a new stadium: Could it be civic interests are holding out for an MLB team, not wanting to spend money on a AAA facility with AAA capacity if they can get an MLB team later... and then have to build them a 35K seat facility?

Charlotte would serve at this point as a fine addition that few would argue with in the event of expansion. The 2nd best addition, however, will lead a lot of people to recoil.

#2. Omaha, NE: Now how in the hell could the 59th largest US metropolitan area have the inside track on an MLB expansion franchise over other major metropolitan areas like Portland, San Antonio, Indianapolis and Las Vegas? Well, there's one very big reason.

TD Ameritrade Park is scheduled to be completed by 2011, and will open with 24,000 seats, with the capability to expand to 35,000 "if need be".

Now... with the AAA Omaha Royals moving to a smaller, suburban ballpark, why would the city of Omaha spend $128 million in public money to build such a large facility if its only tenants are the College World Series, an expansion UFL Football team and the Creighton University baseball team?

The likely, unspoken answer is that Omaha, a city of 430,000 that has seen steady population and economic growth with little recession over the last few decades, would like to net themselves an MLB team someday, and a big baseball stadium with a host of amenities gives them a big edge over other potential markets much bigger than the 830K Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area.

- Portland has a liberal civic government facing several civic projects and as a result they're very reluctant to earmark significant public money for a stadium to replace ancient and undersized PGE Park, which BTW is woefully insufficient to support an MLB team.

- Las Vegas' tourist economy collapsed with the recession (they have some of the nation's highest foreclosure and unemployment rates), like Portland they have a AAA park in Cashman Field unsuitable for MLB, and the population largely consists of expatriates who bring their allegiances of their hometown teams with them. As a Vegas native I can attest there is not a lot of civic pride among the locals, and they're not going to fill the seats in a new baseball stadium, especially for a struggling expansion team.

- San Antonio has a huge population but the average wage is very low for a large city, meaning very limited disposable income that won't fill the coffers for an MLB team, plus AA ballpark Nelson Wolff Stadium is like the others unsuitable for MLB.

- Indianpolis is a relatively sizable and centralized market, but like the other cities they lack the stadium needed to support a team in the short term, plus it's doubtful they can procure the funding for a new stadium given the region just invested heavily in building Lucas Oil Stadium. Plus much of their economy rests in manufacturing, which is highly prone to business and job losses that can debilitate the local economy (as we've seen with cities like Detroit and Cleveland).

Other similar markets like Oklahoma City, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville and Albuquerque don't have the economic stability, the regional centralization and hub-status and, of course, the stadium facilities to support an MLB team. Omaha provides a huge advantage that not only can they provide a ready-made facility to use at once, but a prospective team won't have to worry about procuring a new stadium, since the stadium they would need is already in place. The capacity at TD Ameritrade Stadium can be quickly and permanently expanded to 35,000 seats at minimal additional cost.

Alongside that, Omaha has a steady economy buoyed by a mix of a growing tech industry, banking, health administration, food production and the U.S. Military, which discounts the corporate and affiliated presence of several major corps. And plus, the locals are very much into sports: The College World Series routinely packs Rosenblatt Stadium (soon to be demolished). The AAA Omaha Royals have seen a spike in attendance over the last couple years despite fielding weak, non-competitive PCL teams. The newly created UFL, fresh off their first season, had the pick of the U.S. litter for expansion, yet decided to award an expansion team to Omaha. The city even created an Omaha Sports Commission to oversee the development of rec, amateur and pro sports in Omaha due to their consistent and growing popularity.

Omaha may not be the biggest market for MLB by numbers, but they'll bring the enthusiasm and ticket sales... and they've already got the stadium they need to host a new MLB team. All they need is an ambitious ownership group and an opportunistic MLB front office.

Economic concerns aside, the biggest logistical concerns would be the weather, namely Omaha's presence in the middle of Tornado Alley, and the College World Series. An expansion team could easily work around the latter by scheduling a long road trip during the CWS, and playing a larger slate of home games earlier in the season. You play them earlier instead of later for three reasons: 1) Keep the late-season schedule open in case games need to be made up. 2) The heavier early season schedule helps the team sidestep the spate of postponements that could result during the late summer tornado season. And 3) Since the early seasons of an expansion team will likely be rough, they're better off playing more home games early in the year while the season is fresh and fans still carry hope and enthusiasm... with fewer games towards the end as the team plays out the string.

Part Two covers how MLB would (or at least should) realign to even out the American and National League, while augmenting and improving the existing league structure. Of course, I'll cover which divisions the expansion teams would play in, as well as what teams get moved where.


  1. Wow ... interesting post! Really nice footwork done on your facts.

  2. Thanks, man. It's one of those things where people had a lot of general ideas on markets to expand to, but when it comes down to it, this is the sort of legwork prospective owners and the league would need to do to make sure an expansion team would work. And, in all likelihood, it's why we haven't seen any expansion since Tampa and Arizona: The "obvious" markets have some not so obvious limitations.