By Edward Overend, Lead Baseball Writer
Last week the good old topic of expansion in baseball reared its bilious head once again. Amidst talk of the game dying, offenses continuing to decline and lack of superstars what better way to get the game back in the headlines but the rehash and promise of potentially more major league franchises?
Skeptics will say Major League Baseball is struggling in Tampa/St. Petersburg, Oakland, and Cleveland, so why would it think it could expand? The answer, as it is to most things in this world, is money. Most clubs have either just signed, or are about to sign, a new local television contract. And these deals are large, especially for a game that is supposedly on its last legs.
You see baseball is like gold dust to TV executives. It provides regular live content to a local audience where advertising can be sold. In this day and age this is a rare thing. The consumer is a very different beast than it was even a decade ago. Now, even hit dramas are not immune to the viewing habits of this generation. The likes of Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go have meant that audiences no longer have to watch through commercials to find out what’s happening in Game of Thrones for example. They just simply download and avoid the advertising. It is a huge problem for television as a business but one that live sport and in particular baseball can monetise.
The other encouraging area for baseball is attendance at ballparks. Over the last decade or so, average crowds are as high as they have ever been in history, and this number is holding steady more or less. There is interest in baseball but, maybe more so than any other national sport, this interest in more in the local team than in the game as a whole. Why this is is perhaps an issue for another day but certainly the number of games can make it difficult for the less obsessive fan to keep track.
“Maybe one of the reasons I got this job is I’m bullish on this game,” commissioner Rob Manfred said last week. “I think we are a growth business, broadly defined. And over an extended period of time, growth businesses look to get bigger. So yeah, I’m open to the idea that there will be a point in time where expansion may be possible.”
Why not? New cities, fresh excitement about baseball. New enthusiasm. New fan bases. Maybe they were fans of other teams. Maybe they want their own team.
“I think it’s very important for us to look for markets out there that are interested in baseball — and there are markets interested in baseball — examine their viability and make them viable so we have business alternatives available to us,” Manfred added.
Maybe he’s saying that because you always want to think your sport would be popular in those cities where it isn’t being played. The NFL knows that despite many years of not having a team in Los Angeles, that city could easily support a team or two. There is no such obvious city for baseball, but there are viable ones.
The last time baseball expanded was in 1998 with the additions of Tampa Bay and Arizona. In 1993, Colorado and Florida were added.
Manfred acknowledged there’s been recent interest in MLB by a few cities, including Montreal, Charlotte, N.C., and Portland, Ore.
The Expos were in business from 1969-2004, after which the franchise moved to Washington and was bought by the Lerner family.
Montreal, through the efforts of Mayor Denis Coderre, other city officials, as well as ex-major leaguer Warren Cromartie, has gone ahead with a financing plan after conducting millions of dollars in feasibility studies that point toward success if expansion, or relocation of a floundering franchise, occurs.
Cromartie said the Montreal Baseball Project is closing in on a stadium plan that would mean MLB would need to consider the city a serious contender.
“The mayor is an enthusiastic supporter of bringing baseball back to Montreal,” Manfred said. “I happen to believe that Montreal has a great baseball history, which is a nice thing. And the market wildly supported two exhibition games in each of the last two years. I believe they’ve drawn over 90,000 fans for those three-day events. Having said all that, it’s a long ways from two exhibition games to 81 home games in a facility that is consistent with major league standards.”
Manfred remains optimistic that the Tampa Bay and Oakland situations are stadium-related. He believes the Rays could draw more with a new facility. The Athletics would benefit if they could move to San Jose and take advantage of a more affluent market, but there’s the issue of territorial rights belonging to the Giants.
The Rays’ attendance is a baseball-worst 14,637 per home game, down almost 2,400 from 2014. The Indians are also slightly down (fewer than 300 per game) and average only 17,514, while the A’s are down about 1,000 per game from last season, at 22,369 per game. There’s no indication the Indians would ever move, but there has to be concern in a city with slightly more than 13,000 downtown residents.
So, you have these cities in which baseball is dying, and others that believe baseball could thrive. Charlotte, despite building a beautiful Triple A stadium downtown, BB&T Ballpark, is all in on being considered. Portland is also clamouring for a team.
Other locations that feel they could support a franchise include Vancouver, Las Vegas, Nashville, Memphis, San Antonio, Indianapolis, northern New Jersey, Brooklyn, the aforementioned San Jose, Sacramento, and Oklahoma City.
There are obvious territorial issues with northern New Jersey and Brooklyn (which once had the Dodgers) that make those areas tougher to consider.
Internationally, Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico, would be enthusiastic for baseball and be able to draw from a massive population that loves the game. Mexico City has roughly nine million residents, but major issues would be the lack of a new stadium, and the altitude. Distance might also be a factor against a team in Mexico.
There would likely have to be more tweaks to division alignments and the playoff format, but the new energy expansion would create would be good for baseball, at least when in comes to hard dollars.
However, would expansion actually be good for the game outside of monetarily? I’m not so sure. One of the reasons the Barclays Premier League sells so well around the world is the attraction of watching full and noisy stadiums. There is nothing more likely to put off a viewer than row upon row of empty seats at a ballpark. Why should they watch if the locals can’t be bothered with their own team?
And this is baseball’s big issue. We all like the sparkly new thing, something novel, the new show in town. It’s why new ballparks and new franchises have traditionally thrived. It’s cool to be seen at the latest trendy joint, whether it be as a family or as a corporation. However, this has become less pronounced in recent times. Marlins Park was supposed to be the shot in the arm that the Marlins desperately needed after the handicap of playing at Joe Robbie stadium in its formative years. Yet, even in its first year, attendance was woeful. Maybe this is a Miami thing but they are not alone. Minnesota, for example, have also had issues selling well at Target Field.
Baseball’s big problem is that it is a generational game. If your father, grandfather or mother grew up rooting for the Red Sox, you are likely to support them too. If a city has no historic link to Major League Baseball it is very tough to suddenly garner a large, enthusiastic and hard-core fan base however wonderful and modern the facilities might be. Sure, if that franchise made the playoffs, the locals would turn out en masse but everyone loves a winner. It’s just not possible for everyone to win though.
The other major problem I see with expansion is further dilution of an already stretched player pool. As is forever being discussed, league wide offense is down. There might be a plethora of guys who can throw at 95 mph but there certainly aren’t many who can actually hit the damn thing. Many is a major league lineup these days where you look down the bats at 1 to 9 and fear not one. Adding a further couple of clubs will only mean more looking like something that should be playing in AAA.
And how would the new franchises compete against the behemoths of New York and Los Angeles when it comes to free agents? This is not just for the established guys already in the bigs but also in the ever more competitive and important international free agent pool. We all know the latest big name from Japan or Cuba is likely to go to only a select few even before he has visited anyone. If a small market club is going to get one of these players they are going to have to overpay and that will handicap the team in other areas.
There is no point in expanding just for expansion’s sake. Whilst it might be attractive to those running the game, whose job can be measured in terms of how profitable the game is, the fan wants competition and drama. There’s no fun in having further uncompetitive teams, none at all. If anything, strictly for the health of baseball, I believe it should be looking at the opposite of expansion and lopping off some less than healthy franchises. Who those are I will leave you to decide for yourself but it’s not difficult to guess.
If Rob Manfred wants to help the game, this is where his attention should be focussed. Sometimes less is more.
Ed Overend is the lead baseball writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @EdwardOverend, leave a comment in the section below or join in the conversation @CTBPod or on our Facebook Page.