It has been nineteen years since the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks became the most recent organizations to join Major League Baseball. This is the longest period of time between MLB expansions since the beginning of the expansion era in 1962. With many around baseball speculating an expansion could come soon, and with Commissioner Rob Manfred also stating that the MLB will look into expanding to 32 teams, we could likely see some new teams added in the near future. The biggest question right now remains where these teams could be located.
Out of the four major American sport leagues, the MLB is the one which tends to be the most reluctant to implement change and experimentation. This is certainly the case when it comes to city locations for MLB teams. Currently, San Diego is the only city which is home to only an MLB team, and it is one of three cities (along with Toronto and St. Louis) which does not share a market with an NFL team. In fact, the last time the MLB expanded to a market which did not already have an NFL team was in 1977 when the Blue Jays joined the league. However, it may be time for the MLB to begin to experiment with relatively unestablished sports markets.
According to Cork Gaines of Business Insider, the MLB generates the second most revenue out of the four major American sport leagues, behind the NFL. During the 2013 season, the MLB generated $461 million while the NFL generated $539 million. Meanwhile, the average MLB team generated $237 million while the average NFL team generated $286 million. Gaines also states that the MLB had the second highest attendance per game of the four major sports, again behind the NFL. In 2014, the average MLB game had 30,346 fans in attendance while the average NFL game had 68,776 fans in attendance.
There are two key takeaways from these numbers. The first is that the MLB is doing very well from both a business and popularity standpoint. The second is that, even though the MLB is doing well, the NFL is crushing it in both categories. Considering 27 of the 30 MLB teams directly share a market with an NFL team, it is safe to say having an NFL team in direct competition with an MLB team is a hinderance to both revenue generation and popularity of the MLB team. It would be interesting to see how having more teams not share a market with an NFL team would affect the MLB in these categories.
Let’s suppose the MLB decided today to hold an expansion draft, and the only rule is that the expansion cities cannot share a market with an NFL team. What cities would be chosen? There are some crucial factors to consider when making this decision. Chief among these are city population, size of the television market, and the city’s willingness to put forth the funds to have an MLB team. Starting in the U.S., here are the ten cities with the largest population which have neither an NFL nor an MLB team.
- San Antonio, TX – 1,469,845
- San Jose, CA – 1,026,908
- Austin, TX – 931,830
- Columbus, OH – 850,106
- El Paso, TX – 681,124
- Memphis, TN – 655,770
- Portland, OR – 632,309
- Oklahoma City, OK – 631,346
- Las Vegas, NV – 623,747
- Louisville, KY – 615,366
There are already issues apparent in this list regarding the sharing of television markets with MLB teams. San Jose, Columbus, and Louisville are all close enough to other MLB cities that there would likely be legal issues with market sharing that the MLB would not want to deal with in an expansion draft. The other cities could all be plausible locations for an expansion team. However, are their television markets large enough for broadcasting games? Here are the top ten television markets without an NFL or an MLB team.
- Orlando, FL
- Sacramento, CA
- Raleigh/Durham, NC
- Portland, OR
- Hartford/New Haven, CT
- San Antonio, TX
- Columbus, OH
- Salt Lake City, UT
- Greenville/Spartanburg, SC
- Austin, TX
Only four cities appear on both lists: Portland, San Antonio, Columbus, and Austin. Even though Columbus has a large enough television market, there would likely be brushback from both the Indians and Reds about a Columbus team stealing television viewers from their teams. It should also be noted that only 80 miles separate San Antonio and Austin, so a team could theoretically draw from both markets while being located in one of the cities.
Portland and San Antonio are very strong suitors for an MLB team. Portland’s sports teams have done well in attendance recently, as their NBA team, the Trail Blazers, finished 8th in attendance for the 2015-16 season. Portland’s MLS team, the Timbers, is also among the best regarding attendance, as they finished 7th in the league in 2016. Portland has already released a blueprint and location for a potential baseball stadium, and the city council has endorsed the idea of bringing Major League Baseball to the city.
One of the benefits of potentially locating a team in San Antonio is that there is currently only one major league team in the city – the Spurs. While the city has not expressed the same desire of acquiring another major league team as Portland has, the combined metropolitan areas of San Antonio and Austin makes the largest metropolitan area currently without an MLB franchise. The Spurs have always had a long history of success on the court with 5 NBA Championships, and the team has developed a loyal following around the San Antonio area. Last season, the Spurs finished 12th in the NBA in attendance, and there is reason to believe an expansion team could put up similar attendance numbers, especially if the team is marketed towards both the San Antonio and Austin metropolitan areas.
Portland and San Antonio would then be the clear choices to receive expansion teams, correct? Not quite. We’ve left out one key element during this evaluation: cities outside of the U.S. Currently, the only foreign team in the MLB is the Blue Jays, but the MLB has a history of trying to market the game to places outside of the continental U.S. There have been regular season games played in Puerto Rico, Japan, and Australia, and let us not forget the Montreal Expos, who existed from 1969 until 2004 when the team relocated to Washington, D.C. and became the Nationals.
If the MLB were to expand outside of the U.S., it would likely be to a city either in Canada or Mexico. The two largest markets in those countries without an MLB team are Montreal and Mexico City. Montreal is currently the second largest city in Canada, behind Toronto, with 3,616,615 residents. It is also second to Toronto in television market size in all of Canada. Much of the doubt surrounding Montreal’s ability to house an MLB franchise rests on the legacy of the Expos. In the Expos’ final season, the team finished dead last in attendance of any MLB team, with only 749,550 fans attending games, and the Expos were the only franchise to not have a million fans attend that year. Obviously, the Expos were not very popular at the end of their tenure in Montreal, and this would be huge impediment for the team to try to generate revenue.
However, many in Montreal would like a second chance at having an MLB team. According to the Montreal Gazette, over 96,000 fans attended two preseason Blue Jays games hosted in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium at the end of spring training in 2016. This number is 12.8% of the number of all of the fans that attended Expos games in 2004. Perhaps a new franchise in Montreal could re-ignite an interest in baseball in the city, and perhaps an expansion team could thrive there.
An MLB team in Mexico City would not only be a first for the MLB, but also for the entirety of North American major league sports. There has never been a major league sports league which has had teams in both the United States and Mexico. However, the market in Mexico City is very appealing. Mexico City is the most populous metropolitan area on the entire North American continent, with approximately 21,157,000 residents, according to the UN. There are currently four professional soccer teams playing in Mexico City, three of which play in the Liga MX, Mexico’s national soccer league. This league is very popular, with over 4 million people attending Liga MX games in 2016. Club America, one of Mexico City’s teams, also had the largest attendance for a single game, with 61,561 fans attending a game against Guadalajara. Soccer is obviously very popular in Mexico City, but the question is whether or not baseball could be as well.
The Mexican League is the largest professional baseball league in Mexico, and Mexico City is home to the league’s Red Devils. Despite being located in the largest city in Mexico, the Red Devils had among the lowest attendance in the Mexican League in 2016, with a total of 138,096 fans. The team with the highest attendance is the Monterrey Sultanes, with 690,305 fans attending in 2016. Monterrey is located much closer to the U.S. border than Mexico City, as are many of the other cities with teams with higher attendance than the Red Devils, so it is entirely plausible that baseball is more popular in these cities because of proximity to the U.S. However, the Mexican League is nowhere near as prolific as the MLB, so it’s possible that an MLB team in Mexico City would garner more interest from locals than the Red Devils currently do.
The ultimate question remains: which city will be the next city to host an MLB team? Portland and Montreal seem like the most ready and able candidates, but a case could also be made for both San Antonio/Austin or Mexico City as well. The MLB will likely also consider cities which are currently home to an NFL team, and cities such as Charlotte, Indianapolis, and Nashville could all make some degree of sense as well. However, there is no indication that any sort of expansion in the MLB will take place in the immediate future, and until it happens, speculation will continue to run rampant as to what city will become the next MLB city.
Zachary Hopkins, Sports Analytics and Business
Baseball Reference – expansion dates, MLB attendance statistics
MLB.com – Commissioner Manfred’s statements on expansion, Portland’s signs of willingness to have an MLB team, international MLB games
BiggestUSCities.com – U.S. city populations
Station Index – U.S. television markets
Google Maps – distance between San Antonio and Austin
ESPN – NBA attendance statistics, Liga MX attendance statistics
Soccer Stadium Digest – MLS attendance statistics
Business Review Canada – Canadian city populations
Television Bureau of Canada – Canadian television markets
MiLB.com – Mexican League attendance statistics
Image from Puzzle Warehouse