Rob Manfred seems intent on expanding Major League Baseball’s footprint north and south of the contiguous United States, and he again stated that desire during the All-Star break as reported by CBSSports.com’s Dayn Perry.
When asked about expansion he reiterated to reporters his support of Montreal and Mexico City as candidates and added a domestic option in Charlotte. Said Manfred:
As much as I hope that both Oakland and Tampa will get stadiums, I think it would be difficult to convince the owners to go forward with an expansion until those situations are resolved.
Once they’re done, I think we have some great candidates. I know the mayor of Montreal has been very vocal about bringing baseball back to Montreal. It was not great when the Expos left. The fact of the matter was baseball was successful in Montreal for a very long time. Charlotte is a possibility. And I would like to think that Mexico City or some place in Mexico would be another possibility.
Baseball is currently in the midst of its longest expansion drought in the modern era. The sport has not grown since admitting the Diamondbacks and Rays in 1998. Eventually, in order to grow business, new markets are required. And there are significant untapped markets remaining in North America. Baseball would figure to jump from 30 to 32 teams, which would also help on a number of logistical fronts.
So if this is a game of musical chairs — three cities for two spots (though Las Vegas, Portland, and San Antonio might also be among the domestic candidates) — let’s examine the cases of the three cities Manfred cited.
Metro population: 4,098,927
City population rank in North America: 8th
Elevation: 122 feet
GDP per capita: $38,867 (2013)
Nearest MLB cities: Boston, 220 nautical miles; Toronto, 273 nautical miles
Montreal seems to be the most serious about bringing the sport back to the city, and unlike any other candidate, it has hosted a major-league team before, bettering 2.1 million in attendance four times in its history. Montreal would give the sport a new geographic footprint, a natural rival for Toronto, and a new language (French broadcasts!). The recent exhibition games played in Montreal have been well supported.
According to The (Toronto) Star investors have already met conditions put forth by MLB to return a team to the city.
“I can tell you we are no longer looking for investors and that we believe we have all the ingredients to be able to welcome a team, be it an expansion one or one that already exists,” the person said on condition of anonymity.
Montreal also seems to have the political support and financial means for a new stadium.
The source said the investors have a solid financial setup, support from two levels of government, various potential locations for a stadium as well as at least five different designs for the venue.
“We are not going to say we favour one site or another,” the source said. “But it’s crucial for the (eventual) site to be well served by public transit.”
Montreal seems to be a frontrunner for an expansion team.
Metro population: 2,474,314
City population rank in North America: 43rd
Elevation: 751 feet
GDP per capita: $55,802 (2013)
Nearest MLB city: Atlanta, 197 nautical miles
Among oft-cited domestic expansion candidates, only San Antonio is home to more Fortune 500 companies (5) than Charlotte (4), a major business center home to Bank of America’s corporate headquarters. Charlotte is home to NFL and NBA franchises, and its Triple-A team leads the International League in attendance. Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and the Carolinas represent one of the fastest-growing regions. The Carolinas have long supported minor-league and college baseball. Charlotte would fill in a geographic void on the Lower 48 map, and create a natural geographic rivalry with the Braves just down I-85.
One significant issue is that Charlotte’s new downtown stadium for the Triple-A Knights cannot be reconfigured to host a major-league team, according to The Charlotte Observer.
The $55 million, 10,200-seat BB&T BallPark uptown that the Charlotte Knights opened in 2014 cannot be retrofitted to accommodate major-league specifications. Even if it could be, density and traffic uptown would be another challenge: Major League Baseball schedules feature 81 home games, including many on weekdays.
On one hand, that seems like poor planning on the city’s part; on the other hand, Atlanta and Dallas have had no issue scrapping post-Camden-Yards-constructed parks for new homes.
Chris Mitchell produced a deep dive on expansion several years ago and ranked Charlotte as only the eight most desirable domestic candidate, largely due to demographics. Chris’s series is well worth a read.
Metro population: 20.999 million
City population rank in North America: 1st
Elevation: 7,380 feet
GDP per capita: (city proper $47,396, metro area $29,258 — data from a Princeton study from 2010)
Nearest MLB cities: Miami, 1,109 nautical miles; Houston, 1,138 nautical miles; Dallas 1,157 nautical miles
Manfred has spoken about Mexico City as an expansion candidate since at least 2015, and in many ways, Mexico City is the most intriguing candidate — the city with the most upside, if you will. It’s also the location with the most challenges and downside.
For starters, there’s the challenge of geography and topography. If you think Coors Field warps the game to too great a degree, consider that Mexico City is 2,000 feet higher in elevation. Moreover, there is no major-league city within 1,000 miles from Mexico City. (Seattle is the current extreme, within 1,000 nautical miles of just two AL teams — the Athletics and Angels.) There are also potentially greater safety issues in the country.
However, the upside is enormous, as Manfred noted in an ESPN
piece last year on the topic of exploring Mexico as an expansion candidate. Beyond having the largest population of any North American city, there’s the prospect of tapping into a TV market covering an entire country.
“No. 1, a team in Mexico opens up the Mexican television market, which is significant in ways that are much broader than the arrangements that we have there now,” Manfred told Stark. “No. 2, I think that a team in Mexico would help us continue the process — it’s not an absolute necessity — but it would help us continue the process of improving our relationship with the Mexican leagues.
“I think making a full-time commitment in Mexico would be very important. It would help us improve our relationship professionally. That would in turn help us improve the flow of Mexican players into Major League Baseball. The combination of those two factors, that is the media in Mexico and the flow of players, I believe would help us in the Hispanic market in the United States.”
Mexican-American star Adrian Gonzalez had some interesting thoughts in the piece.
“I think all of Mexico would travel to wherever the team is,” said Gonzalez, a five-time All-Star. “It would be a team for the whole country. I think for the most part, people from all over the country would make their way just for the games.”
One misconception about Mexico City is its economic health. The city proper’s GDP is approaching $50,000, which is in line with many U.S. cities, as Nate Silver noted in making a case for Mexico City over London on the NFL’s expansion preference list.
Logistically, the addition of two teams would allow MLB to end constant interleague play and balance divisions evenly with eight- or four-team divisions. Presumably in the interest of creating as many races as possible, Manfred has indicated MLB would shift to eight, four-team divisions.
What would a 32-team MLB look like? It would make logistical sense to combine expansion with realignment, which I explored earlier this year.
At some point, baseball will expand again. It seems also that, at some point, baseball ought to expand into the Spanish-speaking world, where the game is a passion and where there are untapped markets. Whether Mexico City is a serious candidate for the next round of expansion or at some point down the road remains to be seen, but if the commissioner had his way, it could be sooner rather than later.