A’s threat to move a reminder MLB expansion is more conceptual than anything

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Last Friday, my original plan was to write about a bit of news that had nearly gotten away from me. On April 27, the Associated Press reported that expansion fees for potential brand new Major League Baseball clubs could rise to the “$2.2 billion range.” That figure was arrived at because of a recent discussion commissioner Rob Manfred had with Sportico, where he shared that the average franchise value in MLB these days is $2.2 billion.

The rest of the information in the piece isn’t new, which is part of why I was fine pushing it off when something else came up. And why would there be new info? There hasn’t been a round of expansion since the 1998 season, and while it occasionally comes up in conversation as a possibility, it tends to be casual, or brought up in order to make a point elsewhere.

I had initially planned on reminding everyone about that last point mostly as a hypothetical, since the last time I discussed expansion in detail was back in the summer of 2017, while I was still with SB Nation. That piece, titled, “Rob Manfred won’t expand MLB while it needs new cities as stadium leverage,” kind of speaks for itself right there, but let’s dive in, anyway, since that reasoning has become all the more relevant thanks to some news from this week.

Back in 2017, Manfred himself said there would be no expansion while the “stadium situations” in Tampa Bay and Oakland remained unresolved. I’d love to take credit for sniffing this out or something, but the man said it himself. As I put it at the time:

If the A’s aren’t going to be able to move to San Jose because of the Giants’ territorial claims, and they’re losing the fight to stay in Oakland in a brand new park, then they need a place to threaten to move to, like Charlotte. Charlotte will get all excited about adding an MLB team, Oakland will start to feel pressured to keep the A’s around, and either they do move out east or Oakland caves and helps pay for the A’s to stay in town.

Do you know how Tropicana Field, home of the Rays, was built? It was actually meant to be used to lure an MLB team to the area — they didn’t even have a specific team in mind when construction began in 1986. Eventually, the White Sox were the ones nearly lured from their home … until Chicago got itself a new stadium to keep the Pale Hose where they already were, and the former Florida Suncoast Dome stayed MLB-free until the Rays moved in at the end of the 90s.

Given all that, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where a city like Charlotte trips over themselves to lure the A’s or Rays away from their homes to become a baseball city. And that’s why you won’t see MLB using up these potential expansion destinations until it knows that the futures of the A’s and Rays are secure in their current territories.

Charlotte, Las Vegas, Portland (OR) — there are legitimate options, even if some of the possibilities that should be explored (a third New York team, etc.) won’t be because of territorial rights. The options don’t necessarily need to be viable, though: they just need to play along, as Tampa Bay did for the White Sox decades ago. The Rays, who play in that same stadium the city built for whichever club eventually decided to settle down in Florida, are currently doing… whatever it is they’re trying to do between Tampa Bay and Montreal, I guess. The A’s, well, we’ve got more concrete information on them, thanks to that new news I mentioned. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the A’s got the go-ahead from Major League Baseball to start investigating relocation, in case their current ballpark proposal with the city of Oakland doesn’t work out. The A’s are waiting for this $12 billion “mixed-use development” to be voted on before the city council’s July’s summer recess. A “mixed-use development” in which the A’s would contribute $1 billion towards a privately funded ballpark and then kick in some more for real estate development, with the city handling the rest.

The Athletics are giving the standard messaging, saying this specific waterfront ballpark is necessary to remain competitive in MLB and for baseball in this particular city to be “viable,” while the city of Oakland is saying that the cost estimates for what the team has proposed “appear to require public investment at the high end of projects of this type nationwide.” This proposal might have the best chance of any to this point of passing, as Passan said, but given the team is pulling out “vote yes or we’ll bail on the city” and the city’s going with, “this proposal makes everything more expensive for Oakland than it needs to be,” you can probably guess where this is ultimately going.

Especially since the A’s are still in Oakland while the NFL’s Raiders and the NBA’s Warriors have already bailed on the city for new stadiums elsewhere. These dots aren’t particularly hard to connect, and become even less difficult to line up when you realize that everything in that mixed-use development is hypothetical. They’d surely work on the real estate portion of things to make the ballpark area profitable for them, like other teams have done — did you know the Braves’ front office has someone whose entire job is real estate development? — but they’d be doing it all to benefit them, not for whatever seemingly altruistic reasons privately funding the ballpark and/or part of this mixed-use development might generate.

So, you can put aside that $2.2 billion expansion estimate, as it won’t mean a thing by the time there is actually room in MLB’s plans for expansion. If the A’s don’t get their new ballpark this way, they’re either going to threaten to move to convince the city to give in to a different stadium plan, or have to actually move at some point, which they probably don’t want to do given the market size of the non-Oakland options. And even if this is sorted out somehow, there is still the Rays to figure out. That stadium lease isn’t up until 2027: imagine how many more MLB ballparks will be considered decrepit vestiges of a past not worth holding onto by then. MLB expansion, but only if everyone has a new ballpark built in this century, financed in some way by taxpayers. And not too early in this century, either.

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