On MLB’s expansion markets

MLB has endless locations they could expand or relocate teams to, except for all the reasons they actually don’t.

This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one. Sign up to receive articles like this one in your inbox here.

My most recent Baseball Prospectus feature published on Friday, and is titled, “Will MLB’s Stadium Renovation Tour Ever Leave Space for Expansion?” You can find out the answer for free this time around, as it’s not behind a paywall, but I wanted to seize on something I mentioned in there and expand upon it here.

As much as the current 30 owners would love to split some 10-digit expansion fees, they’d also love to be able to threaten to take off for Nashville or Charlotte whenever they aren’t getting as much taxpayer money as they’d like for a new stadium or renovations of an old one. And if new teams fill those slots, well. Threatening to move to Manchester, NH just doesn’t carry the same weight, you know?

I don’t mean to imply that there’s a serious lack of candidates for a new MLB franchise, because there really isn’t, if we go by the current shape of things in the league. It’s just that, eventually, the cities get to be less convincing, and not every city necessarily even wants a team, either, or could feasibly host one. Part of what makes the media market for San Francisco — number six in the country according to this list — so massive is that it also incorporates Oakland and San Jose. Another team might go to Oakland when the A’s leave, but Oakland is maybe a slightly less attractive destination than its 45th-ranked population (right next to Miami, Minneapolis, ahead of Cleveland, Anaheim, way ahead of Pittsburgh) implies because it’s sharing that market even if it’s a completely different city. I joked about Manchester, NH not being a convincing market to claim a team is going to move to, and part of that is its size, of course, with roughly 115,000 citizens making it clearly a minor-league city for sports purposes, but there’s a second bit there, which is that Manchester is in Boston’s metro area and media market, both of which absolutely dominate New England.

Boston’s population has it as just the 25th-largest city in the United States, but its metro population ranks 11th, and its Combined Statistical Area, which combines metropolitan with nearby micropolitan areas, ranks seventh right behind Dallas-Fort Worth and ahead of Houston’s and Philadelphia’s own CSAs, and incorporates all of Massachusetts’ largest cities, the capital of Rhode Island, and parts of both New Hampshire and Connecticut. Maine isn’t part of the Boston metro, but its largest city has just over 70,000 people in it, and its largest county has a smaller population than the city of Cincinnati, so for sports purposes it might as well be part of the metro area, as it’s certainly part of Boston’s sports media market. This is how Boston ends up with the 10th-largest media market despite being centered in a city that, population-wise, barely comes in ahead of Portland, OR or Louisville.

Looking at media market size instead of city population is a decent shorthand for viability, since it’s not really about how many people can fit into a stadium but how many are going to end up watching on television, paying cable rights fees whether they watch or not, subscribing to local streaming when that’s available in the future, and so on. Which does make something like the switch to Las Vegas for Oakland kind of funny, since Vegas’ media market ranks just 40th in the United States per that same list, but again, the A’s did have to share the massive San Francisco market with the Giants, and couldn’t move to San Jose like they threatened to years ago due to the Giants having territorial rights there as well as in their home city. It’s through media market size that you can understand why it might not make sense for the Rays to leave the Tampa region, given that market ranks 13th — behind Seattle and ahead of Minneapolis as well as Orlando, which is just going to tune in for Rays’ games in St. Pete or Tampa, anyway — and that there are options left for other cities to expand to, or threaten to move to should demands for taxpayer-funded stadiums or stadium renovations require such threats.

Portland, OR has the 21st-ranked media market, with Charlotte, NC coming in at number 22. Both are mentioned as potential expansion candidates, with commissioner Rob Manfred even citing the latter by name himself on occasion. They’re both ahead of St. Louis, which currently has territorial rights for an absurd chunk of the middle of the United States mostly because they’ve been there for so long and laid claim to them before anyone else could. Indianapolis ranks right ahead of Pittsburgh for media market size, and is also ahead of San Diego (huge population but not much of a media market to serve it), Baltimore, and Nashville, another Manfred-cited destination city. Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Hartford/New Haven, and Columbus, OH all come in ahead of Kansas City, which itself is ahead of Cincinnati and Milwaukee, a pair that also sit behind the Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville-Anderson North Carolina collection of cities. And all of those, as well as Austin, TX and West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce, FL, come in ahead of Vegas. Granted, Vegas is a much flashier, sexier city to attach a pro sports team to than a coalition of four cities in North Carolina that combined don’t match up with Charlotte’s media market by itself, but the point is that there are options out there simply in terms of media market size beyond the usual suspects. MLB isn’t really in danger of running out of locations from that perspective.

Again, though, these cities and media markets need to want to bring a team there, especially since there isn’t a current owner nor a new one that MLB would ever invite into its circle who would agree to pay to build a stadium out of their own pockets in order to convince Salt Lake City or whomever to let a team in. So, stateside, they’re left with the markets that are begging for teams, which is why Nashville gets name dropped by Manfred and why Vegas is getting a team — multiple teams in multiple sports in just a few years’ time, even. Because those are the cities, the markets, willing to cater to MLB’s wants, which involve taxpayer dollars and tax breaks and long-term agreements that result in situations like Manfred reminding the city of Milwaukee this week that it’s their contractual obligation to pay for the upkeep of the Brewers’ home park, and so they have to figure it out.

So, the list of potential domestic markets is both larger and smaller than you’d think, given what we’re told and the resources available, meaning MLB does have to get these things right when they have the chance. And is a significant part of why they both are willing to move elsewhere rather than expand, but aren’t necessarily in a hurry to burn bridges with cities that have shown themselves capable of hosting a franchise, and of being open to spending taxpayers’ money on keeping one there. Which is why you can assume Oakland will once again have an MLB team someday: they weren’t unwilling to fund the A’s sticking around, after all, just maybe less willing than the more desperate Vegas turned out to be.

Visit my Patreon to become a supporter and help me continue to write articles like this one.