The California League is in an unfamiliar place with the news High Desert and Bakersfield will contract at the end of this season.
The Cal League will be an eight-team league beginning in 2017 with the moves, the first time it will have fewer than 10 franchises since 1985.
With five major league teams, two Pacific Coast League franchises and eight Cal League teams, there will still be plenty of baseball in California. Still, the country’s most populous state will have some underserved markets by virtue of how massive it is.
As such, here is a countdown of the top five California markets that would be prime locations for expansion should the Cal League make an effort to get back up to 10 teams.
Note that cities such as Riverside (recent failed franchises), Palm Springs (weather), Chico (accessibility) and San Luis Obispo (lack of full-time population) were considered, but ultimately did not make the cut for the listed reasons.
All population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 1, 2015, estimates.
5. Santa Barbara
Population (state rank): 91,842 (83)
Nearest major league team: Dodgers, 95 miles
Nearest minor league team: Lancaster, 124 miles
Why it works: Santa Barbara is a middle- to upper-class city that has long identified with Los Angeles sports teams, but the distance to L.A. makes it hard for residents to attend games. Many successful local businesses in the area, plus a sports-hungry fanbase with disposable income, makes for a strong foundation.
Why it doesn’t: Santa Barbara is more of a resort destination than permanent home, as evidenced by the fact it doesn’t even rank among the state’s 75 most populous cities. Land is also prohibitively expensive in the area, which would make it difficult to get a stadium built. The league previously had two Santa Barbara franchises that didn’t last, the first from 1941-53 and the second from 1962-67.
4. Victorville (High Desert)
Population (state rank): 122,225 (49)
Nearest major league team: Angels, 80 miles
Nearest minor league team (after 2016): Inland Empire, 40 miles
Why it works: The High Desert Mavericks franchise wasn’t a bad idea, it was just in the wrong city. Victorville is the anchor city and center of commerce in the High Desert, and it has a fast-growing upper middle class in the Jess Ranch area adjacent to Apple Valley, the upper-class city of the region. The combined population of the entire High Desert exceeds 400,000 people, largely families, and Victorville is the developed, central location for them all.
Why it doesn’t: Victorville and the High Desert as a whole have little in the way of local business, with much of the population commuting into Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and southern San Bernardino counties for work. Victorville has also long struggled with crime and poverty in older sections of town and was ranked the ninth-most dangerous city in the state in a report last year. The city’s unemployment rate, per-capita income and median household income are all worse than the national average, making financing construction of a new stadium unlikely.
3. Santa Rosa
Population (state rank): 174,972 (28)
Nearest major league team: Giants, 55 miles
Nearest minor league team: Sacramento, 98 miles
Why it works: Santa Rosa fits a similar profile to Santa Barbara as a longstanding area close enough to a major city (San Francisco) to have sports ties, but far enough that many residents don’t often get to see games in person. It is a well-off city economically with low unemployment and is squarely in the middle of wine country.
Why it doesn’t: Santa Rosa’s population growth has slowed in recent years due to the high cost of housing, and nearly one-sixth of the population is retirees. Extraordinarily high land costs make the prospect of building a stadium difficult. Santa Rosa also has never had a professional or major college sports team, making it hard to predict how well a team would do in the market.
Population (state rank): 207, 254 (20)
Nearest major league team: Dodgers, 63 miles
Nearest minor league team: Lancaster, 102 miles
Why it works: Oxnard is a sweet spot for minor league franchises in California, close enough to have a rabid fanbase of a major league team, but far enough (and along such a heavily-trafficked route) that many fans can’t get to the games. With baseball passion, beautiful scenery and a large fanbase to draw from, especially once nearby Ventura’s population is included, Oxnard checks the boxes for a successful minor league franchise.
Why it doesn’t: The area is so Dodgers-heavy, it would be tough to draw or maintain interest unless the team was a Dodgers’ affiliate. There are also plenty of other entertainment options to choose from—the beach, local wineries, Santa Barbara to the north and Los Angeles to the south—that would make it a challenge for a local minor league team to compete for entertainment dollars. Like most coastal cities in the state, the high cost of land makes building a stadium difficult.
Population (state rank): 373, 640 (9)
Nearest major league team: Dodgers, 113 miles
Nearest minor league team (after 2016): Visalia, 79 miles
Why it works: Despite all the recent failures to get a new stadium built and the departure of the current franchise, Bakersfield is simply too large of a city with too much history to be without a team. It is more populous than Anaheim, for comparison, and is geographically independent enough to rally around a team regardless of affiliate. With a large population and a self-sustaining local economy, the building blocks for a franchise are present as ever.
Why it doesn’t: The failed attempts to get a new stadium built to replace Sam Lynn Ballpark have been well documented. Until that gets squared away, nothing else matters.