Sheehan: MLB Isn’t Ready For Expansion

Image credit: Rob Manfred (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

Since taking over as commissioner, Rob Manfred has brought up expansion countless times, giving the idea of additional Major League Baseball franchises an air of inevitability.

The idea is seductive. For one thing, 32 teams is a more elegant number for baseball than 30, because it would create a pair of 16-team leagues and nullify year-round interleague play. MLB hasn’t added teams in 21 seasons, marking the longest it has gone without expanding since the heyday of the original 16 franchises.

Even in an era of boundless revenues, the appeal of expansion fees—free money for current owners, perhaps up to a billion dollars in total—is considerable.

As we consider where to put two new teams, though, consider that MLB hasn’t expanded in a fully voluntary manner since before it was “MLB,” before the leagues became conferences under a global banner.

Back in the late 1960s, the American League awarded franchises to groups in Seattle and Kansas City for the 1969 season; the National League did the same for Montreal and San Diego. Every expansion since has been reactive rather than proactive, a response to lawsuits, the need for cash infusions, or both.

After the Seattle Pilots were purchased a year into their existence and moved to Milwaukee by Bud Selig, the city of Seattle sued the AL, a process that would end in a settlement that created the Seattle Mariners—and to keep the number of AL teams even, the Toronto Blue Jays—in 1977.

When MLB teams were found guilty of collusion in the 1980s, the NL looked to offset the damages awarded to the players’ union. For 1993, the league added the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, bringing in $190 million.

The 1998 expansion, which added the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, stemmed from a similar motivation, as well as the need to placate the city of St. Petersburg, which had seen its new Suncoast Dome—now known as Tropicana Field—used as a stalking horse by the White Sox, Giants and Mariners to get new ballparks in their home cities.

So it’s been 50 years since MLB owners have looked at the league and said that expansion would be good for baseball reasons, for the greater good of the league. The six franchises created in that time have been, at best, a mixed bag.

The Florida teams have simply not worked out. Despite winning two World Series, the Marlins have been plagued by wretched ownership groups that have ruined the city’s relationship with the team. The Rays, who were one of the first teams to move to a modern, data-friendly approach, have struggled to bring people from the population center of Tampa to the ballpark in St. Pete. Last year, 19 major league teams outdrew the two Florida teams combined.

The Mariners were a joke for the first 15 years of their existence, and after a decade of relevance, have now built the longest active streak of missing the postseason. Seventeen seasons have elapsed since the last Mariners playoff team in 2001.

The Rockies, Blue Jays and D-backs have been successful, however, both on and off the field.

As the list of potential expansion sites illustrates, any addition will, in the medium term, exacerbate baseball’s internal market conflicts. Right now, a significant number of teams are heavily reliant on shared revenue, both the national money that comes in from ESPN, Fox, MLB Advanced Media and other sources, and the local revenue generated by large-market teams that gets redistributed to small-market ones.

The largest media markets without a team are Orlando (18th) and Sacramento (20th), though their proximity to teams in the Tampa area and Northern California make them ill-suited for new teams. The largest markets that come up in these conversations are Portland (22nd), Charlotte (23rd), the Raleigh-Durham area (25th) and San Antonio (31st), which are all comparable to current small markets Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego and Kansas City.

After the initial flurry of interest and the cheap high of expansion fees, MLB would simply have added to its already large group of small-market teams perhaps content to turn profits using shared revenues without pressing to win more games.

Adding teams also adds pressure to baseball’s already complex schedule. The combination of interleague play and large leagues has added to the players’ travel burden. The league added four days to the slate in 2018, but the reality of an outdoor sport gives baseball nowhere else to turn. As it is, dozens of early-season games are played in weather unfit for baseball, and many World Series are contested in similar conditions. Expansion of the league would almost certainly necessitate expansion of the postseason, adding to the scheduling challenges.

The best case against expansion, though, is that MLB doesn’t have its current group of teams in order. The Marlins, in a relatively new ballpark in a large market, drew fewer than 1 million fans last year and have drawn 2 million just three times in their history. The Rays’ problems getting people to the ballpark are as old as the franchise itself. The Athletics play in a dilapidated football stadium. Even teams on more solid business footing are turning off the local fans with an unwillingness to spend money, as we’re seeing in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Cleveland.

Expansion may be a priority for Rob Manfred, but before MLB can think about having 32 stable franchises, it needs to get to 30 stable franchises.

No expansion can take place until that happens.

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