Will we ever see Major League Baseball expansion again?

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The Washington area tried–and failed–to get a Major League Baseball expansion team in 1993 and 1998. Instead, franchises were awarded Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix.

Fortunately for us, the Montreal Expos folded and died in the early 2000’s, leading Bud Selig and the 29 other MLB owners to purchase the team and move it to D.C in 2004.

D.C. baseball fans should send a thank you note to Jeffrey Loria and every other incompetent executive that allowed the Expos to die, because if the Expos franchise were still in Montreal, we’d still be waiting for that expansion team.

Since 1998, baseball has shown zero willingness to expand.

MLB has had two great eras of expansion in its history. 14 of the 30 current MLB franchises are expansion teams. The league expanded 10 times from 1961-1977. They expanded 4 more times from 1993-1998.

The reasons for expansion are obvious–tapping new markets that emerge due to population shifts.  The United States changed dramatically from 1900-1960. Prior to the first era of expansion, every MLB team was located in the Northeast or Midwest (the Dodgers and Giants both moved from New York City to California in 1957).

In baseball’s first era of expansion (1961-1977), 5 of the 10 new franchises were located in the West or South (Houston, San Diego, Anaheim, and Seattle-twice), 2 were in Canada (Toronto and Montreal) and 2 were replacement franchises for teams that moved South or West (Mets to replace the Dodgers/Giants, and a new Washington Senators to replace the team that moved to Minnesota).

As the United States changed again from 1977-1993, MLB finally tapped into growing markets in Florida and Colorado.

To sustain a major league team, a city likely needs a metropolitan area population of at least 2 million people. Only one MLB city has a metropolitan population below 2 million–Milwaukee. Cleveland and Kansas City are the next two smallest markets in the league, both barely above the 2 million threshold. Of the 9 MLB teams with a metro market size under 3 million, 6  are in the bottom half of the league in attendance. Cincinnati is 15th, Colorado 10th, and St. Louis 2nd (which they’ve been able to achieve through freakish recent on-field success).

If baseball does expand again, who are the likely candidates? Charlotte, at 2.3 million, is the biggest market currently without a baseball team. San Antonio and Portland are right behind Charlotte in market size.  Most importantly, all three markets are growing above the national average.

However, since all the likely expansion candidates are well under 3 million, and closer to the Cleveland/Kansas City level, don’t expect MLB to expand soon.  It will likely take another decade of growth before the Commissioner’s office can be assured they’re not importing another attendance albatross like the Tampa Bay Rays.

But there’s another reason MLB is unlikely to expand: national TV/internet money.

Traditionally, baseball teams’ revenue came through a combination of gate receipts, concessions, and local TV/Radio contracts.  Lately, however, a growing portion of the revenue pie has come through National TV contracts with ESPN, FOX, and Turner Broadcasting, not to mention Advanced MLB Media, which includes MLB.com and internet streaming of games. In 2014, MLB teams are increasingly sustained through large centrally-managed revenue streams, cut 30 ways.

Starting this season, MLB will receive a combined $1.5 billion from FOX, ESPN and Turner. Also, according to MLB, their Advanced Media company has over $600 million in annual revenue. Put together, that’s almost $2 billion teams split between themselves.

If MLB expands, they’ll be dividing that pot 32 ways instead of 30.

In other words, expansion used to be a way to grow the revenue pie. Now that baseball is sustaining itself through centrally managed evenly-split revenue streams, expansion is now a way to shrink the revenue pie. I don’t see MLB’s 30 owners signing up for that.

D.C. baseball fans were lucky the Expos moved here. If we were forced to wait for an expansion team, we’d still be waiting.

For the Montreal or Charlotte baseball fans, the wait will continue.

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