Montreal-Tampa Bay Idea is Nuts, But the Shared-Franchise Model Might Fly Elsewhere for MLB

There’s a common plot point in TV shows and movies that are billed as “madcap comedies,’’ where one character comes up with a stupid idea and another character says, “That’s just crazy enough that it might work.”

Hilarity and hijinks follow, or so the marketing blurb tells us.

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg‘s idea to have Montreal and the Tampa Bay metro area share the team is sort of like that. Except for the part about it working.

Here’s a guy who can’t get a ballpark built in one market, and his solution is to try to get ballparks built in two markets, selling the cities on the bonus of getting only half a team for their money. And, mind you, these are two markets where attempts to build ballparks to keep, or recover, a Major League Baseball franchise have failed for years.

Hilarity and hijinks are sure to follow.

Running Out of Markets

But maybe Sternberg’s idea could apply elsewhere.

MLB is in a little bit of a tough situation. It is running short of viable markets. At least that is my take.

Last summer, Commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB is looking at Portland – Oregon, not Maine – Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville, Montreal, and Vancouver, B.C.

None look like a surefire winner for baseball.

All are medium-sized, or small markets by MLB standards.

Now, the size of the market depends on how you crunch the numbers.

But let’s put it this way: MLB is not doing well in Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg, which ranks 11th in Nielsen’s TV markets, and Miami, which ranks 16th. Using another measure, the combined statistical areas, Miami is the No. 12 market. If you look for a list of combined statistical areas, the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg metro area is not on it. The Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg metro area is not part of a larger grouping — but its population of 3.1 million would rank just ahead of St. Louis’ combined statistical area and ahead of the four markets in the United States on Manfred’s list.

This isn’t like the days when there was a lot of low-hanging fruit for expansion.

A Place to Play

Then there are the ballpark issues.

An MLB team needs a park; it’s not like the NFL, where you could move into a college stadium for a few years, or an NBA or NHL team, where there is probably some existing building in a metro area that would work, at least for a few years.

Minor-league baseball stadiums don’t easily convert into big-league facilities. And you can’t really play baseball in a stadium built for college or pro football. Yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but it had a full running track surrounding the football field. That made it possible to configure a baseball field, albeit with odd dimensions.

Montreal is the only city on Manfred’s list that has a building, although out-of-date and problematic, that could serve as an MLB home park on short notice.

And a ballpark is the main sticking point for any team in any town. Owners want the taxpayers to pitch in on the cost, usually the lion’s share of it. That means a lot of maneuvering with local officials.

But MLB wants to grow, and that is difficult without new markets.

Having no viable option sort of makes it difficult to squeeze the local powerbrokers and get them to kick in money and/or come up with a site for a new ballpark — which is most likely the reason behind Sternberg‘s gambit.

Size Matters

Now, we know what Manfred said. Does he believe it? I don’t know.

Let’s take a look at Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charlotte ranks as the 21st largest combined statistical area in the country with 2.8 million people and 23rd in TV markets. Charlotte’s combined statistical area is seven counties in the Carolinas and includes the Concord, Gastonia, Shelby, and Albemarle areas.

One of Charlotte’s pluses is that its a banking center, and its metro area ranks 20th in gross domestic product.

By CMA, Charlotte is just behind St. Louis and ahead of Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee.

The St. Louis Cardinals historically have drawn from a wide area, as have the Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, and Milwaukee Brewers to varying degrees.

How far could a Charlotte baseball team draw from? Could it draw from the Raleigh-Durham combined statistical area with 2.3 million people more than a couple hours away?

The Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds have long, traditional followings, stretching back generations.

Other Sports

A Charlotte team would have to build a following in a town with existing NBA and NFL teams (there is also an NHL team in Raleigh). The state has a strong college sports scene. It is also a big area for NASCAR.

Nashville is smaller (27th TV market, 32nd combined statistical area), less prosperous (31st in metro area GDP), and has existing NHL and NFL teams, SEC football, and a Major-League Soccer team that will debut next year.

Nashville is a fast-growing area, and any pro sports league finds that appealing.

Both markets have pluses and minuses.

Ballpark Figures

What if Nashville and Charlotte shared a team? That’s unappealing to Montreal and Tampa Bay because they’ve had a team for a full schedule of games, and they’ve played the ballpark game with MLB; there has to be some real resentment there.

But as they teach in your introduction to psychology class, our satisfaction with a situation often depends on our expectations. If you’ve been sleeping on the streets, an 8 x 10 room might seem like a palace. If you’ve been loving a $25 million mountain top estate, an average 2,000-square foot tract home might seem like a dump.

Charlotte and Nashville would be starting from scratch. They’ve never had an MLB team for a full season, so having one for half a season could be novel and exciting. And they don’t feel that MLB has messed with them, or used them as pawns over a ballpark.

A real strength of Sternberg’s Tampa Bay-Montreal proposal is the idea of smaller, cheaper ballparks in the two markets. Instead of building an $800 million to $1 billion ballpark that seats 45,000, you build two $300-400 million ballparks that seat between 25,000 and 30,000.

I am not an expert on construction costs. But my understanding is that building higher (say adding a third deck to the ballpark) is more expensive per square foot, so you might get a nicer facility for your money with a smaller stadium.

The public in each market would cough up less dough.

And you would have a TV deal that includes viewers in two primary markets, with a fan base that could stretch from Memphis to Norfolk.

Go Small or Go Home

Two smaller facilities, each with fewer games, would have the advantage of there being fewer seats to fill.

When the Arizona Diamondbacks started up, most of the top executives came to the team from the Phoenix Suns. One of them told me that fans were surprised at the time commitment for an MLB team, as compared to an NBA team. Yes, the season-ticket holders were bright enough to understand there were twice as many games. But actually attending every game of a 10-game homestand takes some stamina.

The Diamondbacks also realized, too late, that they built Bank One Ballpark, now Chase Field, too big. The listed capacity is 48,633. A capacity of around 40,000 would be better.

Oddly enough, when Diamondbacks executive Scott Brubaker first proposed the swimming pool, which became the park’s signature feature, founder Jerry Colangelo initially objected because it would mean losing seating. The demand with pre-ordered tickets was so high that the ownership group worried they were building too small of a facility.

The ownership group that forced out Colangelo in 2004 has been trying to get the capacity reduced since 2012.

Small is Beautiful

There’s a saying that you want to leave your audience wanting more.

A smaller stadium with less than a full schedule might make each game seem more like an event, keeping demand higher.

And although no owner, or MLB executive, would ever say this, you would have the ability to play each home market off against the other. We are not getting the fan support in Nashville. We may have to move some games to Charlotte. Nashville is adding more luxury suites. We may have to move some games from Charlotte.

History of Sharing

Both MLB and Charlotte have been through this before — just not together.

In 2003, when MLB owned the Montreal Expos, the team played 22 home games in Puerto Rico. The Expos had averaged 10,031 per game in 2002. They averaged 14,222 in Puerto Rico and 12,081 in Montreal and surpassed the 1 million mark in home attendance for the first time since 1997.

Charlotte was also involved in a bold team-sharing plan in the 1970s. The Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association regularly played home games in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh — and even a few games in Winston-Salem.

The Cougars used Greensboro as their base and flew to “home” games in the other cities. The cost of added travel and having to staff ticket offices and other support staff in three cities was the team’s undoing, Terry Pluto wrote in his history of the ABA “Loose Balls.”

But hey, it’s not 1973. Modern technology would allow for one office to take care of many functions for the other city remotely.

Having essentially two home cities would be a hardship for players, particularly those with families.

A little creativity with Airbnb, and perhaps ownership kicking in a few dollars, could make for a series of cool family road trips.

Other Factors

As for the ballpark issue, well, it took a decade-long political drama for Charlotte to get BB&T Ballpark (one of three with the same name) built for its Triple-A team. Much of the delay was caused by Jerry Reese, a real estate lawyer who believed that Charlotte should set its sights on an MLB team. Reese fielded eight lawsuits to block the deal.

Would Reese muck things up if he were not part of an ownership group? Would a shared-franchise concept set off a series of suits from Reese?

Nashville opened a $98 million park for the Triple-A Sounds in 2015, also after years of political wrangling. Would the taxpayers be willing to spend three or four times as much on a facility just a few years later?

Baseball can’t just add one team. When teams play almost every day, you need an even number of teams to make the schedule work.

If Charlotte and Nashville need to share, surely Portland or Las Vegas couldn’t have a stand-alone franchise. Now you are talking about trying to get parks built in four cities.

That’s a lot of moving parts.

So, yeah, it’s a crazy idea. But it’s just crazy enough …

One Response

  1. Free Speech 4 All

    As well written a baseball article as I’ve seen. As you pointed out, “This isn’t like the days when there was a lot of low-hanging fruit for expansion.” Innovation then, is a must. Your other point was just as valid: “A smaller stadium with less than a full schedule might make each game seem more like an event, keeping demand higher.” As you pointed out, if done wisely, the concept is so new and different that it just might work.

    I’m in my 60s now. I’ve seen expansion, franchise moves, free agency, and competition for the sports and entertainment dollar change drastically since the 1960s. It seems almost inevitable that baseball may have to try something like this to survive a vastly changed sports landscape. What’s that old saying; change or die.

    Reply

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