MLB expansion cities: Nashville, Charlotte and other candidates if baseball jumps to 32 teams

Major League Baseball has long been interested in expansion, bumping up from 30 to 32 franchises at some point in the future. The benefits are fairly obvious. Bringing the sport into new markets opens up new revenue streams — hi, new corporate partners! — and builds new fan bases that will spend new-to-the-sport money. 

Any talk of expansion has been paused for years, though, because of the headaches in Oakland and Tampa Bay, where both franchises have struggled to get new stadiums built — to be sure, Oakland’s owner-driven issues are much different from Tampa Bay’s. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has long said he wouldn’t consider expansion until both were resolved.

He was asked about expansion during the All-Star events.  

Since that time, the Rays finally have a stadium agreement in hand with St. Petersburg, and the owners just unanimously approved the A’s requested move to Las Vegas. 

So, yeah. Things could be in motion soon. 

“It feels like it. We’re encouraged by it,” said John Loar, the managing partner of the Nashville Stars, the group dedicated to bringing an expansion team to Nashville. “I think it’s time to grow the game. Hopefully those conversations accelerate. We’re very encouraged. We think 2024 is a big year.”

With the A’s moving to Las Vegas, that takes one of the primary expansion sites out of the mix, which is good news for other cities that are interested. What would a new team cost? It’s a small group of people who could afford the expansion fee. Back in 2021, Manfred said the expansion fee for each new franchise reportedly could be north of $2 billion. That’s a hefty chunk of change for the 30 current owners to split. 

It’s also a MASSIVE increase from previous expansion rounds. In 1993, the Rockies and Marlins paid $95 million, while in 1998 the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays paid $130 million. The huge jump is relative to the huge jump in franchise values. 

Here’s what Manfred said in 2021 …

“If in fact these assets are worth an average $2.2 billion, I think that’s kind of a lodestar in terms of where you would start in terms of evaluating expansion opportunity. Expansion is not purely additive, right, from the perspective of the existing owners. There are huge shared revenue streams that are diluted as a result of having 32 as opposed to 30 as your denominator, and if that was in fact the expansion number, and that has to be taken into account, as well.”

In an ideal timeline, Manfred would form an expansion committee early in 2024, choose two cities later in the year or early 2025, then aim to start play in 2028. 

Here are the five primary candidates for the two expected spots, along with a couple others on the fringes of the conversation. 

Charlotte or Raleigh, N.C. 

Charlotte Nielsen TV Market ranking: 21
Raleigh Nielsen TV Market ranking: 22

Pretty much every time over the past few years that Manfred has talked about possible candidates for MLB expansion, he’s specifically mentioned Charlotte, and it’s pretty clear why MLB would love to be in the Carolinas. Geographically, the Southeast is a massive area of the country that’s represented by only one team — the Atlanta Braves. As someone who lived in Charlotte for 10 years (leaving a few years ago), I can personally attest to the rapid growth of the area, both in terms of corporate money flowing in and just overall population growth. Charlotte is only scratching the surface of what it could be as a true “major” market.

But, quite honestly, any sort of “MLB to Charlotte” movement would be starting from scratch, putting any bid years behind other cities. That’s a big deal. The Triple-A Knights play in uptown, drawing well in a beautiful stadium with a stunning city skyline beyond the outfield fence. But that stadium was not built to be expanded, and with a capacity of just barely 10,000 fans, it’s obviously far too small. At this point, MLB’s powers-that-be would almost have to decide that Charlotte is where they want to be, then figure out a way to make it happen because nobody in the community has done much of anything.

A few hours northeast, up Interstate 85, Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon has expressed his interest in bringing a Major League team to North Carolina, though his preference is where his team plays, in Raleigh. That region, of course, is known as the “research triangle” with Durham and Chapel Hill. It’s growing quickly, too, just one spot behind Charlotte in the Nielsen TV market rankings. That effort is led by a billionaire, which is pretty important because that funding source is something most of the other expansion candidates don’t necessarily have lined up. Doesn’t hurt that Dundon’s Hurricanes have solid attendance numbers, too. 

Nashville

Nielsen TV Market ranking: 26th

No market has a more organized, aggressive and influential group than Nashville. Music City Baseball has specific plans, a team name — the Stars — and an org chart that would make Fortune 500 companies jealous. Loar, the managing partner, was hired four years ago to help build the business model, and that’s exactly what he’s done, along with a long list of bright minds. Heck, until Dave Dombrowski was hired to build the Phillies into World Series contenders, he was part of the Music City Baseball organization.

Market-wise, Nashville is a bit smaller than most of the others on this list, but not in a significant way. The Triple-A Nashville Sounds, an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, have drawn very well. They led all of minor-league baseball in attendance in 2021 and 2022, and finished fifth in 2023 (only around 10k less than first place). Of course, there’s a big difference between drawing 7,736 fans per game and what it would take to support a big-league team, but it shows the interest baseball holds in the community. 

The Music City group has partnered with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum out of Kansas City; that’s where the Stars name comes from, a nod to the Negro League team that once played in Nashville. And, because it’s Nashville, the music industry plays a big role. 

“I think it’s part of the puzzle, right? It’s sports and entertainment, and then you add music in and it’s all sort of one package,” Loar said. “The opportunity to connect baseball to a market like Nashville with the music industry is great. It’ll be good for the game. I think it’ll increase the fan base. I think it’ll drop (the age of) the demographic of people interested.”

Portland

Nielsen TV Market ranking: 23

Like Music City Baseball in Nashville, the Portland Diamond Project has been working for several years to be ready to present MLB with a complete expansion proposal. There are two primary sites for a potential ballpark, and the group has been working with local politicians to prepare the proposal. 

This, from longtime local sports journalist John Canzano in late June, was interesting. 

The entity behind the MLB-to-PDX effort is officially targeting two proposed stadium sites in Portland — Lloyd Center Mall and RedTail Golf Course.

Email exchanges between Portland city officials and Portland Diamond Project executives provide the framework. The sides are working toward a formal “letter of intent” that could give the MLB effort control of one or both properties. The Lloyd Center has long been rumored as a potential stadium site, but this is the first time the city-owned public golf course has been mentioned.

I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued and cautiously delighted. The Portland Diamond Project has been eerily quiet. I’ve fielded repeated questions in recent months about whether the MLB effort was stalled.

Montreal

Canadian TV Market ranking: 2

No expansion candidate can match the level of sentimentality attached to Montreal.

The Expos were iconic, and the combination of events that led to the ballclub leaving were a damn baseball tragedy. The sport would be better with baseball back in Montreal — and that great logo/uniform back on the field — no doubt. The massively entertaining exhibition games played at Olympic Stadium, along with the whole “split season” idea of sharing the Rays with Tampa Bay reignited that sense of Expos nostalgia, but that plan was nixed by MLB.

The reality of the situation, though, isn’t as rosy as the nostalgia of an Expos revival. Civic leaders have downplayed the idea of public financing for a stadium, and there is no real sort of organization dedicated to bringing an expansion team to Montreal. It’s basically a similar situation to Charlotte — MLB would just have to decide it’s set on Montreal, and figure out a way to make that happen. 

Salt Lake City

Nielsen TV Market ranking: 27

This scenic city is a newcomer to the expansion discussion — the initial press release was sent out this April — but the group Big League Utah has a couple key things working in its favor, including massive shovel-ready ballpark/entertainment district site, a potential ownership group with deep pockets and a motivated group preparing a proposal. 

That’s a solid place to start. Like Nashville, the market’s a little smaller than others in the mix, but not significantly. The “coalition” is led by the Miller family, former owners of the Utah Jazz, and includes the support of state and local officials. 

Others cities in the expansion conversation 

Obviously, Mexico City offers a potential fan base that’s unrivaled by any other expansion candidate — with an estimate population north of 22 million, it’s one of the five largest metro areas in the world — but logistics would be much more complicated than any other potential location. For example, the only two teams that would have a flight under 3 hours are the Astros and Rangers. 

Vancouver is an on-the-rise city, and would provide the Mariners with a natural rival. Would Seattle want another city so close? Fair question, though Portland is roughly the same distance. Even though surveys show most people in British Columbia would welcome a team, there is no organized large-scale effort. 

In terms of market size, Sacramento (along with Stockton and Modesto) is the largest market without an MLB team — checking in at 20, just ahead of Charlotte — but it’s less than an hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco, which wouldn’t appeal to the Giants. 

It’s probably too soon, but Oakland baseball fans deserve their own team. Never forget that the biggest problem wasn’t the fans or the city, but the owner who inherited an empire (the Gap brand, which was founded by his parents) and wanted to be given the same type of gift by taxpayers. 

And then you have San Antonio, a city that’s long been used as almost a pawn for owners that needed leverage, like when the Marlins wanted a new ballpark. There’s no organized effort — hard to blame city leaders — even though it’s a good market. 

Source : ESPN.com

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