MLB expansion will loom as a possibility until it again becomes a reality
In the late 1960s, Major League Baseball had more blemishes than it could cover, including dwindling crowds, sluggish play and a broad sense from all quarters the game used to be better. As a remedy, baseball turned to its favorite elixir: expansion. With the start of the 1969 season, baseball introduced the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Pilots, Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres. Not everyone welcomed them warmly. Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, then in his 50s, grumbled about a comeback since “they bring anybody up to the majors nowadays.” but the per-game average dipped for a third consecutive year. Fans seemed over the in-person experience. Ford Frick, baseball’s commissioner until 1965, appeared prophetic when he had warned the owners earlier in the decade against adding too much, too quickly — a sentiment not shared by the congresspeople who petitioned Frick’s successor, William Eckert, to create three additional teams in time for the ’69 season. Eckert declined, blaming the ongoing expansion efforts and the military draft as having “greatly limited the availability of professional baseball talent.”
Los Angeles Dodgers president Walter O’Malley, meanwhile, was concerned about a different brand of sparseness. He felt expansion would “exhaust every community with enough money to build a stadium.” O’Malley meant domestically — he envisioned future expansion occurring abroad, beyond the borders of the United States. Expansion to the people in charge was no more than a business transaction; to the fans, it was a chance to claim part of America’s pastime as their own. MLB, to paraphrase the song, wants hopeful markets to be green, mean and everything more — to be willing to take the leap of faith in building a stadium without first being awarded a team, either through expansion or relocation.
On the edge of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, downstream from the Fremont Bridge, there’s an old shipping terminal. It’s about 100 miles from Mount Hood, the tallest point in the state, and a 10-minute drive from what used to be named the Rose Garden, where the NBA‘s Portland Trail Blazers play their home games. Terminal 2 is owned by the Port of Portland and stretches 45 to 53 acres, depending on the estimator. The terminal no longer stores marine cargo. These days, it’s a set of “vacant parking lots and unused cranes and empty warehouses.” If a local group succeeds, Terminal 2 will soon be home to a major-league team.
The Portland Diamond Project is fronted by Craig Cheek, a longtime Nike executive whose biography has him spending some time in the movie/media content space. Ex-Trail Blazers play-by-play person Mike Barrett serves as managing director, while local former big-leaguers Dale Murphy and Darwin Barney are baseball consultants. R&B star Ciara and her husband, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, headline the group’s investors list. Leveraging celebrity is one way PDP has gained credibility. Another way is with a sleek website where fans can purchase Pride- and Independence Day-themed swag, much the way they might through an existing team’s store. In lieu of buying tickets, Portland fans can gaze at ballpark concept images, complete with millennials snapping selfies on the boardwalk, the garden roof deck and in the gondola suite — yes, the gondola suite. a remarkable accomplishment given only one other team in the National Women’s Soccer League drew more than 6,000 per game. (The Timbers and Thorns’ success even precipitated a 4,000-seat expansion at Providence Park.) Cheek refers to Portland as an “underserved city” multiple times throughout the conversation, and what he means by that is the demand for professional sports exceeds the supply.
Building a stadium requires a confluence of skill, planning and luck, similar to building a championship roster. To succeed, one needs good location, financing, zoning and infrastructure. Not every stadium built checks each box. But then, most stadiums are built for existing teams. Those groups trying to convince MLB to let them in through expansion have to prove their competency somehow. Landing a park is essentially the final exam.
Portland didn’t obtain the Expos, but the efforts did lead to a bill being passed promising up to $150 million in public financing toward a stadium once a team was acquired. Most of the money would be collected from the income taxes of the players and officials. Businesses within a certain distance would contribute through licensing fees and revenue sharing. In the past year various Oregon Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, have stated their intent to repeal the bill as public financing of stadiums has grown less popular with voters over the past decade-plus. If and how PDP would finance its billion-dollar riverside park — complete with boardwalk, garden, gondolas, and a retractable, translucent roof — in the event the $150 million is dashed remains unclear.
The possibility of losing funding hasn’t prevented Cheek from articulating an ambitious view of the future.
“With the trends that we’re seeing, like with the Battery in Atlanta, these ballparks can truly be transformational for a bigger idea than just baseball,” Cheek said, referring to the Braves’ controversial compound. “We’re looking at this becoming the new neighborhood, the new district, the new hub for Portland, where it all comes together; work with play. We can see thousands of housing units. We can see mixed-use retail. We can see restaurants on the water. We can see artisans and maker spaces and small Portland companies being headquartered in this district.”
Cheek’s vision may prove overzealous for the proposed Terminal 2 site. There are considerable zoning and transportation hang-ups for PDP and the city of Portland to navigate. The stadium would sit two miles from the nearest light rail station, and wouldn’t offer great access to buses or the freeway. Water taxis zipping across the Willamette could alleviate some of the bottleneck effect, but getting more than 30,000 devotees in and out in a reasonable time would seem to require additional infrastructure — and years of planning, and oodles of cash. PDP has since negotiated a six-month extension with the Port of Portland on its due diligence period.
A lengthy delay would be a sub-optimal outcome for PDP, which is racing similar groups across the continent. If there is an upshot, it’s how every market has pluses to trumpet and minuses to mutter. “It’s like choosing a fighter in Mortal Kombat,” said urban designer Josh Frank, who is located in the Tampa Bay area and consulted with the Rays on a ballpark as part of his college coursework at the University of South Florida. “All these metro areas have categories, some of them are higher and some of them are lower, and it’s about trying to choose the right fighter. You try to find one that probably has a little bit of everything and isn’t very heavily weighted in one or two categories.”
Identifying a stadium location can feel like picking between Sub-Zero and Scorpion, too. PDP’s selection of Terminal 2 demonstrates how challenging the task is — even for the well-connected and well-incentivized.
In an ideal world, the team would stumble upon a large, vacant lot in a densely populated area adjacent to restaurants, bars, and tourist destinations. The surrounding neighborhood would offer sufficient access to trains and buses and would be safe enough to be deemed walkable, easing the burden on developers by removing the need for endless parking lots. The stadium site would sit within hollering distance of corporate sponsors, whose executives could root for the home team every night after work just as soon as the company dished out for costly suites.
Finding a pre-existing location with those attributes is as common as finding a Joshua tree in the rainforest. Teams have adapted to this reality by building districts of their own — be it the Battery, or Texas Live!, a bar/restaurant/shopping complex built adjacent to the Texas Rangers’ new ballpark opening next year. The “mixed-use” approach so often touted by owners is more beneficial to the teams in the long run, anyway. As Frank notes, teams can make greater profits by developing then selling the land. The stadium becomes a secondary motivation — the bait for others, not the score. Alas, teams having control over what — and who — is next door creates further complications. “What these teams are trying to do is create their core demographic in a district,” Frank said. “White male, medium to high income, tech-oriented.”
Almost as if on the beck of a league-wide directive, baseball has taken to prioritizing the upper-class fan above all. This is an affluent individual who can shell out for tickets, gear and food without worrying about their budget. Teams have all but admitted as much publicly. In 2015, an executive with the Los Angeles Angels said, “We may not be reaching as many of the people on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, but those people, they may enjoy the game, but they pay less, and we’re not seeing the conversion on the per-caps.” The executive later resigned.
Cheek wasn’t hinting at these socioeconomic elements when he referenced the Battery, but the desire to appease the wealthy can and has already influenced where stadiums are being built — and who they’re being built to accommodate. The Braves were the first team in 40 years to move from downtown to a suburb. In doing so, they relocated from a predominantly black neighborhood to one mostly white. The move brought the Braves closer to their season-ticket base, yet clashed with their stated preference for better public transportation. It remains unclear how moving to a more remote area helped. (The neighborhood where Portland wants to build its ballpark had the lowest average income of any in the city, per data from 2009, which raises its own potential problems.)
If established teams — ones with large fan bases owed to decades of national television exposure — can be impelled by impure motives, then surely so can unlaunched franchises. As John Helyar concluded in “The Lords of the Realm,” now some 25 years ago, the expansion process is all about who can “fork over the most money.”
Portland’s pitch for expansion is a compelling one — particularly the potential for ravenous crowds and lucrative corporate sponsors. The team would need their local backing to be strong, too, because the minute it came into existence it would join the ranks of the small-market teams. For comparison’s sake, Portland’s TV share is smaller than Cleveland’s, which has provided the best- and worst-case scenarios over the past couple decades. The best: Portland sells out its riverside paradise for years upon years, the way Cleveland did with Progressive Field; the worst: Portland’s ownership handcuffs its front office with budgetary restraints, even after the group assembles a pennant contender.
Market share isn’t a problem exclusive to Portland — or to Nashville, or to Las Vegas, or to any other American city with seamhead aspirations. Almost anywhere baseball expands in the coming years will rank in the bottom half to bottom third of TV markets. Therein is part of the argument against expansion. Why should owners make room at the table, reducing their share of the profits and the talent, to add more small-market teams? The answer might be as simple as the instant gratification offered by an exorbitant expansion fee.
Back when the Diamondbacks and the Rays joined MLB, each group had to pony up $130 million. The fee would likely be multiple times higher now. Seattle’s NHL franchise is having to pay $650 million to join the league. MLB’s revenues are believed to be more than double the NHL’s, meaning its expansion fee could top $1 billion. Multiply by two, divide by 30, and owners could pocket nearly $70 million apiece. What the owners and the league as a whole must answer is whether $70 million is worth it — not just to share the pie, but to use another plate. Cigar Aficionado magazine. “A savvy negotiator creates leverage,” Reinsdorf said. He explained how “people had to think we were going to leave Chicago” in order for him to get his way. And get his way he did: By the time the 1991 season rolled around, the — in Chicago.
In June,to pursue a split-city agreement with Montreal. The idea, as explained by owner Stuart Sternberg, would entail the Rays playing the early portion of their schedule in St. Petersburg before hopping on a flight to Montreal to finish out the season. In Sternberg’s vision, both St. Petersburg and Montreal would help facilitate brand-new open-air stadiums (and the union would permit their members to be tasked with swapping countries halfway through the season, the way they might change bats or cleats). How Sternberg intends to escape the use agreement with the city of St. Petersburg, which runs through 2027, is anyone’s guess.
Who Sternberg hopes will deliver him and the Rays north of the border has come into clearer focus. Stephen Bronfman, the son of Expos founder Charles Bronfman, recalls eating peanuts during batting practice whenever he’d attend games with his father. Now in his 50s, and nearly 30 years removed from the family selling the Expos, Bronfman has resurfaced as the champion of a movement started by former Expos player Warren Cromartie. The goal is simple: return MLB to the City of Saints for the first time since 2004.
Bronfman’s inclusion in Sternberg’s scheme is compelling for various reasons. There are the obvious connections to the sport and to Montreal, but there’s also a long-forgotten report in the New York Times where Murray Chass noted MLB approached Bronfman about taking over the franchise before the league handed the reins to Jeffrey Loria. Bronfman declined to grant the Expos salvation, begetting Loria’s ownership, which wrought destruction to the team. After Loria and John Henry completed an ownership double-switch, involving the then-Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox, Loria’s group was allowed to take most of the franchise with them to Miami — even the computers. eliminate Major League Baseball in Montreal.” An arbitration panel later acknowledged Montreal had the right to feel betrayed — but ruled in Selig’s favor. Selig took the RICO case “very personally,” per Bronfman, and it damaged his longstanding friendship with Charles. Bronfman said he visited Selig toward the the end of his tenure and apologized “for the family” and “for what happened over that time.” It was then when Selig told Bronfman he wanted to rekindle his friendship with Charles — and “at some point to see Major League Baseball back in Montreal.” The seed for a Montreal return was planted. agreement with a developer to pursue land at the Peel Basin. In theory, this could be the future home of the Rays, the Expos, or whatever they’re called (the name is unimportant to him).
Just as the falcon cannot hear the falconer, oftentimes city officials cannot see the truth through sports’ teams smokescreens.
Neil deMause, who wrote the book and maintains the website about stadium swindles, can recall countless ridiculous schemes orchestrated by team owners to land a new stadium or arena. Eventually, Sternberg’s proposed two-city solution might take the prize for the most ludicrous attempt at extracting leverage. For now, one egregious example was when the Pittsburgh Penguins were politicking for a new igloo. Owner and franchise icon Mario Lemieux was spotted in Kansas City and Las Vegas, fueling speculation the Penguins were shopping around their residency. Just as soon as the Penguins secured a rink in Pittsburgh, Lemieux dismissed those sightings elsewhere by saying: “Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go and have a nice dinner and come back.” Portland’s ballpark is estimated to result in an impact of $333 million per year over 30 years, or $10 billion. Using Matheson’s rule of thumb, those figures would be shaved to $33 million per season, or $1 billion over 30 years — a more realistic, if perhaps still juiced projection about stadiums’ impact on the local economy. of greater rigor and legitimacy than the ones offered by consulting firms, have over the years shown stadiums are poor investments for cities. Using bed taxes or withholding player income taxes to fund a stadium seems harmless — except for the opportunity cost involved. Every dollar spent on a stadium is one not spent on schools, hospitals, infrastructure — institutions likelier to impact the quality of life for a greater number of people than a new ballpark. What economic impact stadiums do offer is often misunderstood, too. Economists refer to the “substitution effect” in these cases. It’s similar to opportunity cost. If a family of four is spending money at the ballpark, it won’t be spending money at the movies. Stadiums aren’t value creators so much as they are value re-distributors, from other local businesses to themselves, often without the best-compensated employees pumping those dollars back into the economy. One study even found a local economy improved after a team left the area. have attempted to end federal subsidies for sports stadiums. There are many who hope the practice remains legal, however. “Just because stadiums are a bad deal for cities as a whole, doesn’t mean that there aren’t special interests that stand to make a lot of money,” Matheson said. Among those groups: construction companies, property owners, lawyers, and lobbyists — a D.C. group once paid longtime baseball executive Peter Bavasi more than $200,000 to network on their behalf. once wrote, “The fiercest competition in sports these days is not between teams or leagues, but between governments and their own citizens.” teams are always having to adjust their nudges as cities grow wiser. Some of the more common tricks rolled out include the threat of relocation (or, in the case of expansion markets, discontinuation of the effort); vague commentary about how a new stadium will help a team — the “how” part is often omitted; and pitching a new ballpark as a venue with 365-day use potential. Stadiums built for baseball, it turns out, are often good for only baseball. Some teams may even lie and suggest their fancy sandlot will pay for itself. The evidence says: not likely. “The greatest misconception about sports stadiums and arenas is that they make money,” deMause said. “I would guesstimate 80 to 90 percent of new buildings do not pay for their own construction costs, let alone have any money left over afterward. So, if you just looked at them as, would this thing pay for itself? The answer is no.
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MLB Raleigh is more than a baseball movement, it’s a collective effort to make our city even better. We’ve partnered with The Boys & Girls Club of Raleigh to use profits, call on organizations & rally volunteers to help fix up fields/ jumpstart baseball programs in the community. #RaleighOnDeck
Were “Family Feud” (or a sports-themed derivative) to ask 100 people what Pat Williams was best known for, the top answers would likely be a four-time NBA general manager, a renowned good-luck charm for the draft lottery and perhaps a best-selling author. Some may know him as a former professional baseball player, but not many would be aware of his history as an award-winning minor-league executive, or his efforts to land the city of Orlando a big-league team.
Before the Marlins and Rays were awarded to Miami and St. Petersburg, Williams spearheaded multiple attempts at bringing baseball to Florida. He still has the napkin on which he sprawled his original pitch to William duPont, then the owner of the Orlando Magic. The efforts didn’t succeed, and despite the napkin’s implication, not for a lack of sophistication. Orlando’s first campaign went beyond the normal scope. The group purchased a minor-league team to gain the territorial rights and renamed them the SunRays to get jump start on branding. Further, they named a manager (Bob Boone) and multiple front-office personnel (including Bobby Richardson as a consultant). The hope, Williams said, was that MLB would see how serious they were about their pursuit and reward them for their initiative. They host a collection of their most marketable tidbits on their website, highlighting how Raleigh-Durham compares favorably with a number of places that already have MLB teams; how Raleigh was the “second-fastest growing metro area from 2010-17”, behind Austin-Round Rock, Texas; and how Raleigh is the “No. 1 richest metro area in the continental U.S. without a MLB team within 100 miles.”
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