Move it or Lose it (08/09/01)
Major League Baseball is looking for solutions to the problems of revenue disparity. When one team (New York Yankees) has close to 10 times the income of another (Montreal Expos), there doesn't seem to be much chance that the poorer team can compete on a consistent basis. Sure, they can catch lightning in a bottle for a year, maybe two. But there's little or no chance that a team like the Expos can ever build from within - keeping those players over the long haul while augmenting with key free agents - enough to stay competitve for more than a couple of years.
In addition, the low income teams can't afford to make mistakes. One bad signing - whether it's due to poor planning by the front office or a bad injury at the beginning of the player's contract - can devastate that team's options, whereas a team like the Yankees or Red Sox can simply buy a new fix.
Currently, Major League Baseball is considering 2 solutions to the problem: contraction and/or moving teams.
Well, contraction has so many problems that I'm kinda surprised that it's still even on the table. Despite it's many flaws, though, it still holds leverage appeal to some of the owners.
The better solution is relocation. There are several cities that, at least demographically speaking, would do a much better job of supporting a major league baseball team than their current cities do.
Northern Virginia has long been considered a prime target for locating a major league franchise. So much so, that every team that has wanted a new stadium in the past 7 years has threatened to move there. If that's not a resounding endorsement of the quality of the market, then nothing is. Numerous studies have shown that Northern Virginia is one of the top markets, demographically speaking, for baseball. In fact, only New York compares favorably in terms of population, disposable income, and primary target audience.
Move the Montreal Expos there. The Expos were crippled by the 1994 labor stoppage and have never fully recovered. However, there is considerable doubt that even should the Expos field competitive teams for several years running that the fans would ever come out in force. Montreal appears to be resolutely a hockey town and not much else franchise-wise.
Moving a National League team to the NoVa/DC area wouldn't be much of a threat to the Orioles and would actually be a keen draw. Baltimore-Washington is the 4th largest metropolitan area in the country with 7.2 million residents, behind only New York, LA and Chicago. It's doubtful that moving any team to that market would have a profound effect on the Orioles. The latest study shows that only 12 percent of Baltimore's ticket sales come from the DC/ Northern Virginia area, so moving a team to Northern Virginia will not have as dramatic an impact as Oriole officials, who claim that as much as a third of their patrons come from DC, would have you believe. Moving a National League team there would have added appeal, creating as natural an interleague rivalry as the Mets/Yankees, Giants/A's or Cubs/White Sox.
There's already an ownership group in Northern Virginia, which by the way has made several legitimate attempts to bring teams to that area, so a move here would be about as no-brainer as it gets. Any team that moves there will be one of the largest market teams in baseball in a matter of a couple of years, considering the technology and capital - no pun intended - that is there and is yet untapped.
Next, move the Florida Marlins from Miami to Orlando. Baseball is trying to make a larger appeal to families and no place on earth is more geared toward family activities than Orlando. With Disney World/Epcot/MGM Studios, Sea World, etc. as destinations, families come in droves to Central Florida.
Since amusement/theme parks are primarily a daytime activity, baseball, which is primarily a nighttime activity, would not be in competition with the existing entertainment giants for the family dollar. In fact, the two would work quite well in tandem - what is more identifiably American than baseball and Disney?
When including Tampa/St.Pete, Central Florida has about a million and a half more residents than the Miami area and more than 20 million more tourists per year. Another no-brainer.
Now we get a little radical: move the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Baseball wants to get international. Puerto Rico would be a great proving ground: it's deep in the Caribbean, it's better off economically speaking than Mexico, and it's a US territory, So teams, players and patrons are subject to many of the same laws as residents of the States. Customs issues would be non-existent.
More importantly, Puerto Rico is crazy for baseball and located in one of the most baseball-passionate areas in the world. There are several million people on the island (nearly 1.3 million wage earning adults) in an area not much bigger than Connecticut and no major league sport to compete against, so a 40,000 seat stadium would be full just about every night. Already Caribbean Winter League games are as packed as they are festive. Major League baseball games would be even more so.
Corporate sponsorship shouldn't be too tough to come by either. Puerto Rico is an attractive vacation destination and many hospitality companies are already there. Get a hotel giant like Marriott to take over primary ownership. Marriott has a history of getting into businesses not directly related to hotels. In addition to starting A&W Root Beer, Hot Shoppes and Roy Rogers restaurant franchises, Marriott once owned 2 cruise ships and was in the final stages of planning to build a Great America Amusement park before the project fell through due to zoning disputes. With their hospitality and food service expertise - Marriott is one of the largest managers of food services in airports and malls in the world - they would have no trouble creating a booming concession industry there.
Baseball would get a stable ownership and great attendance numbers. Marriott, or whichever hospitality company buys in, would get an educated, inexpensive and loyal labor force, a new attraction for the tourists and a way to get back more of the money they put into the economy.
If there's any concern about the strength of the local economy, use luxury boxes as part of an inducement package to bring more companies to Puerto Rico. The Commonwealth is already home to a number of pharmaceutical, textile and electronic companies. As has been shown in several cities with the building of new stadiums in depressed areas, baseball can be a significant part of revitalizing a local economy. There don't appear to be any good reasons why that can't be taken a step further and it help to build one.
The Charlotte/Raleigh-Durham/Winston-Salem area of North Carolina has a similar appeal demographically as Northern Virginia, but has the disadvantage of not having an ownership group or primary corporate sponsor in place, nor does it currently have a stadium for a team to play in should one move. But then, neither do Orlando or Puerto Rico. However, those two have one significant advantage over North Carolina - local population. The Triangle area has around 3.5 million residents. Puerto Rico has 3.7 million in an area about half the size. Central Florida (Tampa/St.Pete, West Palm Beach and Orlando) has almost 5 million potential customers in an area about one third the size of the Triangle. For a sport that measures it's franchise's success off the field largely by attendance, North Carolina has an uphill battle against the other two.
However, should a 4th franchise require relocation, or should baseball decide to expand in the near future, North Carolina, which has supported minor league baseball very well for nearly a century, will be a primary choice.
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