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Les Exits Now that MLB
2002-09-03 15:22
by Mike Carminati

Les Exits

Now that MLB has resolved its labor dispute for the foreseeable future (until 2006) and has taken contraction (what a surprise!) off the table, it can turn its attention to other matters. No, I'm not speaking of the various lawsuits on the docket dogging Bud Selig. What I mean is that they must decide what to do with the Montreal Expos, who though targeted for contraction by Selig and his cadre of owners-well, didn't they purchase the DNR on the franchise less than a year ago?-will now exist until 2006, in some form or another.

What is the best course of action for the club? There are two main issues: 1) Find ownership for a franchise that the owners took off now-Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria's hands for $120 million just last February. 2) Find a new location for the franchise since MLB seems to have become disenchanted with Montreal and the fans of Montreal seem to have become disenchanted with MLB. The solution to both these problems may come in one fell swoop (or one swell foop) in the form of an ownership group in a new area. They may entertain offers as if the Expos were an expansion club, the only difference being that they come with their own 40-man roster-look, Ma! No expansion draft!-and farm system. Most experts point to a decision being made by the start of the 2004 season if not sooner (i.e., this off-season).

Of course, the Expos come with their fair share of baggage. First, there is the lawsuit pending against Bud Selig, Bob Dupuy, and former owner Loria for breaking the RICO statutes placed by the Expos former minority owners (and now minority owners in the Marlins). The owners also asked for injuctive relief should MLB try to contract or move the team. There is also the $30 million in projected losses for the season (if that is something more than just a paper loss). An article in the Montreal Gazette claims that the Expos will make less in revenue sharing under the new CBA, because it is a straight-pool system rather than a split-pool one. Also, they claim that the Expos are losing due to the conversion rate: their expenses are in U.S. dollars but their revenue is Canadian. Finally, there is expected to be a $20-million increase in the Expos salary just for keeping the current squad intact for next season.

Let's assume that all, or at least enough, of those issues will be worked out and the way will be paved for new ownership of the Expos. Who are their most viable candidate cities for relocation? Obviously, MLB will look for a candidate city to be as big of an improvement as possible over the situation in Montreal. I would like to quantify that improvement by examining various cities' population as well as their current support of the minor-league team that now represents them (are they a "baseball" town?). They should also have a serviceable baseball facility available though it need not be much better than serviceable since a new one could very easily be stipulated in the sale. There are other issues that I have no means to plumb: local and state politics, the inclination of each city's multi-millionaire and billionaire population and their connections within MLB, the various strengths-financial and otherwise-that the prospective groups from the candidate cities will possess, the perception within MLB of each city's baseball history and its viability for major-league baseball, etc. I will keep my study to population, fan support, and current stadium availability. Optimally, a city with a large population, a zealous fan base, and a state-of-the-art stadium will be sought, but compromises will be made along the way. For example, a large fan base is important but Montreal is a populous city that according to MLB's perception has never supported the team. Population will then be weighed against fan support.

Part I: Determining Candidate Cities by Population

The metropolitan population of Montreal is around 3.5 million (3,426,350 according to the 2001 Canadian census). There are 13 American cities and one Canadian city with a greater metropolitan population and all of them are represented by at least one major league team. Given that Milwaukee and Kansas City are slightly over 1.5 million inhabitants, let's caste a wider net and make our lower limit 1.5 million. It's not optimal but remember we are weighing population against fan support. That gives us 11 candidates. Here they are with their rank within the combined U.S./Canadian rankings, and their metropolitan area:

22 San Juan--Caguas--Arecibo, PR                 2,450,292
25 Portland--Salem, OR--WA                       2,265,223
26 Vancouver, B.C.                               1,986,965
28 Sacramento--Yolo, CA                          1,796,857
31 Orlando, FL                                   1,644,561
32 Indianapolis, IN                              1,607,486
33 San Antonio, TX                               1,592,383
34 Norfolk--Virginia Beach--Newport News, VA--NC 1,569,541
35 Las Vegas, NV--AZ                             1,563,282
36 Columbus, OH                                  1,540,157
37 Charlotte--Gastonia--Rock Hill, NC--SC        1,499,293

I also want to consider the resulting population base if the existing franchises had to share their metropolitan areas with a new team. This has been mentioned as a strong possibility in the future for the Baltimore-Washington and New York teams. If we take the population and share it among the existing team(s) and a relocated Expo franchise, would they be able to accommodate the new team without burdening the existing one(s)? Sixteen current major-league metropolitan areas would meet our 1.5 million population threshold (i.e., they would have at least 1.5 million per team if the Expos were added to their area-by the way, Montreal itself would meet the criterion). I will set it to three million so that a strong enough case could be made to overwhelm the existing franchise's territorial rights claim. Five areas, including New York and D.C.-Baltimore, meet the criterion.

Those would be (Rank is overall U.S. Rank):

Rk MSA                                                        Pop     # current tms  Pop. per teams + 1
1  New York--Northern New Jersey--Long Island, NY--NJ--CT--PA 21,199,865        2       7,066,622
2  Los Angeles--Riverside--Orange County, CA                  16,373,645        2       5,457,882
4  Washington--Baltimore, DC--MD--VA--WV                       7,608,070        1       3,804,035
6  Philadelphia--Wilmington--Atlantic City, PA--NJ--DE--MD     6,188,463        1       3,094,232
3  Chicago--Gary--Kenosha, IL--IN--WI                          9,157,540        2       3,052,513

That brings our candidate list to 16.

Part II: Ranking Candidate Cities by Fan Support

Now let's look at fan support for each candidate. Keep in mind that Montreal's average attendance per home game last year was 7,648 and are faring slightly better at 10,399 so far this season. Baseball would undoubtedly like to improve on those figures, but only two teams in the minors last year topped ten thousand fans (Sacramento and Memphis).

Obviously, minor-league attendance for a city and its projected major-league attendance are not the same thing. We will look at both the average per-game attendance of each candidate city along with a projection based on the past newly major-league cities. We will look at all of the cities to which teams relocated or into which MLB expanded in the last fifty years to determine how much of an increase in attendance can be expected when a city goes from the minors to the majors.

Cities with existing major league teams will be evaluated via their current major- and minor-league support to determine the viability of an additional major-league team.

Here is a table ranking the minor-league candidates by fan support expressed as the average attendance per game over the last five years. It is also expressed as the per-game attendance as a percent of the population. The minor league levels occupied are also given:

                                     Avg      Att. as
City                  2000 Pop  per-game att.   % Pop.  Levels (Yrs)
Indianapolis, IN     1,607,486     9,241        0.57%   AAA(5)
Sacramento, CA       1,796,857     8,781        0.49%   IND(1)-AAA(2)
Columbus, OH         1,540,157     8,401        0.55%   AAA(5)
Norfolk-Va Beach, VA 1,569,541     7,115        0.45%   AAA(5)
Portland, OR         2,265,223     5,265        0.23%   A(4)-AAA(1)
San Antonio, TX      1,592,383     4,981        0.31%   AA(2)
Charlotte, NC        1,499,293     4,858        0.32%   AAA(5)
Las Vegas, NV        1,563,282     4,644        0.30%   AAA(5)
Vancouver, B.C.      1,986,965     3,823        0.19%   AAA(3)-A(2)
Orlando, FL          1,644,561     1,621        0.10%   AA(5)
San Juan, PR         2,450,292         0        0.00%   None
Notes: Vancouver pop. According to 2001 Canadian census, Sacramento has only had a minor-league team the last 3 years.

The first thing that you will notice is that San Juan's almost 2 1/2 million inhabitants have been without a minor-league team for some time (since the one-year Inter-American League of 1979). They have to content themselves with being a hub for the Puerto Rican Winter League (2 of 6 clubs are located in San Juan). This does not bode well especially for a city that is on an island, is part of a U.S. territory, not a state, and that has no major-league presence in any sport.

The other thing you will notice is that there seems to be a clear dividing line in fan support between the top 4 teams and the rest. The average attendance expressed as a per-game figure and as a percentage of the metropolitan area's population both drop off after the fourth entry. Let's assume that that is our dividing line, that we will only consider those four (Indianapolis, Sacramento, Columbus, and Norfolk-Va. Beach) from this point forward.

Here's just a word on each now-eliminated city before we move on:

- Portland has a strong baseball tradition dating back to the old Pacific Coast League (and the prospect of a great nickname "Lucky Beavers"). However, they have just returned to the PCL after years in the Single-A Northwest League and may not be viewed as a strong enough baseball town consequently. Besides they only have one major-league franchise (the Trail Blazers-and an old USFL team).

- San Antonio may suffer from the same perception problem: It is in the Double-A Texas League and therefore may be seen as a second-tier city. Texas is well represented in MLB (2 teams), and they like to ensure a good bit of territory with new teams (e.g., Colorado, Arizona, and the Florida teams). They too have only an NBA team to their major-league credit (plus defunct USFL and CFL teams).

- Charlotte is no longer the hot area that is was in the late-'80s and early-'90s and has just lost its only major-league franchise to a smaller city (New Orleans).

- Las Vegas is an ever-growing city but MLB has never been that forward-looking in its expansion. Given that no other major sports league has opened the Las Vegas door. They'd rather not go out on the ice until someone else has checked how thin it is.

- Vancouver has a hockey and football (CFL) team, just lost a basketball team (to Memphis), and is a smaller Canadian city than Montreal. Need I say more?

- Orlando is getting terrible fan support in Double-AA, and would be a third Florida franchise with two weak teams representing the state already, though they do have a major league NBA team (and defunct USFL and CFL teams).

- Additionally, Buffalo and Memphis (not listed) get good fan support but are probably too small to be considered. Buffalo has been passed over in the last two expansion rounds.

Now let's pare down the major-league cities by fan support. There are two questions that we need to address: 1) Do the existing major-league teams for that city receive ample fan support and 2) do the metropolitan areas' teams receive sufficient support to justify the addition of a new team?

Below is a table detailing the major- and minor-league fan support for each of our 5 major-league cities. It contains the average attendance per game for the area's major league team(s) as well as the cumulative per-game attendance if its minor league teams. Finally, the aggregate average per-game attendance is derived from the major- and minor-league totals, which is divided by the number of current major leagues teams plus one for the relocated Expos-the table is sorted by this result:

                                 2001 Avg          2001 Avg Agg   Total Per-  Tot Att Per 
Rk City         2000 Pop. #tms     Att  # minors  minors Att     Game Att    teams + 1
1  New York    21,199,865   2    36,814   13       62,409        136,037     45,346
3  Chicago      9,157,540   2    28,630    5       18,110*        75,370     25,123
4  Wash.-Balt.  7,608,070   1    38,686    3       11,439         50,125     25,063
2  Los Angeles 16,373,645   2    30,978    5       11,076         73,032     24,344
6  Philadelphia 6,188,463   1    22,847    3       11,912         34,759     17,379
* = Joliet (Northern Lg) is new for 2002.  Their average for 2002 so far is used.  
    Also, Gary (Northern Lg) is a road team with no home games, therefore, no home attendance.

New York is in a class by itself-the metropolitan area's minor-league teams nearly match the attendance on a nightly basis of the two major-league teams. The next three cities are bunched, and then Philadelphia stands all alone. 17 thousand fans are far below what we would expect for our relocated team. Therefore, Philadelphia will be eliminated from the list of finalists. (Besides the Phillies only draw about 23 K a night and the perception since the A's left town is that it is not a two-team city).

Now to compare the minor-league finalists with the major-league finalists, we need to translate the minor-league attendance numbers to an expected major league level. That is the next step in our study.

[Note: Here are the minor-league teams by metropolitan area.

New York: New Haven (CT) (Eastern Lg), Norwich (CT) (EL), Trenton (NJ) (EL), Lakewood (NJ) (Carolina Lg), Brooklyn (NY-Penn Lg), Hudson Valley (Wappinger Falls) (NYPa), NJ (Augusta, NJ) (NYPa), Staten Island (NYPa), Bridgeport (CT) (Atlantic League-Independent), Long Island (Islip) (Atl), Newark (NJ) (Atl), Somerset (Bridgewater, NJ) (Atl), and NJ (Little Falls, NJ) (Northern Lg-Independent).

Los Angeles: San Bernardino (California Lg), Lake Elsinore (Cal), High Desert (Adelanto) (Cal), Lancaster (Cal), and Long Beach (Western Lg-Independent).

Washington-Baltimore: Frederick (Carolina Lg), Bowie (Eastern Lg), and Hagerstown (Sally Lg).

Philadelphia: Wilmington (DE) (Carolina Lg), Atlantic City (NJ) (Atlantic League-Independent), and Camden (NJ) (Atl)

Chicago: Kane County (Geneva, IL) (Midwest Lg), Cook Cty (Crestwood) (Frontier Lg-Independent, Gary (IN - Road team) (Northern Lg-Independent), Joilet (No.), and Schaumburg (No.).]

Part III: Correlating Minor League Attendance to Expected Attendance at Major League Level

To Be Continued...

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