With the NHL is adding a 32nd team in 2021, what cities should MLB expand into?
All the way back in 2018, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred brought up how expanding the MLB to 32 teams would be “great for our sport”. Since this statement, the league hasn’t seen much momentum in terms of expanding, but maybe the NHL’s bold moves over the last couple of years into Las Vegas and Seattle could push Manfred and MLB into action.
Seattle, of course, already has an MLB franchise in the Mariners, and adding hockey in that city seems like a no-brainer. In a city starved for professional sports since the exodus of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City more than a decade ago, bringing in hockey makes perfect sense, especially considering the relatively short flights to western Canada and U.S. hockey cities like Vancouver, Calgary, San Jose, and even Las Vegas.
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In that 2018 statement, Manfred brought up international teams in Canada or Mexico along with stateside options in Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Nashville. Certainly, these options make plenty of sense in terms of geographic spread.
Portland would be Oregon’s only team and is the 22nd-largest TV market in the U.S. The city does already have two professional sports franchises in the NBA’s Trailblazers and the MLS’s Timbers though, and the MLS season overlaps with the MLB season, running from mid-February to mid-August.
Las Vegas, the new home of the NHL’s Golden Knights and soon-to-be home of the NFL’s Raiders, is going to have a lot asked of it in the coming years sports-wise. Can ‘Sin City’ carry the burden of an MLB team to go along with the NHL and NFL franchises? Las Vegas ranks 39th in U.S. TV market size and has almost 100,000 fewer TV homes than Cincinnati. Plus, baseball in the hot and windy Vegas summer would certainly necessitate a stadium with a roof, and the Raiders probably don’t want to share with an MLB team again.
As for Charlotte and Nashville, these are two cities with solid TV ratings as well. Charlotte is a similar market to Portland by size, with over 1 million TV homes. Charlotte’s NBA franchise, the Hornets, has seen very limited success with in-person attendance, ranking in the bottom-third in the league in 2019 though. Nashville, a top-30 TV market, houses an NHL and NFL franchise, with an MLS team to battle with any MLB expansion team for sports fans’ attention. Nashville provides an interesting connection to baseball though thanks to the reputation of the Vanderbilt University baseball program.
But maybe MLB should expand beyond these oft-repeated options. Milwaukee wouldn’t be on a list of expansion cities if it didn’t already have the Brewers, yet the team is one of the most successful attendance-wise in all of baseball and is home to one of the most-watched teams in the NBA with the Bucks. The same can be said of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Cities can embrace a franchise even if they aren’t one of the top-30 major markets and can support a team.
Las Vegas may actually fit the bill since the city supported the minor league Las Vegas Aviators in 2019 to the tune of almost 9,300 fans per game, which easily led the MiLB.
But in getting more creative, let me present an alternative: New Orleans.
After the NHL expanded to 32 teams, could MLB follow suit by adding teams in the South?
The South is a baseball hub, rivaled only by Southern California in terms of player output. Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia all produce more professional baseball players than Texas or a Midwestern state on a per-100,000 residents basis, according to Baseball America.
Sure, the New Orleans Baby Cakes, the city’s MiLB franchise, saw a drop in attendance in 2019 of almost 1,000 fans per game compared to 2018, but the team is moving. Think of the team as losing fans in their ‘lame-duck’ season, so to speak, a trend that is not uncommon according to Baseball America.
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But moving away from a small team could be just the boost New Orleans needs. Southern baseball fans are amongst the best in terms of college baseball fandom. The baseball program at LSU is a perennial contender for the College World Series title and consistently leads the NCAA in attendance, averaging over 10,000 fans per game. When the short college season ends, these fans are left without baseball, but a New Orleans MLB team could fix that, and not just for LSU fans. Fans all around the region are hungry for baseball. Ole Miss and Mississippi State had the second and third-best college baseball attendance records in 2017, with both averaging more than 8,000 fans per game.
Plus, fans from all over the surrounding baseball hubs of the South could rally to support the team. The Atlanta Braves and the Florida teams have a lock on baseball fans in the Atlantic coast region of the southern U.S., but baseball on the Gulf of Mexico is left without much MLB representation. Atlanta is more than 450 miles from New Orleans and Houston is about 350 miles away, leaving a perfect pocket of baseball fans without an MLB team to call their own.
If New Orleans isn’t the prime location, then maybe some of Southern or Southwestern city could take on an MLB team. Mississippi’s university baseball programs and Arkansas’s, which averages more than 7,000 fans per game, are actually closer to Oklahoma City than New Orleans.
Oklahoma City already supports the NBA’s Thunder very well, providing them with more than 18,000 fans per game. But during the summer, where can these fans go? Oklahoma City sits about 200 miles from Dallas, Texas and 200 miles from the University of Arkansas in a central location, with a Nielsen market size ranking of 43rd, with more than 650,000 TV homes.
But regardless, baseball could expand, and they don’t need to look outside of the U.S. to find a market, they can find one right here in their own backyard.