Most likely: Tampa, Fla.
The most realistic option for the Rays is probably building a cozy, 37,000-seat ballpark that is convenient for all to reach, ideally across the bay from St. Petersburg in an urban section of Tampa between Ybor City and downtown. But despite being at the height its franchise success the past few seasons, the Rays couldn’t even come close to selling out a home playoff game in 2011. Even if the Rays payroll were higher, it’s not statistically realistic to think they’ll be in the playoffs every year like the run of 14 consecutive appearances by the Atlanta Braves.
So the question is whether it’s realistic to think a new ballpark is going to significantly increase the number of fans that will financially support the Rays once the new ballpark smell has waned and/or the team doesn’t make the playoffs. With so many transplants living in Tampa where allegiances lie with historic franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox and others, the maximum financial affinity to the Rays in the market should be restudied thoroughly before they start building a new ballpark — and it appears the Rays are doing just that.
Most realistically, were an MLB team to move out of the Tampa Bay area, it might not be until 2028 when the Rays use agreement ends with St. Petersburg.
The Skinny: With a population of 2.4 million, Vancouver is about the size of metropolitan Pittsburgh and is Canada’s third largest city. But Vancouver ranks No. 1 in terms of relocation potential for one chief reason: BC Place in downtown Vancouver, which was renovated for $563 million (Canadian).
“We did the renovations, keeping baseball in mind,” explained Graham Ramsey, a spokesperson for BC Place. “To me, one of the biggest challenges is date availability.”
BC Place has 220 events scheduled in 2012, from conventions to concerts and more, which would leave only 145 open dates to try and squeeze in an 81-game MLB regular season schedule, plus playoffs. Even more daunting? A Major League Soccer (MLS) team and a Canadian Football League (CFL) club already share BC Place during the baseball season, so scheduling a 10-game home stand could be quite the conundrum. Yet MLS and CFL teams make it work at Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome) in Toronto, home of the Blue Jays. And like Rogers Centre, BC Place can be played with the roof open or closed, so no rain outs.
Upsides: BC Place can accommodate up to 40,000 baseball fans. Vancouver is the ethnically diverse melting pot that MLB covets as it tries to grow the game abroad, especially in countries outside its core nucleus in the Caribbean and Latin America. Vancouver’s population increased by 30,000 in 2011, including in several suburbs where MLB players hail from such as New Westminster (Justin Morneau), Langley (Brett Lawrie) and Maple Ridge (the retired Larry Walker).
Downsides: BC Place hasn’t been game tested nor reviewed yet by MLB to see if it would meet its standards. No baseball team has even taken batting practice since the renovations. MLB might also be leery of the market, especially since the NBA’s Grizzlies only lasted six seasons here (although the weak Canadian dollar at the time had a lot to do with the relocation, not just the dwindling attendance, plus hoops season competes with hockey season — baseball doesn’t). Other downsides: the Seattle Mariners, 144 miles south of Vancouver, might block the move (instead of embracing a local rivalry). But the biggest obstacle: given the size of the market, just how far can the Vancouver sports fans dollar go, with an MLS and CFL team already established, plus a existing NHL team?
Greater Metro Population: 2.4 million (compares to Pittsburgh)
Canadian TV Market: 3rd largest in Canada (after Toronto and Montreal)
The Skinny: Go ahead and laugh, but the fact is there are a lot of great baseball fans in Montreal — many of whom would still like to maim Jeffrey Loria. Baseball fans outside the Island City forget that when the Expos were rocking the MLB universe in 1994, Olympic Stadium was the place to be. And don’t forget the ballpark was supposed to be baseball’s first retractable roof — before SkyDome. The Expos' demise in Montreal also had to do with the sluggish Canadian economy at the time, especially against the U.S. dollar, not to mention the stadium’s remote location, ongoing problems and ownership’s abandonment by trading its best players. With funding for a downtown ballpark, a franchise in Montreal could thrive again. And don’t say it can’t happen. Baseball returned to Washington, a fair weather sports town. Why couldn’t it return to a more passionate sports town like Montreal? If it’s to happen though, wealthy Quebec financiers would likely have to step up to the plate to privately finance a new ballpark.
Upsides: A large population with money to spend — two key ingredients for any franchise. Plus, consider this reality: the Expos/Nationals have won just one division championship since their founding in 1969 and that came in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign in which the team won the second half of that season. Yet despite its utter failure year after year to make the postseason, the club averaged at least 18,000 fans every campaign from 1979 through 1997, with the exception of just three seasons in that long timeframe. It was only after the club traded Pedro Martinez following the 1997 season that Expos fans threw up their hands in disgust (and who could blame them?) and its attendance completely nosedived.
Downsides: Show me the money. I can’t imagine the provincial government in Quebec or the City of Montreal paying for a new ballpark, which could keep MLB away. And for goodness sakes, build it in heart of the downtown core.
Greater Metro Population: 3.82 million (compares to Minneapolis)
Canadian TV Market: 2nd largest in Canada (after Toronto)
Carolina Batter up: Raleigh-Durham-Cary versus Charlotte
The Skinny: Comb the 2011 Minor League Baseball attendance numbers and you’ll find the two teams in the greater Raleigh-Durham area drew very well. The Triple-A Durham Bulls attracted more than 450,000 fans and the Double-A Carolina Mudcats more than 250,000. That’s more than 700,000 fans for Minor League Baseball. What’s more, Greensboro, home to a Single-A team and within an hours’ drive of Durham, drew 388,000, and nearby in Winston-Salem, a High-A team drew 312,000. Compare those numbers to Charlotte’s two Minor League teams — its Triple-A club and a Single-A team outside of town in Kannapolis — and it’s not even close.
I’ve never been sold on Charlotte as a MLB market for a couple of reasons: 1) this is NASCAR country and 2) the city’s had two incarnations of an NBA team and neither has exactly raked attendance records. With the Panthers already in town and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte aiming for Division I football in the future, I believe Charlotte may be stretched too thin to support another major sports team. Charlotte also has been unable to secure funding for a new Triple-A ballpark. The Queen City also isn’t terribly larger than Raleigh-Cary-Durham and hasn’t grown as much as the greater capitol region. Still, Charlotte can’t be totally discounted. It has the second largest amount of banks and companies in the power and energy and industries also call this place home.
Raleigh-Durham-Cary Upsides: The only major professional sports team, the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL, arrived in 1999, and the region’s sports history is rooted in its three premier universities, Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. But this well-educated populace, coupled with its Research Triangle, a center for high-tech and biotech research, has the greater Raleigh-Durham-Cary region poised to potentially be the single fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S. over the next 15 years. The region is also frequently rated as of the best in the U.S. for business. Suburban Cary, home to the USA Baseball Complex, was the third-fastest growing city of 100,000 people or more between 2008 and 2009. Although college basketball rules in this region, the season is long over by the time baseball season begins.
Raleigh-Durham-Cary Downsides: It’s unclear whether this market is ready right now for another professional sports team. Raleigh-Durham’s NHL franchise ranks in the bottom third in attendance, even after more than 10 years in the market and a Stanley Cup championship. For any team to thrive in Carolina, regional and statewide marketing would be crucial. Might this region be ready for MLB come 2028?
Greater Metro Populations: Charlotte, 2.4 million (compares to Pittsburgh); Raleigh-Durham, 1.7 million (compares to Milwaukee)
U.S. TV Market: Raleigh-Durham, 24th; Charlotte, 25th (compares to Pittsburgh, 23rd, and Baltimore, 27th)
HBT: Carlos Ruiz was lifted from Sunday afternoon’s game against the Reds after straining his right hamstring while running the bases in the bottom of the second inning.
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