MLB commissioner Rob Manfred held the first All Star Game press conference of his tenure Tuesday, and he seemed prepared for most every question asked of him. On the recent push for baseball to extend netting near the plate to protect fans, Manfred said that MLB was still studying the issue and can’t formally make any changes until 2016, although individual teams can choose to extend the nets if they wanted.
Manfred referred to a forthcoming domestic violence policy, the difficulty of shortening the schedule to 154 games, even machine-judged balls and strikes. The discussion eventually moved to the subject of franchises and cities. Montreal remains impressive, though trying to project fan support based on a couple exhibition games each year is taking things a bit far. There was a question about the A’s, too.
Asked about Joe Lacob’s interest, Rob Manfred said he believes #athletics ownership in it for long haul.
— John Shea (@JohnSheaHey) July 14, 2015
Things got interesting when Manfred was asked about the possibility of expansion. His response?
“Maybe one of the reasons I got this job is, I’m bullish on this game. I think we are a growth business, broadly defined. And over an extended period of time, growth businesses look to get bigger. So yeah, I’m open to the idea that there will be a point in time where expansion may be possible.”
Manfred was careful not to provide a timetable for expansion or put it at a high priority, similar to stadium efforts in St. Petersburg and Oakland. Regardless, this is a major revelation and a complete turnabout from predecessor Bud Selig’s consistent no-expansion stance since the tense 2002 CBA talks.
It’s important not to read too much into Manfred’s statement, but it’s likely that his favorable view on expansion is fueled by a handful of factors:
- The American economy (at least capital) is surging, with many cities emerging from the recession potentially ready to entertain new stadium deals.
- Montreal functions as both a relocation candidate and an expansion candidate, taking the place of DC, which filled the role for more than three decades.
- Manfred’s continued hopeful statements about Oakland may be a sign that a resolution for at least one team (probably not the Rays) is coming.
- Like Roger Goodell, Manfred probably has revenue growth goals for MLB. With 28 new ballparks built, national TV deals locked in, and most RSN carriage deals maxed out, few other growth avenues exist. MLB AM is its own juggernaut, one that may spin out and go public in time. The obvious way to achieve bigger growth is to enter new markets by expansion.
Of course, the problem for baseball is that unlike the other three major sports, MLB’s every day scheduling requires that expansion comes in pairs of teams, not single teams. I’ve long been an advocate of a 32-team MLB, with 16 teams per league. It would create smaller, more manageable divisions and eliminate the need for interleague play throughout the entire year, though that would remain an option if The Lodge decided it worked for them economically.
Realignment could work with two leagues of four divisions each with heavily unbalanced schedules, or two leagues of two divisions each – the pre-interleague arrangement – with more balanced schedules.
Amazingly, the landscape has changed for expansion city candidates. Assuming that Montreal is penciled in as the first expansion franchise, there would be a race to fill the other spot. Unlike the Expos’ barnstorming tour of a decade+ ago, there are far fewer candidates and many more questions to be answered by expansion candidate cities. Portland has given itself over to soccer and would have to build a new stadium in conjunction with landing a franchise, the same way the Dbacks and Chase Field were developed together. Las Vegas is no longer a player thanks to ongoing development, a loss of political will (Oscar Goodman), and a new arena being built on the Strip. Puerto Rico has become America’s own Greece. Monterrey, Mexico seems to have the market size and a ideal temporary stadium, but with some misgivings by the players’ union. Charlotte has a brand new AAA stadium and an overstretched market. Sacramento is now in the firm grasp of the Giants, who would fight any expansion franchise over TV rights (not stadium building rights).
Manfred’s statements are sure to get those dormant expand-to-my-home-city machines going again. And that’s just fine with him, since it will keep baseball in the news year-round. I have confidence that MLB will expand to 32 teams sometime in the next 10 years. If it doesn’t happen, it will be a sign that the owners’ collective greed goes completely unchecked despite an ever-expanding pie.