International expansion would help grow baseball's borders

Editor's note: In the days leading up to Rob Manfred's one-year anniversary as commissioner on Jan. 25, we asked our writers what one change or innovation they would make to improve baseball if the sport started over today.

The change: International expansion

How it would work

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been up front about his interest in spreading the gospel of baseball to new markets since he took over for Bud Selig a year ago.

"I think we are a growth business, broadly defined," Manfred told reporters at the All-Star Game in July. "And over an extended period of time, growth businesses look to get bigger.''

While Las Vegas; Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Oklahoma City; and northern New Jersey all have their merits as potential new homes for MLB franchises, baseball can chart an even bolder long-term course by looking beyond the U.S. borders to expand from 30 to 32 clubs.

Scouts and front-office people have legitimate reason to assess the on-field product and question whether there's enough talent to adequately stock two more 25-man rosters. But the scheduling math certainly works. The addition of two clubs would allow MLB to go to a realigned system of 16 teams in four divisions, ensuring uniformity and eliminating the need for daily interleague play -- which dilutes the impact of the format and makes for some scheduling nightmares.

Placing the new teams in foreign markets would expand the game's global reach and build on the momentum generated by the World Baseball Classic, the MLB's season openers in Japan and Australia, and the highly anticipated announcement of spring training games in Cuba in March. For the sake of convenience, symmetry and bang for the buck, we'll place one team in Mexico and the other in Canada.

Why it would help baseball

As time passes, technological advances accrue and the world gets smaller, it's only natural for baseball to explore new frontiers. In the early 1950s, teams still traveled on sleeper cars and ventured no farther west than the Mississippi River. Then Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, and the landscape irrevocably changed.

Look at the composition of the 30 club rosters and it's readily apparent how the game continues to evolve. Of the 868 players on 2015 Opening Day rosters and disabled lists, 26.5 percent (or 230) came from outside of the United States. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela accounted for 148 of the total number.

Baseball is a business, as Manfred freely acknowledges, and future franchise moves will look to build upon the game's $9 billion-plus revenue. It's all about selling caps and jerseys, establishing brands and identities, and gaining footholds in markets where teams can be competitive without requiring subsidies from the big-market clubs.

Although the top U.S. candidates all have their pluses, they come with limitations. Charlotte is the 24th-ranked market in America. San Antonio, at No. 33, is wedged in between Columbus, Ohio, and Salt Lake City. And Las Vegas checks in at No. 41, right behind Michigan's Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek market.

San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been mentioned as a prime expansion target. But in a 2012 analysis of potential expansion sites, Maury Brown of Baseball Prospectus cited the lack of a corporate base, low median income in Puerto Rico and travel concerns as reasons why it might be difficult to pull off.

While Monterrey, Mexico, has gained traction through the years as a potential home for a team, Mexico City is the nation's true sleeping giant. It has a metro population of roughly 20 million, making it the 10th most populated city in the world -- ahead of Cairo, Beijing, Osaka and Mumbai.

Before MLB can place a team in Mexico, it will have to confront a host of infrastructure issues and logistical landmines -- not to mention rise above the bombastic political discourse that has erupted during the 2016 presidential campaign season. Fans in Mexico have a lower standard of living and are unaccustomed to the types of ticket prices charged by MLB clubs. And while MLB would have to address questions surrounding player security in Mexico, the players would have to adopt a more open-minded attitude about going through customs and playing in places where English isn't the predominant language.

The potential upside is readily apparent. A franchise in Mexico City has the potential to galvanize a nation of 122 million people and become a true "national team.''

Baseball is all about stoking rivalries, and two Canadian locations are especially intriguing. During an extended run in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Montreal Expos drew more than 2 million fans per season and ranked among the NL leaders in attendance. The city showed it could support baseball before the 1994 strike and a resultant teardown led to the Expos' demise. A new team in Montreal would be a natural rival for the Toronto Blue Jays, either as a divisional competitor or in interleague play.

Similarly, a team in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia (population: 2.4 million), would provide a natural rival for the Seattle Mariners, who have the most hellacious travel schedule in baseball and reason to feel isolated while tucked away in the Pacific Northwest.

How realistic is it?

True dreamers can envision a day when MLB has a true "World Series,'' with competition among teams from far-flung locales. In June, a TV audience estimated at 180 million people worldwide tuned in to watch Barcelona beat Juventus of Italy in the Union of European Football Associations Champions League finale in Berlin. It's fun to envision a day when Major League Baseball's champion takes on a team from Asia in an international spectacle in early November.

In the meantime, the daily grind of the baseball season puts limits on thinking too far outside the box. While NFL teams make regular forays to London, the 162-game MLB schedule is simply too compressed for cameos that ambitious.

Translation: Don't hold your breath for a three-game June series in Munich between the Cubs and Red Sox or a National League South Division consisting of teams in Melbourne, Sydney, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro anytime soon.

But no significant change comes easily, and Manfred's international musings are just a first step in broadening MLB's horizons. International expansion is an idea whose time is coming. The biggest questions are when and where.