Editor's note: In the days leading up to Jan. 25, Rob Manfred's one-year anniversary as commissioner of Major League Baseball, we asked our writers to offer one change or innovation they would make to improve baseball if the sport started over today.
The change: Baseball needs to figure out where the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays should be playing. This isn't just about doing something about O.co Coliseum and Tropicana Field, two inadequate venues that aren't coming close to filling up with fans. It's about sorting out whether those teams should be serving those markets, or if baseball would be better off with one or both playing somewhere else.
The hard facts are that the Rays haven't drawn 2 million fans since their inaugural season in 1998 and have finished last or next to last in attendance in 13 of their 18 years in existence. The A's can at least say that they drew 2 million fans in 2014, as well as in every year between 2001-2005. When they reliably contend, they get there. So Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg hasn't done much with its opportunity, and the A's have been No. 2 with a bullet behind the Giants in the Bay Area for years now.
Both teams also have live bids to try to build new parks within their markets. The A's, still segregated away from the obvious move down into a willing San Jose market by the strategic error of ceding the territorial rights to the Giants, are going through the latest round of reviewing sites suggested by Oakland. And the Rays have finally been freed up to explore the possibility to get a stadium built on the other side of the bay, in Tampa proper or in Hillsborough County, as well as potentially to pay off their lease on Tropicana.
Neither process provides easy answers for whether attendance would really grow or whether either franchise would generate more income, but the alternative is putting teams where they'd make the most money. Admittedly, baseball doesn't move its franchises around much. We've seen more teams change leagues (two) than change cities in the past 40 years, with the Expos' move to Washington to become the Nationals as the lone example. In that same time the NFL and NBA have made seven franchise moves and the NHL nine. So if you want to talk about something to reboot, it's time to suggest the game should use the current uncertainty about the A's and Rays to ask where they should play beyond Oakland or Tampa/St. Pete.
Why? Thanks to revenue sharing and the potential to share expanding local revenues, Major League Baseball has long since moved past the fiefdoms of independent owner-operators. It now has a vested interest in putting franchises in the places that let them max out their industry's revenue-generating possibilities, because through the current collective bargaining agreement, 31 percent of net local revenue goes into MLB's shared revenue.
So Rob Manfred and the game's owners need to look at where they want their franchises to be for the next several decades, determining which markets will generate the most ticket sales, the most lucrative local media deals and the most growth for the game as an entertainment product competing for fans' investments of time and money -- all the more to pour back into the industry's revenue-sharing coffers.
How would it work: This goes beyond market size and studies that suggest some markets have too many teams, or too few, or looking at household income. The other key criterion is local television money. The Dodgers' massive local TV deal ($8 billion total, running through 2038) was briefly heralded as the last possible bonanza in the much-lamented cable TV sports bubble, but that was before the Phillies got $2.5 billion for 25 years and the Cardinals and Diamondbacks signed their own billion-dollar deals.
The problems for both the Rays and A's go beyond their stadiums or attendance issues that both parks make worse. Both have among the least lucrative local television deals in baseball; the average is somewhere around $45-50 million per year, with Rays less than half that at $20 million and the A's lower still, perhaps as low as $15 million. The A's current TV contract runs until at least 2024 before they hit an option, while the Rays' deal is locked in for an undisclosed length of time. Observation is not causation, but bad television deals on top of bad venues do equal poor local revenue streams.
Given that the A's market involves some of the highest household incomes in the country, with a better attendance track record and a television deal that they will eventually escape, their picture is more optimistic overall. But putting the team in San Jose ought to be back on the table as an option for the franchise's ultimate profitability.
But for the Rays, you're talking a market where average household income is less than 60 percent of the Bay Area's, in a smallish market with a bad TV deal and a bad historical track record for local enthusiasm. And that's why we should talk about going big, and going back -- back to Montreal, with a population advantage of nearly 1.2 million people, almost four million total, and with a fan base that was willing to put two million people in the seats per season year after year to support a competitive team long before the game's present-day financial attendance boom. Montreal is the biggest open market on the continent, with obvious built-in regional-rival potential going up against the Toronto Blue Jays. Build it, and folks will come.
Why it would help baseball: A better venue in the East Bay, ideally closer to a rich seam of corporate clients, would provide major money over what the A's are generating now. If that's best done in San Jose, it's on Manfred to make that happen, and for baseball to afford the expense of paying back the Giants for their unused territorial rights. In Montreal, the track record for attendance, even without a great downtown venue and before the industry ran the Expos into the ground to aid carpetbagger Jeffrey Loria's franchise takeover, suggests there's major money to be made.
In both cases, you can argue that baseball will need to get serious about putting some skin in the game; the public financing landscape has changed, perhaps best reflected in the NFL's recent willingness to help finance the Rams' return to L.A. As new-stadium watchers for both the Rays and the Athletics have noted, there's reason to believe that MLB and the teams themselves should invest in what comes next in Tampa/St. Pete and California's East Bay. But if MLB's paying the bills, it should collectively buy into the opportunity to reap the richest rewards. Investing in an arguably already saturated Tampa/St. Pete market with an already poor track record for support doesn't sound nearly as lucrative.
How realistic is it: Not very, even as exciting as heating up the AL East even more with a Montreal vs. Toronto rivalry added to the mix might be. I think it's far more likely baseball will settle for the more limited ambitions of getting the smaller upside of a smaller deal out of Tampa, something that probably uses tax-increment financing to cannibalize its own tax base and pave over the poor, and then count on getting better TV money when that contract year finally comes due. And Rob Manfred has been almost Selig-like in his unreadiness to address the A's stadium situation beyond mildly observing that he'd like to see them stay in Oakland. With everyone waiting to see what happens to the Raiders -- whether they stay in Oakland or go to L.A., or remain in limbo while turning to consider San Antonio -- San Jose might represent the most sensible solution as far as escaping that mess -- if not for the Giants' wasted territorial rights contributing to a whole lot of nothing happening in the East Bay until the Raiders come to a decision.