Commentary: Baseball Should Go Where The Money Is

Nobody seems to want the Minnesota Twins.

Legislators there refused to build them a new ballpark, and when the Twins tried to move to North Carolina's Triad region, voters rejected a stadium tax whose passage was seen as a crucial measure of support. Next stop was Charlotte. But in mid-May, a baseball organizing committee concluded that Charlotte--home to the Hornets of the NBA and the Panthers of the NFL--is long on heart but short on demographics. Best-case scenario: It might be ready to support a baseball club in five years.

So what are the Twins to do? Probably what the Montreal Expos, Oakland A's, San Diego Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates, and every other small-market team in trouble should do: move to a big market. Because the broadcast and corporate money isn't there, these teams don't have the wherewithal to pay outrageous salaries--and thus be competitive.

At a meeting of Major League Baseball owners in Seattle in early June, acting Commissioner Bud Selig suggested for the first time that if clubs can't compete because they're in a crummy market, they might have to head for more inviting environs. That's a baby step in the right direction, since no baseball team has moved in 26 years.

"EXCESS CAPACITY." But where would they go? Fay Vincent, the last real commissioner of baseball, years ago warned owners about overextending themselves. He argued that markets such as Phoenix and Denver, now home to expansion franchises, should have been held as relocation sites for struggling teams. Instead, baseball has what Vincent feared: runaway salaries as too many teams chase too few talented players. But with owners splitting the $150 million fees from new franchises, says Vincent, "they couldn't resist because it's the easiest money going. They were like kids in a candy store."

Now baseball has a tummy ache and is looking for a quick cure. One radical idea would be to allow small-market teams to relocate to wealthy markets that already have teams--maybe even the biggest market of all, the Big Apple.

O.K., O.K., hold that Bronx cheer--the idea isn't as loony as it sounds. Here's why. The Yanks and Mets have combined local broadcast revenues of $85 million annually--10 times what the Twins, for example, get. New York has 1,061 companies with 500 or more employees each and only 201 luxury suites--one of the lowest ratios of big corporations to high-priced seating in the country.

Clark Griffith, whose father, Calvin, once owned the Twins and who is trying to buy the team back from billionaire banker Carl Pohlad, concedes: "Moving to New York is not a silly idea. That is exactly where there is excess capacity." Sports economists Roger G. Noll of Stanford University and Mark S. Rosentraub of Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis have long argued that as long as baseball refuses to engage in meaningful revenue-sharing, the only alternative for small-market teams is to move to rich urban areas.

"With absolute ease you can put another team in New York," says Rosentraub, pointing to northern New Jersey or Long Island. And while such a team would cut into the Yankees and Mets broadcast and fan base, that would further serve to level baseball's economic playing field.

Before anyone starts packing, though, let's return to reality. The Yankees' Rick Cerrone calls the notion "ludicrous" and points out that the best team in baseball has to give away Beanie Babies to fill Yankee Stadium. Mets owner Fred Wilpon notes that 45 years ago, when New York last had three teams--the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers--none was particularly successful in filling their ballparks.

"Theoretically, New York may have excess capacity," Wilpon says. "But look at the practical data. Attendance is down." Wilpon argues there are plenty of cities left that could support baseball, citing Nashville, Sacramento, and Orlando, as well as Charlotte. But each of those has one or two pro franchises.

The fact is baseball needs to consider drastic steps like letting a second franchise locate in Los Angeles or a third in New York. Having added four new teams in the past six years, virtually every viable new market is taken. Baseball's long-term health is at stake, and the response to such suggestions should be more thoughtful than: fuggedaboudit.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.