It’s been a long time since Major League Baseball expanded into a new market. MLB expanded into four new cities in the 1990s—two in 1993 and two in 1998—but a quarter century has passed since the latter expansion and MLB remains at 30 teams.
But the times, they are a-changing. Expansion within the next decade isn’t a question of “if” but a question of “when.” There are two main driving forces for this, though both are two sides of the same coin, and commissioner Rob Manfred discussed it this past July.
Despite its array of problems, league sources say baseball has grown into a $10 billion-plus-a-year sport, up from $8 billion when Manfred became commissioner. Owners also loved Manfred’s reorganization of the minor leagues in 2020, and in the past decade, franchise valuations have more than quadrupled. Not surprisingly, billionaires want in, and expansion is coming. “I would love to get to 32 teams,” Manfred tells me.
There has been a lot of great writing about when baseball might expand and why baseball hasn’t expanded yet and whether or not baseball should expand and what an expansion draft would look like in the modern era and what cities are candidates and, well, so on and so forth.
It’s the last question that I want to discuss, but in a slightly different way than I usually see discussed: we’re bringing the metrics into this, baby. Realistically, the league could expand into one of 10 cities and it would work out. But what are the best cities by specific metrics?
So, let’s take a stab at it. The metrics that we are using are Nielsen Designated Market Area size, metro area population, and distance from a competing MLB franchise. We’ll look at the top two teams by these metrics.
Nielsen Media Research is the preeminent media research and audience measurement firm, best known for the Nielsen ratings. Nielsen divides the United States into DMAs, or Designated Market Areas, which ultimately measure the amount of television viewership power of a region. To quote Nielsen itself:
DMA (Designated Market Area) regions are the geographic areas in the U.S. in which local television viewing is measured by Nielsen. DMA data is essential for any marketer, researcher or organization seeking to use standardized geographic areas within their business.
A DMA region is a group of counties and zip codes that form an exclusive geographic area in which the home market television stations hold a dominance of total hours viewed. There are 210 DMA regions, covering the entire continental U.S., Hawaii, and parts of Alaska.
DMAs are measured in size by the amount of homes in a loose geographic region, and therefore can differ from a city’s metro population. You can find a 2022 list of Nielsen DMA rankings here. The winners:
- DMA Rank: 17th
- DMA Size: 1.775 million homes
Theoretically, Orlando is a slam dunk as an expansion candidate. It is the only city on this list with a top-25 ranking in both DMA size and metro population. It features warm weather and is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country thanks to the Disney and Universal parks. Orlando is also home to an NBA team, the Magic. Florida is also one of the top ten fastest growing U.S. states.
But when you get into the nitty gritty, Orlando doesn’t fully fit the bill. Downtown Orlando is less than 100 miles from the home of the Tampa Bay Rays. This is a problem, as the Lakeland/Winter Haven/Haines areas are probably closely aligned with the Rays already. Plus, even with a nice new stadium and an even larger metro, the Miami Marlins have struggled in drawing crowds for a long time.
- DMA Rank: 20th
- DMA Size: 1.502 million homes
Again, by DMA and population figures, Sacramento would make a lot of sense. Sacramento ranks 20th in DMA size and 26th in metro population size, and it’s got more available population and viewership than half a dozen current MLB teams. It already supports the Sacramento Kings of the NBA.
Unfortunately for Sacrementons (Sacramentoans?), Sacramento suffers some of the same issues as Orlando. It’s less than a 100-mile drive from not one but two current MLB teams, both of which are well-established teams with a lot of history. And would MLB put a sixth team in California when there are other alternatives? Seems like a stretch.
You gotta put butts into the seats, and no one is putting an MLB team in a metro that can’t support 81 games a year. Metro size is a big deal. We’re using Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) as estimated by the United States Census Bureau and conveniently viewable on Wikipedia.
- MSA Rank: 22nd
- MSA Size: 2.701 million
The Charlotte metro is sneaky big, at about the size of the St. Louis metro. Charlotte itself is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Interestingly, Charlotte is a sort of larger mirror version of Kansas City: both have NFL teams and MLS teams, and both are big enough to have a Cedar Fair amusement park (Charlotte’s is better, and they have an NBA team to boot).
Charlotte ticks all the boxes, to be honest. With the 21st ranked Nielsen DMA, its television audience is as broad as its metro population. If you were looking to nitpick, you could say that only one metro area with less TV viewership than Charlotte has three of the Big Four sports teams. But Milwaukee is doing just fine, St. Louis was doing just fine until Rams ownership saw dollar signs in L.A., and there is no doubt in the world that KC could support an NBA or NHL team.
- MSA Rank: 23rd
- MSA Size: 2.692 million
Right behind Charlotte slots Orlando in the population realm. Orlando’s pluses and minuses from the previous section remain.
Land doesn’t vote and it doesn’t go watch baseball games, but it does work as a barrier to fandom. Now, it would be easy to just pick Plentywood, Montana or Grass Creek, Wyoming or another tiny city in the middle of nowhere. But we are being reasonable here and limiting the choices to cities that are in the top 50 of both Nielsen DMA size and metro population. The ones furthest from current MLB franchises are:
- 230 miles from nearest franchise
- DMA Rank: 40th
- Metro Rank: 29th
Las Vegas is having a moment in the sports world. In the last few years, it picked up a National Hockey League team and the Raiders, who I refuse to believe left California. With a top-30 size metro and a projection as one of the five fastest growing U.S. cities over the next 40 years, there’s a lot of reason to think that it can support a baseball team.
But while Las Vegas’ population size is certainly enough to support attendance, TV deals are a huge revenue stream for MLB franchises. Unfortunately for Las Vegas, it lags behind a few competitors in that area because, well, no one lives outside the metro. It’s in a desert, after all. With 840,000 homes, its DMA ranking is 40th.
Salt Lake City
- 371 miles from nearest franchise
- DMA Rank: 29th
- Metro Rank: 46th
Salt Lake City’s MLB case looks a lot like Denver’s did in the 1990s: it’s hundreds of miles away from the next closest franchise. It also already supports another Big Four sports team.
However, Salt Lake City has the opposite problem that Las Vegas has: it’s got the DMA covered, but it’s the population that isn’t as competitive. Salt Lake City barely cracks the top 50 in metro population. So, why does it have a top-30 DMA? That’s easy: the Salt Lake City DMA is basically the entire state of Utah and then some, which is hilarious to look at on a map. Can a city the size of Salt Lake City support an NBA and MLB franchise in attendance? That’s the question.
The Wild Cards
Surprise! It’s a bonus fourth category. Yes, the aforementioned cities are good choices, even if some have some downsides. But there are a couple cities that would never have showed up in the previous metrics for varying reasons. They are the wild cards of the process.
The New York City metro is ridiculously big. It has 7.73 million homes and a population of nearly 20 million. There are a lot of people there.
So, why New Jersey? Why a third team in the area? Consider: with 1.775 million homes, Orlando is the largest metro by DMA size without a sports team. The New York City metro divided into three—one for each MLB team supported in our hypothetical—is 2.58 million homes.
Yes, the Yankees and Mets would not be happy about a third team in their backyard. But if you put a team in New Jersey, you can create a distinctive enough difference from a branding perspective. Plus, the population allows for it. Heck, the NYC area already has 3 NHL teams.
The dark horse: Montreal doesn’t show up in the Nielsen DMA list or the U.S. metro population because it’s in Canada. Montreal is very big, though, with an urban population in Montreal proper of 1.76 million and a greater metro population north of 4.2 million. Those figures dwarf any of the cities listed (non-NYC division).
Plus, that the Montreal Expos even existed at all is evidence that MLB could exist there again. The downside? It’s in Canada, which makes for added logistical issues in a number of ways.
Where would you like to see an MLB expansion team?
This poll is closed
Salt Lake City