In a pivotal development for baseball enthusiasts in Florida and beyond, the Tampa Bay Rays are in the final stages of planning a state-of-the-art, 30,000-seat ballpark situated in downtown St. Petersburg. This project, valued at an impressive $6.5 billion, encompasses not only the stadium but also affordable housing, a vibrant retail scene, enticing bars and restaurants, and a captivating Black history museum.
The Rays' bold move could potentially pave the way for a long-anticipated Major League Baseball (MLB) expansion, marking a historic moment in the sport's evolution. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly expressed his interest in expanding the league to 32 teams.
However, this vision hinged on a crucial condition: all existing 30 MLB teams must have stable stadium situations before considering expansion, a requirement that hasn't been met since 1998.
Stadium Plans Fuel MLB Expansion
With the Rays' unveiling of their new stadium plans, this prerequisite now seems to be fulfilled.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Athletics, another franchise grappling with stadium issues, have proposed a move to Las Vegas, pending approval from MLB. Assuming the green light for both the Rays' and Athletics' proposed stadiums, and MLB's decision to expand from 30 to 32 teams, it will still be a substantial duration before these potential new teams take the field.
MLB expansion history paints a vivid picture. The last expansion took place 25 years ago, welcoming the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1998 season, boosting the league's roster to 30 teams. Before that, MLB consisted of 16 teams for over six decades, excluding the Negro Leagues and the short-lived Federal League.
In 1961, the American League added the Minnesota Twins and a new Washington Senators franchise, later named the Texas Rangers, emerged. The National League followed suit in 1962 with the inclusion of the New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s.
MLB reached 24 teams in 1969 by introducing the Seattle Pilots and Kansas City Royals in the AL, along with the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos in the NL. However, the Pilots relocated to Milwaukee after just one season.
In 1977, the league expanded to 26 teams with the inclusion of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. The National League caught up 16 years later, incorporating the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in 1993, bringing the total to 28 teams.
Even if MLB moves swiftly towards expansion, it is likely that new teams won't begin competing until at least 2028. To put this in perspective, the expansion process to reach 30 teams began in March 1994 when an MLB expansion committee was formed.
After presentations from five groups in November 1994, Phoenix and St. Petersburg were awarded teams in March 1995, and both teams commenced play three years later, concluding a four-year journey. Currently, the top contenders for expansion cities, although not ranked in any particular order, include Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; and Montreal.
The South's growing population base suggests a promising market for another MLB team, although it's unlikely that both Charlotte and Nashville would secure franchises. Portland could significantly enhance the sport's presence on the West Coast, while Montreal, fondly remembered by fans, eagerly anticipates the return of baseball since the Expos' departure in 2004.
While other cities could also be considered, one thing is certain: the investment required for a new franchise will be substantial. In 2021, Manfred estimated expansion fees to hover around $2.2 billion per team, roughly equivalent to the average MLB franchise value.
This hefty fee surpasses those of other major sports leagues. For instance, the Vegas Golden Knights paid a $500 million fee to join the NHL in 2016, the NBA hasn't expanded since 2004 when the Charlotte Bobcats were added for $300 million, and the NFL's last expansion in 2002 brought the Houston Texans for $700 million.
By comparison, the Diamondbacks and Rays paid $130 million each to enter MLB in 1998, while the Marlins and Rockies forked out $95 million in 1993. Remarkably, back in 1977, the Blue Jays and Mariners paid even less, at $7 million and $6.5 million, respectively.
It's important to note that these expansion fees won't cover the construction of new ballparks, which could require upwards of $1 billion in public funds, even though the expansion fee is expected to be covered by private team investors.
This monumental investment underscores the significant impact of MLB expansion on both the sporting landscape and local economies. In conclusion, the Tampa Bay Rays' initiative to construct a cutting-edge stadium has ignited speculation about the potential expansion of MLB for the first time in a quarter-century.
As the league carefully navigates this transformative phase, cities across the United States and Canada eagerly await the opportunity to welcome new franchises and contribute to the rich tapestry of America's pastime.