How Major League Soccer is Beating Major League Baseball to North America’s High Growth Metros
As Major League Baseball begins another season, it’s implementing a number of rule changes intended to speed up the game, most notably requiring relief pitchers to face three batters. But as it looks to revive declining attendance, baseball’s challenges aren’t just how fast games are being played, but where they’re being played. Because it is about to cede desirable, high growth markets to Major League Soccer, and doesn’t seem to care.
By 2022, MLS will have teams in Charlotte, Austin, Portland, Vancouver, Nashville, Sacramento, Orlando, Columbus, and Salt Lake City, all of which are growing well above average among U.S. and Canadian Metros, all of which are top 30 media markets, and none of which has a Major League Baseball team.
In 2022, MLB will be the same size as MLS, which could expand further into high growth cities. But even in low-no growth cities, MLS jumped on the opportunity to move into St. Louis, which while always being a baseball town, had available spending capacity after the Rams left. Decisions that take decades in baseball seem to take months in MLS.
MLB could add two markets now, but it’s putting off expansion, claiming it needs to sort out the Tampa and Oakland stadium situations. Not only does this ignore the fact that the league should be able to support as many franchises as the NFL and NHL, it has made it even easier for MLS to beat it to North America’s most desirable high growth markets.
Sports leagues consider expansion or relocation by assessing a market’s spending capacity for additional teams. Crowded, mid-sized markets can be very challenging in this regard, because they can support professional sports, but not in all five major leagues. The NBA pays close attention to this, and has put franchises in either markets large enough to support a team in all sports, such as New York, LA, Chicago, the Bay Area, Philly, DC, etc., or markets like Portland, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Memphis, New Orleans, Sacramento, Memphis, Orlando, and Indianapolis where there is no more than one other professional team. Portland and Sacramento have long been rumored to be MLB expansion targets, but it will be more challenging for them to support baseball having both NBA and MLS franchises. Nashville and Charlotte have also been rumored MLB expansion targets, but that will be much more challenging now that both will have MLS franchises.
The annual population growth in metro areas that will have MLS by 2022, but not MLB, is over 300,000. The same figure for the metros with MLB, but no current or planned MLS franchise is less than 100,000, and 99% of that growth is in Phoenix. Moreover, MLS has only existed for 25 years, making it easier for new franchises to compete for fans against older ones. In baseball, there isn’t a sunbelt team outside California that can match the support of the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, or Cardinals, even in large markets like Phoenix and Dallas/Ft. Worth. Baseball tends to do best in outdoor stadiums in cities where it’s not excessively hot. Retractable roof and hot weather locations aren’t the draws that Fenway or Wrigley are. The Texas Rangers are opening a new, retractable roof stadium this year because they think the heat is keeping out fans. But this wasn’t the case in Houston until the Astros won a World Series, and certainly hasn’t been the case in Miami, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, or even Seattle, where fans willingly sit in the rain to watch the Sounders, a team with higher per game attendance than the Mariners.
MLS has knocked out most of MLB’s prospective markets, including Montreal. Putting a team there, or in Charlotte, Nashville, Portland, and Sacramento, would be very risky when they’re all about to absorb new teams. MLB needs to stop worrying about the Rays and A’s, and start planning for Austin, San Antonio, or another growing market which still has the financial capacity for additional teams.
There are a handful of markets where MLS has hit some bumps. The Chicago team has been a mediocre draw and is in no danger of surpassing the Cubs’ per game attendance. But MLS, unlike MLB, has owner-operators who get shares in the league, as opposed to individual owners pressuring a commissioner not to divide profits further. And it has moved at the pace of an innovative startup challenging a way-too-content bureaucratic competitor.
With MLB sitting on its hands, a growing number of American and Canadian kids are growing up with a nearby soccer team to cheer for, but no local baseball team. MLB can add more sausage races, home run derbies, pitching clocks, mound visit limits, and end all of its games within three hours and it won’t matter. It’s not just the slow pace of the game, but the slow pace of expansion and relocation that will limit baseball’s potential as soccer takes over high growth markets.