Column: The MLB is looking to expand, and WI stands to benefit

By Joe Peine
Posted 3/19/24

As the MLB considers expansion, there is a decision to be made on what locations should be chosen.

There are six main cities being considered for a new franchise: Portland, Charlotte, Nashville, …

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Column: The MLB is looking to expand, and WI stands to benefit


As the MLB considers expansion, there is a decision to be made on what locations should be chosen.

There are six main cities that are being considered for a new franchise: Portland, Charlotte, Nashville, Montreal, Las Vegas and, most recently, Salt Lake City.

The Oakland A’s move to Las Vegas appears to be a foregone conclusion, effectively removing them from contention for an expansion team. It is currently presumed that the Tampa Bay Rays will stay put in the Tampa/St. Pete area. The resolution of these two teams’ location decisions fully opens the door for MLB expansion talks.

One issue that could be discerning for the MLB’s choice – assuming that each city has the ability to fund the $2.2 billion expansion fee that the league charges in addition to the resources required to build a multibillion-dollar stadium - is that four of the six cities already have minor league teams in those markets. Except for Portland and Montreal, each of these other cities already host Triple A teams for various MLB franchises.

As per Major League Baseball, any Minor League Baseball (MiLB) team existing in the same market would need approval from the MLB team, which they are unlikely to get. Thus, if the MLB were to select one of these cities, they would be tasked with coordinating a relocation of the MiLB teams as well.

Things get even murkier due to most farm system affiliates being owned by third parties whose only connection to Major League Baseball is through a “player development contract” with the big-league franchise they represent.

A player development contract creates an affiliation between a Major League organization and the ownership of a Minor League franchise. The franchise ownership owns the brand, the venue and all aspects of business while the MLB organization makes all decisions related to player development including coaching staff and assigning players.

For example, the Las Vegas Aviators are the Oakland Athletics Triple A team, but they are owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation. The A’s move will make them the closest two such teams in the MLB at 10 miles.

Erik Eisenberg, VP of ticket sales for the Aviators, sees problems with the A’s and the Aviators sharing a market, even if they are using the same players.

“Our attendance is 85-90% local. The A’s will get a lot more of the tourist traffic, but we are going to have to compete for our own fan base,” Eisenberg said. “If you're not owned by the same company, it makes it challenging because you're essentially competing for the same dollar.”

While this is true, there are several MiLB teams that already share the same market as their big-league counterparts: the Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners), the St. Paul Saints (Twins) and the recently rebranded Sugar Land Space Cowboys (fantastic name choice/Astros). Of these, only the Space Cowboys are owned by their MLB team, and, interestingly, they are the only one whose attendance declined after becoming a Triple A affiliate, though very marginally.  

The St. Paul Saints and the Minnesota Twins are the closest of these three at 13 miles and form a perfect allegory for what the A’s and Aviators are about to experience.

Since leaving the independent leagues and becoming the Twins AAA team in 2020, the Saints franchise has seen ticket sales soar. In 2022, the Saints finished 11th in the league out of 20 teams playing below .500 ball, and yet they set a team record by drawing 473,911 fans, up almost 20% from 2019.

Dave St. Peter, president of the Minnesota Twins, notes that Saints ticket sales are almost independent of the MLB.

“The Saints sell the experience. They sell summertime and being outdoors and coming to a ballgame,” St. Peter said. “What the saints do on the field has never really mattered. They sell fun. They sell the promotions. They sell the ability just to be outside having a cold beer and a hot dog.”

And, as an added benefit, now they're able to sell big league baseball players on a regular basis as well.

The benefits for these franchises go beyond ticket sales though.

Triple A is the highest level of the minors. It’s the final step for prospects before getting called up to the majors, and it’s where stars go for rehab assignments before being reintegrated into the MLB roster after an absence. AAA teams are responsible for the vast majority of player transactions an MLB team makes in a given year as players percolate up and filter down.

The MLB already occupies 30 of the largest markets in the U.S., which is why many minor league teams exist in smaller cities. For a team like the Minnesota Twins, having their AAA team located in St. Paul now, rather than Rochester, NY where there are no direct flights to Minneapolis, is a logistical boon.

“Before, we had to get a player out by 6 o’clock in the morning. Now, these guys can get called up during batting practice and be to Target Field by game time,” said Toby Gardenhire, coach of the Saints and former minor league player. “It makes it a lot easier on players that have families too because they don’t have to worry about moving them to another state if they get called up or sent down. They can live in the same spot.”

Gardenhire says there are nothing but benefits to being so close. It allows for all around greater access for coaches, scouts, medical staff and the players.

“Every team is trying to get their Triple A team as close as possible,” Gardenhire said in an interview last spring. “We have prospects playing here and anybody from our front office can just come over and watch. Yesterday we had a day game, and all those guys were over here watching us play, watching our players throw and just coming over to talk. It's a huge benefit for the Twins.”

Beyond logistics though, it allows fans to tap into their favorite team in a new way by going to see the next wave of future stars. This can be especially beneficial for the fan base as they look for something to hold onto during eras when the MLB club is rebuilding. It provides hope, continuity and helps to maintain brand loyalty. It’s also an affordable way to take your family to the ballpark.

Even if an expansion franchise would agree to having a Triple A team from a different organization like the Nashville Sounds (AAA Brewers) or the Charlotte Knights (AAA White Sox) exist in their market, without common interests, any potential symbiotic benefits would be gone. Then you’re really competing for the same dollar, and that’s not in Major League Baseball’s best interests.

Thus, from an organizational standpoint, Portland and Montreal have the only completely unobstructed paths to team expansion as they are the only truly neutral sites.

Further, several of these cities have already invested very heavily in the long-term existence of these teams by recently building them new stadiums. The Sounds and the Knights both built brand new stadiums in the past 8 years, and the Salt Lake City Bees (AAA Angels) break ground later this year for a stadium that will open in 2025.

With all the benefits, and a near ubiquitous league wide desire to bring AAA teams as close to their MLB franchises as possible, any expansion team will want to build their Triple A stadium as close as possible, likely in the same market. Doing this in Portland or Montreal will require purchasing and developing two sites and building two new stadiums. This would magnify the upfront cost to the city and the investors as well as the tax burden on the local population.

With the expansion fee and the cost of building an MLB stadium, it is unlikely that expansion cities and investors will be receptive to the idea of adding onto a $4 billion tab. It has never been done before, and it is clearly not necessary to the functionality of the organization when most of the MLB is not structured this way. All three MiLB teams that currently share markets with their MLB counterparts were previously existing independent league teams that already had stadiums.

Thus, the apparent obstacles for Nashville, Charlotte and Salt Lake City actually offer a compounding opportunity.

For example, the independent Saint Paul Saints franchise already existed in the same market as the Twins, and their stadium was less than 10 years old when acquired. For all intents and purposes, the facilities were brand new when the then Triple A Redwings arrived from New York and became the Saints. This stadium also came with reliable management, a team of seasoned employees and an established fan base - a fan base that was large enough to warrant building a new facility in the first place, and one that eagerly embraced the exciting new franchise.

Further, this turns something that was previously untenable for the existing clubs into a golden opportunity to dramatically increase organizational synergy. This also sets the two fledgling franchises up for success as well.

Actions speak louder than Orlando based investors squawking about bringing a third Major League team to a state that already has two teams that fans don’t support. Cities and investors can say what they want, but we already know Nashville, Charlotte and Salt Lake City are baseball cities; point and case, look at the brand-new ballparks they already built their MiLB clubs.

And finally, logically, it makes very little sense for the Wisconsin based Brewers to have their Triple A team in Tennessee. The same goes for the Chicago White Sox and the LA Angeles whose guys are traveling from North Carolina and Utah, respectively, when they get called up to the majors.

Thus, in one fell swoop, the MLB could lower startup costs, increase fan retention and strengthen all six organizations involved (the two expansion teams, the two MLB teams and their existing MiLB teams included). All while giving Major League Baseball exactly what it wants - two new, and very lucrative markets.

Thus, in a debate that essentially amounts to a benefit-to-cost ratio toss-up as far as Major League Baseball is concerned, it makes the most sense for them to choose the option that improves their corporate culture the most. That would mean choosing two of Nashville, Charlotte and Salt Lake City.

For the reasons delineated above or not, baseball pundits are trending towards agreeing with the conclusions drawn here with ESPN's Jeff Passan calling the MLB’s expansion "an inevitability" and Nashville being considered the "most favorable" location.

So, what does this mean for the Brewers? Enter the Milwaukee Milkmen.

The Milkmen are an independent ballclub, much like the Saints were before they became the Twins AAA affiliate, and interestingly, they have a brand new stadium that opened in 2019.

Franklin Field isn’t quite as big as CHS Field in St. Paul with a capacity of just 4,000. However, with multiple grass berms in the outfield and valuable real estate being taken up by bleacher adjacent bullpens, relatively minor reconfigurations could significantly increase seating capacity.

Additionally, these facilities are brand new, and the 12.1 mile jog from there to Miller Park - or American Family Field if you must - would make them the second closest two such franchises after the A’s finally make their move to Las Vegas.

Other options would be to relocate the Brewers High A minor league affiliate, the Appleton area based Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (104 miles away), or to build a new stadium somewhere else like Madison (75 miles away).

At first blush, it might seem to make the most sense to just relocate the existing team, but you’d still have to find or build them another ballpark. Additionally, the current Timber Rattlers stadium was built in the mid ‘90s, so it’s a bit dated, and it can hardly be said to offer the same level of convenience that teams like the Twins enjoy with scouts, trainers and coaches being able to pop over at will.

Decisions like these will have to be made down the line if and when Nashville is chosen for a new MLB team site. One thing is for certain though, with an expansion almost certainly on the horizon, the Brewers are in a great spot to improve their organization and bring the economical boon of another sports franchise home to Wisconsin.

MLB, expansion, new franchise, Portland, Charlotte, Nashville, Montreal, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, baseball