Many of the biggest controversies on the business side of Major League Baseball involves demographics and the geographic distribution of other professional sports franchises. If a new stadium is to be built, how big should it be in terms of seating capacity, and where should it be located? If a particular franchise is on the verge of bankruptcy, should it be allowed to relocate to a new city, and if so, which one? Both issues arose during the prolonged process by which the former Montreal Expos franchise finally relocated to Washington, D.C. in 2005, and changed its name to the "Nationals." This page lays out the key facts, and includes an updated analysis of the attendance-population relationship that I originally made in 2003. (The tirade against Peter Angelos that was formerly on this page is now a moot point. See the Peter Angelos rants blog archives page.) The following table highlights cases of attendance or stadium capacity that are significantly greater or less than expected, for a city of that population range.
NOTE: In the chart below, the five largest metropolitan areas are labeled, as well as St. Louis and Montreal, where the highest and lowest attendance figures were recorded among the other cities. Click on it to compare it to the original version that I created in 2003, based on 2001 attendance.
The data displayed in the adjacent chart indicate that there is slightly a curvilinear functional relationship between urban population and baseball attendance: the bigger the city, the smaller the proportion of the population who attend baseball games. Variations above and below the implicit function are relatively modest in size. The St. Louis Cardinals register the highest attendance for any city in its population class, while the former Montreal Expos registered the lowest attendance. (Prior to the players' strike of 1994, when the Expos were in first place but then lost their big chance for a postseason bid, Montreal attendance was much better.)
During the 1990s, several cities built stadiums that were too big by five thousand or more seats: Baltimore, Arlington (Texas), Denver, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Seattle. Among the ballpark-building cities of that era, only Cleveland learned the lesson from the past, and built a stadium of the right size. Baseball teams in Minneapolis, Oakland, and Miami still use football stadiums that have excessive capacity for baseball, but that awkward situation may no longer exist in the not-too-distant future. (Note that the New York Yankees and Mets have just opened new stadiums in which capacity has been reduced by about 4,000 and 11,000 seats, respectively.)
Average annual attendance for the Washington Nationals in their first four years (2.3 million) was nearly three times that of the Montreal Expos in their final four years (0.8 million). Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles' attendance declined by about a half million per year after the Nationals began playing, from about 2.8 million (2001-2004) to about 2.3 million (2005-2008). In other words, the franchise relocation yielded a 1.0 million net increase in overall Major League Baseball attendance. The red data points on the adjacent chart illustrate this very clearly, validating my earlier estimate that there was a baseball attendance "gap" of at least 20,000 fans in the Washington-Baltimore (WB) area. That was a fair "ballpark" estimate of how many people would probably be willing to see a ball game on a regular basis if it were convenient to get there. The forecast attendance gain for the Washington-Baltimore area (about 19,000 per game, or 1.5 million per year) was exceeded by the actual gain (1.8 million), which was partly offset by the loss of attendance in Montreal.
Before the relocation was approved by the MLB owners in December 2004, the Orioles' front office argued that the Washington-Baltimore area couldn't support two baseball teams. Yet contrary to what Peter Angelos claimed, studies cited in the Washington Post estimated that no more than ten percent of the fans at Orioles' games come from the Washington area. The comparison between Washington-Baltimore and San Francisco-Oakland is appropriate not only because of the two metropolitan areas' similar total population, but also because they can each be regarded as "twin cities." (In the latter case, it's really a "tri-city," when you include San Jose. Even though the old Washington Senators never received any significant compensation when the St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore and became the "Orioles" in 1954, from a pragmatic standpoint Mr. Angelos does have a plausible basis for demanding compensation from the new Washington franchise owners for "infringement" upon his franchise's territorial "rights." That is why the Orioles were granted virtual full ownership of Mid Atlantic Sports Network, which has broadcast Nationals games as well as Orioles games since 2005.
Even though the Census Bureau counts Washington and Baltimore as a single "Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area," they are really two distinct cities that are separated by an hour or more driving time. For many years, there were many thousands of potential fans in Washington who were eager to see baseball games, but lived too far away from Baltimore to see games on a regular basis. (In the only other metropolitan area in which the two baseball stadiums are so far apart, Los Angeles-Anaheim, population is spread out over a vast area, with some of the wealthiest living in Orange County, near Anaheim.) After four and a half years of baseball in Washington, it can no longer be disputed that the population of the Washington-Baltimore region is indeed sufficient to support two baseball franchises.
As for other cities besides Washington that have suffered pro sports "deprivation," Portland stood out as the second leading contender in the competition for the Expos franchise. There are major questions, however, about whether public and private resources in that city (and state) are sufficient to pay for the retractable-roof stadium that would be necessary in that rainy climate zone. San Juan, Puerto Rico currently is without any U.S. pro sports franchises, and the puertorriqueños would probably welcome a baseball team with open arms. However, it is far too hot and stormy there in the summer, and average household income is not sufficient to generate enough income to pay major league salaries. After a couple games that were almost sold out in April 2003, attendance at Expos games in Puerto Rico declined to an average of about 14,000. That was not much more than back home in Montreal, where fan enthusiasm tragically all but died.
"Relocation? Your Team's Not Going Anywhere" by Maury Brown, April 25, 2006, at hardballtimes.com