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March 23, 2004

Breaking Balls

Expos Saga Rolls On

by Derek Zumsteg

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One of the questions I saw a lot in a recent chat session here was the fate of the Expos. So I thought I'd look at what's going on and what the implications look like for other major league teams.

Baseball delayed narrowing the field of candidate hosts in January during the quarterly owners meeting. Then Bob DuPuy laid out another new timetable, which has the relocation committee making a recommendation to Commissioner Bud Selig at the start of May. Selig, of course, is trying to sell his team at the same time, which is another fine conflict of interest, but toss it on the pile and we'll move on. That deadline's already been punted, and this may go on until next season...and we've heard that before.

There are three candidates that have been in the running for a long time:

  • Portland, Oregon

  • Washington D.C.

  • Northern Virginia

As the process has dragged on, more suitors have emerged:

  • Monterrey, Mexico

  • Hampton Roads, Virginia

  • Las Vegas, Nevada

  • San Antonio, Texas

  • San Juan, Puerto Rico

I mentioned San Antonio as a dark-horse candidate a long time ago, so I'm happy to see they've finally come out in the open. Looking at the list of new candidates, there are easy cuts to be made: San Juan and Monterrey don't have the economic base to support a team, even without getting into a Mexican team's potential currency issues. I do wonder what kind of media deal the first Mexican team might get, though--there's no good historical comparison I can think of. If Mexico is really baseball-crazy, maybe they could get enough deals across the nation that their media revenue would be comparable to some American clubs' funds. There are over 100 million people in the country, after all.

If I read my map right, Hampton Roads is the name of the region populated by Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and other southern Virginia towns, and that's a market of about 1.5 million people. It's the 33th-largest metro area in the nation according to the good folks at the Census Bureau, which puts it just ahead of Milwaukee, which has its own franchise for sale, and in a lovely new stadium at that. As long as you're looking to buy a team, I mean it doesn't hurt to look, right? Take it for a test drive. Now here's the deal, I like you, so I'm going to give you this team at invoice--no profit to me, I won't make a dime--and I'll throw in J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks...Hey, Selig was a car dealer, you don't think he knows the bait-and-switch?

It's not the best place to put a team, that is. Probably about as good as Portland. San Antonio's a little larger (1.7 million) and may be a bit better suited for a team, but they're all more or less in the same boat.

I would love to see Las Vegas get a team, unless it means Vegas stops taking baseball bets, in which case I hope Vegas never, ever gets a baseball team. I only know one sport well enough to wager on it when I'm on vacation. Don't take that away from me. Vegas only has 1.3 million people, though...so none of these cities is as obviously a great choice as D.C. is.

Here's the bigger issue, which I've saved for the second half of the article: Every other major league team takes it on the chin because of the relocation committee's failures.

The Expos make almost nothing revenue-wise. Since baseball bought them, they've run Opening Day payrolls of around $40 million for two straight seasons. Plus $35 million a year to keep the lights on in the offices...work out their share of MLB media deals, divide by pi, and...the Expos probably cost Major League Baseball $40 million more than if they were a team that could manage to break even. Consider revenue sharing, that's easily going to be another $50 million, and now we're talking about serious money.

Unless you're an Expos fan, the team you root for paid about $2.75 million a year under the old labor agreement and will pay more than $3 million this year. If this drags on for the entire season, 29 teams will have paid out a little shy of $10 million each for another team to compete against them. If it wasn't so stupid and contrived, and if you didn't know the history of how things got to be this bad, it'd be enough to make you sympathetic to contraction.

Now, given the scope of baseball finances that's not a huge deal. The teams throw a huge chunk of revenue into Selig's hands, for instance, and that doesn't seem to bother anyone. But at least in some way they can rationalize it. That might be money to help the Blue Jays get over currency exchange problems, for instance, or to fund long-term projects like Major League Baseball's Internet ventures.

To fund your competition must be particularly galling. And in this year's market, that $3 million gets you two average corner outfielders. I think the Expos may be a small, unnoticed contributor to the market freeze-out we've seen.

What's more, though, is this: MLB will end up spending at least $130 million running the Expos, because it's seemingly dedicated to getting some fixed dollar amount and a new stadium from whoever decides they want to make money, but not as much money as they would if they bought the Brewers.

One-hundred-thirty million dollars. That probably wouldn't build a stadium anywhere near a metro market that could support a team well. It almost certainly would have allowed them to complete the financing to fill the gap in Portland, though, and probably in Northern Virginia as well. If baseball had gone to D.C. with that kind of money, they could almost certainly have gotten that deal done, too. It might even have been able to revive baseball in Quebec for that matter. We'll never know, though. Two seasons of expected bungling, with a third to come, mean the only thing for certain is that we have is much less than we should.

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