The Rays are finalizing plans for a new stadium, which means MLB expansion could be on deck

MLB

If the Rays complete the stadium as planned, then the MLB could look at expanding its teams for the first time in 25 years.

Construction workers look on as the final piece of structural steel is lifted into place at Bank One Ballpark in downtown Phoenix.
Construction workers look on as the final piece of structural steel is lifted into place at Bank One Ballpark in downtown Phoenix, the future home of the major league expansion team Arizona Diamondbacks, Friday, Aug. 8, 1997. AP Photo/Eric Drotter, File

The Tampa Bay Rays are finalizing plans for a new ballpark in downtown St. Petersburg, which is a positive development for baseball fans in Florida.

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Indirectly, it could also mean great things for baseball fans in a couple other cities — eventually.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it clear several times over the past few years that he’s interested in expanding to 32 teams, but that sentiment came with a caveat: All current 30 big league teams needed to have stable stadium situations before adding teams for the first time since 1998.

Now that the Rays have announced plans for a new 30,000-seat ballpark — as part of a $6.5 billion development project that includes affordable housing, retail, bars and restaurants and a Black history museum — that appears to be the case. The Oakland Athletics have also struggled with stadium issues for decades but are in the midst of a proposed move to Las Vegas — one that’s pending MLB approval and isn’t finalized yet.

Assuming the Rays and A’s proposed stadiums are greenlit for construction, and even if MLB decides to push from 30 to 32 franchises, it’ll be quite a while before those teams would take the field.

Here is some of the history, process and cost when it comes to MLB expansion.

It’s been 25 years since MLB expanded, adding the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1998 season for the league’s 29th and 30th teams.

MLB had 16 teams for the first six decades of the 20th century — not counting the Negro Leagues or short-lived Federal League — before the American League added two teams in 1961. The Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins and a new franchise in Washington kept the Senators name. The Los Angeles Angels were also added.

The National League followed suit in 1962, adding the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s.

MLB went to 24 teams in 1969, adding the Seattle Pilots and Kansas City Royals in the AL, along with the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos in the NL. The Pilots lasted just one season — immortalized in Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four” — and moved to Milwaukee for the 1970 season.

In 1977, MLB went to 26 teams, adding the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. It took 16 years for the National League to match, adding the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in 1993 for 28 teams.

Even if MLB quickly moves to expand, it would probably be around 2028 at least before any new teams start competition.

For a reference point, the move to 30 teams started with the formation of an MLB expansion committee in March 1994. Five groups made presentations to the committee in November 1994 — Orlando, Florida.; Phoenix; St. Petersburg, Florida.; and two from the Northern Virginia area — with Phoenix and St. Petersburg awarded teams in March 1995.

Three years later, both teams started play, ending a four-year process.

The top four candidates for expansion appear to be — in no particular order — Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; and Montreal.

The South has a growing population base that would seem ripe for another team, though it’s doubtful that both Charlotte and Nashville would get franchises. Portland would expand the sport’s West Coast presence.

Montreal — which had the Expos from 1969 until relocating to Washington in 2004 — was a much-loved stop on the schedule before the franchise’s acrimonious exit to the U.S. capital. Fans have clamored to bring the sport back to the city pretty much ever since it left.

Other cities are possible, and presumably MLB would listen to all pitches. Locations that have been mentioned are Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas.

One thing appears to be certain — a new franchise is going to be a costly investment.

Manfred said back in 2021 that expansion fees could be in the range of $2.2 billion per team, which is what Sportico estimated as the average MLB franchise value.

For reference, the Vegas Golden Knights paid a $500 million fee to join the NHL in 2016. The NBA hasn’t expanded since 2004 with the addition of the Charlotte Bobcats for $300 million. The NFL last expanded in 2002, adding the Houston Texans for $700 million.

The Diamondbacks and Rays both paid $130 million to enter MLB in 1998 while the Marlins and Rockies paid $95 million in 1993.

Back in 1977, the Blue Jays ($7 million) and Mariners ($6.5 million) paid even less.

Those costs wouldn’t cover construction of a new ballpark, either. While the expansion fee would likely be paid by private team investors, the stadium could require upward of $1 billion in public money.

AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum contributed to this report.


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