What are the odds of Vancouver getting an MLB team?

There’s talk about Vancouver being a potential site for an MLB franchise. Why there's still a long way to go before it's time to start taking it seriously

April 4, 2016

By Max Fawcett

The dream of bringing Major League Baseball back to Montreal might be one step closer to becoming a reality. Last week, as the Blue Jays finished off their spring training season with a two-game set at the Big O in Montreal against the Red Sox, the mayors of Toronto and Montreal signed an agreement that, among other things, included a clause outlining their commitment to reviving the aborted rivalry between the Expos and the Blue Jays. “The dream of a World Series involving the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos never came about,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said during the press conference announcing the agreement. “I think it’s time that we got back to making an opportunity for that.”

That’s all well and good, but the momentum that’s building behind Montreal’s bid has made Vancouver’s baseball fans start to wonder if their city could get in the party as well. JP Morosi, a writer for Fox Sports, fanned those flames during spring training when he openly mused about the possibility of a Major League Baseball franchise coming to Vancouver. “Remember how I mentioned Montreal is the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. or Canada without an MLB franchise? Vancouver is No. 2. If the Rays move to Montreal and find success, it might help Vancouver’s odds of landing an MLB team.”

Indeed, Morosi ranked Vancouver third on his list of prospective destinations for an MLB expansion franchise, just behind Montreal and ahead of Mexico City. Expanding from 30 to 32 teams is an idea that’s supported in theory by commissioner Rob Manfred, given both the game’s surging revenues and the scheduling efficiency that would come with having four divisions of four teams each per league, but it’s also one that wouldn’t happen until 2020 at the earliest. Still, his piece raised an interesting question: what if Vancouver could attract MLB’s attention?

It’s one that Bart Given, the head of TORQUE Strategies and the former VP of baseball operations and assistant general manager with the Toronto Blue Jays, has certainly thought about. But bad news, sports fans: he thinks Vancouver’s odds might be a lot longer than Morosi would have readers believe. “Three franchises in Canada seems like such a stretch, regardless of population base and affinity. So that’s a tough one. I almost feel that it’s either/or.” In the near-term, he says, it’s clear that Montreal has the advantage—and a big one at that. It has the enthusiastic support of its well-entrenched mayor, a plan to build a new baseball stadium, and a local business community that’s at least nominally supportive of the idea.

In Vancouver, on the other hand, it’s still just a dream—a fever dream, really—and one that doesn’t appear to have any major corporate or political support. That political support could be difficult to come by, too, if the experience of Vancouver Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot is any indication. He offered to cover the majority of the cost on a downtown waterfront stadium for the Whitecaps, but the idea remained just that—unlike the subsequent $563 million renovation of BC Place. The price tag on that renovation, meanwhile, will make it difficult for any prospective owner to go to the province and ask for more public money to support a new professional sports facility.

That’s doubly true given that it would probably cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1 billion to build the right kind of facility. After all, Given says, you need to give fans something to pin their hopes to if you’re going to create the kind of public momentum (and attract the kind of financial and political capital) that’s needed to attract either an expansion franchise or a relocation to a city. The obvious choice there is a waterfront stadium of some configuration, whether it’s in Gastown with a view of the north shore mountains or False Creek across the water from BC Place. If you really want to dream on the idea, a local fan even sketched out what a stadium on the water near the Convention Centre—the name “Gastown Field” has a nice ring to it—might look like.

Google Earth

Waterfront real estate isn’t cheap, though, and neither is the cost of building a stadium—with a retractable roof, naturally—for 35,000 or so people. And while ballparks have been used to kick start the revival of old post-industrial urban neighbourhoods in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit, Vancouver’s market needs no such boost. Local baseball boosters can always live in the hope that, say, Chip Wilson suddenly becomes North America’s biggest—and most generous—baseball fan, or Daryl Katz decides he’s tired of watching the Edmonton Oilers lose every year. But in the absence of that kind of corporate philanthropy it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which the elected officials in this city and province would be willing to risk so much political capital (and potentially surrender so much land) in order to get a stadium built.

But that’s all cart-before-horse stuff. The biggest question of all, Given says, is whether the public would buy in. Yes, he says, you’d get the hard-core fans out, but it’s not clear whether there’s 2,500 of them or 12,500. And while selling the pricey corporate boxes and luxury seats shouldn’t be too difficult—indeed, he says they’re the easiest tickets to sell in the entire stadium—getting enough casual fans to fill out a theoretical stadium (more on that in a moment) is another matter entirely. “Do you have an audience that’s open to what you’re selling? I think the audience here is certainly open to sport, and sport at its highest level. What I don’t know is whether they’re open to baseball at its highest level over an 81-game season.”

And if selling MLB to Vancouverites is a challenge, selling the city to MLB’s 30 franchise owners might be an even bigger one. If it’s going to expand from 30 to 32 teams, it’s almost certainly going to look to markets where it can generate additional revenue. That’s not a selling feature for a potential Vancouver franchise, he says, given that it would almost certainly cannibalize an existing fan base that already supports either the Blue Jays or the Mariners. “If I’m going to split up my MLB Advanced Media money [the technology company created by MLB that’s now worth an estimated $3 billion] and open my 1/30th and divide it into two more teams, then I want them to add to the coffers. And I don’t think Vancouver—or even Montreal, for that matter—makes a dent to the New York Yankees’s bottom line.”

For the time being, then, it’s probably best not to get your hopes of seeing an MLB franchise in Vancouver up too high. “Expansion, if I had to bet, goes to Montreal and Mexico,” Given says. “And Vancouver would be more about relocation, which is a really tough situation to be in. Even Toronto went through that—the Giants were supposed to move to Toronto long before they were awarded an American League franchise.” The good news is that we have one hell of a consolation prize in the Vancouver Canadians, a team that Given says “punches way above its weight class” among minor league franchises. “I’ve been to a lot of minor league ballparks, and there’s nothing like that in the short-season system that I’ve seen. It’s a packed stadium every night, and you can get your beer and your hot dogs and take your kids and have some popcorn. It’s a wonderful place to watch baseball. But it’s always fun to dream about the Major Leagues.”

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