When the Texas Rangers eliminated the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of their divisional series on Oct. 12, Tropicana Field was over capacity. The 41,845 fans who saw the Rays flame out made for standing room only. History was established that night. Not only did the Rangers win their first playoff series in team history, there were actually lots of people there to see it.
The Rays have been plagued by low attendance. When the team clinched a playoff spot, there were only about 10,000 fans in the stands to celebrate.
For now, the team’s ownership group has publicly said it wants to remain on Florida’s west coast. Tropicana Field’s poor location is to blame for the low attendance, they say. The 20-year-old stadium is in St. Petersburg, a relatively long way from the population center in Tampa and its eastern suburbs. A study funded by a group of Tampa-area corporate and community leaders bore this out: If you build it (closer), they will come.
Nevertheless, reports are that baseball commissioner Bud Selig has instructed the Rays owners not to make any land buys until attendance gets better. The situation by the bay is up in the air. And when that happens, rumors swirl. Columnists from Connecticut to San Antonio to New Jersey are arguing the Rays should come to their hometown.
Similar speculation has made its way to Music City — sports talk radio callers ask “Why not?” Even a D.C.-based columnist made the case for Nashville as the Rays’ new home.
But does Nashville have what it takes to be a big-league city?
According to the Office of Management and Budget, the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area has an estimated population of 1.582 million, which would make it the second-smallest city in baseball, ahead of only Milwaukee, a city with a long history of major league baseball.
The smallest baseball cities — Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee — all have histories of top-flight baseball. The newest franchises of the bunch — the Brewers and the Royals — have been in their homes since 1970 and 1969, respectively, and both of those cities were previously home to franchises. The other three teams have been in their cities since the 19th century.
Among the more recent vintage, Nashville compares even worse.
Miami’s Florida Marlins and Denver’s Colorado Rockies joined the league in 1993, followed by the Rays and Phoenix’s Arizona Diamondbacks five years later. Baseball returned to the nation’s capital in 2005, when the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals. The smallest metropolitan statistical area among that quintet is Denver at 2.5 million people, topped barely by Tampa at 2.7 million. The other three metros all have populations of at least 4 million.
Media matters, too
When Nashville was wooing the Houston Oilers and persuading the NHL for the Predators in the late 1990s, a big talking point was how Nashville was the largest media market in the country without a big-time sports franchise.
Because of the success of those two pitches, that’s obviously no longer the case (Hartford, Conn., now holds the distinction), but it’s certainly illustrative of the importance pro sports leagues place on the ability of teams to draw eyeballs and eardrums to the product.
With the 29th-largest Nielsen market, Nashville would be the fourth-smallest in baseball, ahead of Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee, but comparing favorably to San Diego, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Among the newer teams, again Nashville is off the pace. Phoenix, Tampa, Denver and Miami rank between 12th and 17th in market size, and Washington comes in ninth — a major selling point when the MLB took over the floundering Expos and looked to move the team.
There is a modicum of good news for Nashville. Because of baseball’s antitrust exemption, owners can designate territories for their teams, keeping potential relocaters from coming too close. This was the biggest speed bump in the Expos-to-D.C. move, as Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos forced the territoriality issue. MLB officials had to placate the Marylander, guaranteeing certain portions of media revenue lost due to sharing a market with another team. He acquiesced on the territory issue, but nonetheless cast the lone dissenting vote on the move.
Nashville would have no such problem. No team in the far-flung Braves-Reds-Cardinals triangle would have claim on Middle Tennessee.
But nothing matters as much as money
Major League Baseball requires more out of its fans’ pockets than any other sport. Each team plays 81 regular season home games. The average 2010 ticket cost this season was $26.74, according to the MLB — an outlay of $2,166 per season ticket.
The magic number for baseball attendance is generally 30,000 per game, the median attendance for big league games in the recently concluded 2010 season. Barring the existence of an exorbitantly flush ownership group willing to shore up a franchise losing money, a team typically needs to sell 12,000 to 15,000 season tickets.
All that, of course, requires cash, and here is where Nashville is sorely lacking.
According to a study by Business First of Buffalo, a city hoping to maintain a major league baseball team needs to have a total personal income — the combined salaries of every person in town — of $86.7 billion, far and away the most needed for the survival of any major sport. Nashville’s TPI, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, comes in at $60 billion. According to the Buffalo study, that’s not even enough to maintain the two teams already here. NFL and NHL teams each need $37.3 billion in TPI. Nashville is already $14 billion in the hole.
Then there’s a more tangible monetary problem: The team has to play somewhere.
Sharing LP Field is a non-starter. The Titans’ lease with the city is nearly watertight, and the MLB has cooled dramatically on stadium sharing in the past 20 years. And with Greer Stadium far too small and already a candidate for replacement even for minor league ball, Nashville would need
Target Field opened in Minneapolis for the 2010 season — at a cost of $545 million, $40 million less than the Music City Center and nearly twice as much as LP Field cost to build more than a decade ago. A flush owner could build the stadium himself, but the Rays ownership is asking for taxpayer help there and would likely require something similar from a potential new city.
With bonds floated for the convention center and new capital-projects spending topping a quarter-billion dollars, the city’s credit card would be extended to the breaking point with another such outlay. And with the hand-wringing over the cost of the convention center continuing, the political will needed for another major expenditure just isn’t there.
For now, Nashville’s best connection to the Rays will remain ace pitcher and Vandy alum David Price, the losing pitcher in last week’s decisive game.