It’s been nearly a decade since Canada was home to two MLB teams. 2004 marked the end of a slow and painful death for the Montreal Expos, as the team was shipped off to Washington and renamed the Nationals. That left the title of “Canada’s team” in the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays. However, since the exit of Les Expos, the Blue Jays survival has not been without question. Years of losing seasons was met with dwindling attendance at Rogers Centre and apathy from fans in the Big Smoke. But the Blue Jays have survived and rebounded in recent seasons thanks to strong ownership, a stadium located in the city’s core, and national media coverage.
This past winter’s fairytale offseason orchestrated by Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays has reignited fans’ excitement for the game of baseball both in Toronto and across the country. Thanks to the NHL lockout, the Blue Jays grabbed sports headlines for much of late 2012. And now that NHL teams are back on the ice, the Blue Jays are still getting their fair share of media coverage. The excitement is palpable. TV ratings for spring training have never been higher, merchandise is flying off shelves from coast to coast, and ticket sales are up. And the season hasn’t even begun. All of this got me thinking: is now the time for a second MLB team to return north of the 49th parallel?
I think yes. Baseball’s popularity in this country is growing. More Canadians are getting drafted to the MLB than ever before. Because of that, more Canadians are currently playing in the MLB than ever before. And we’re not talking bench players. Joey Votto, Brett Lawrie, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, and Russell Martin all hold Canadian passports. But if a team did come back to Canada, what city would be the best option? For me, Montreal is out. Why? Because not much has changed in the last decade. The Expos were forced out of town due to poor ownership and an aging stadium located on the outskirts of town. Those problems still exist. So where does that leave us? Vancouver.
Here’s why Vancouver works:
Vancouver is a large market in terms of population. When you add up the city of Vancouver and surrounding cities such as Barnaby, Langley, Surrey, Richmond, and Abbotsford, the Metro Vancouver population comes in at ~2.5M residents. That’s the 27th largest metro area in North America, ahead of MLB cities such as Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. Additionally, Vancouver is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada with a large Chinese, Japanese, and Asian population. Baseball happens to be big in countries such as Japan.
Dolla Dolla Bills
According to a Globe and Mail 2013 report, Vancouver leads the country in net worth. This is no doubt fuelled by the city’s crazy housing market, but it’s still a consideration. There’s wealth in the city. And with wealth, comes disposable income; disposable income that can be spent on MLB tickets. Let’s also not forget the fact that BC’s neighbor to the east is oil rich Alberta. Plenty of disposable income in Alberta for an MLB trip to Van City.
Vancouver is the second largest production centre in North America after LA. This includes a local Global, CTV, and CBC studio. The city has two daily newspapers, The Vancouver Sun, and The Province, and is home to TSN Radio, The TEAM 1410 and the TEAM 1040.
Vancouver is already a professional sports town. The city is home to the Canucks (NHL), Whitecaps FC (MLS), Lions (CFL), Ravens (NLL), and Giants (CHL). Vancouver was also once home to the NBA’s Grizzlies (1995-2001). Much like Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver has been scouted as a major sports market by the Big Four American sports leagues. And regarding the Grizzlies leaving Vancouver, NBA commissioner David Stern admitted that it has been one of his biggest regrets as league commissioner.
I’ve heard mixed feedback on whether BC Place can host baseball. If it can’t, it’s a big hiccup. But if it can, this is a category where Vancouver wins out over Montreal in a big way. BC Place has recently undergone an extensive ~$500M renovation. Its retractable roof is the largest cable supported roof in the world. It has new synthetic turf. It has a high-definition scoreboard measuring 68×38 feet. There were 1,140 new HDTV screens added, 50 refurbished private suites, 1,300 newly refurbished premium seats, a new state of the art sound system, wider seats, and widened concourses. You name it, it was renovated. BC Place is now a state of the art sports stadium in 2013. It has been described as one of the most beautiful stadiums in all of North America. And best of all, it’s located in downtown Vancouver, and is serviced by two SkyTrain stations. The capacity for football is 54,320, so one is lead to believe that the capacity for baseball would be near that figure. But even if it isn’t, smaller, more cozy or intimate MLB stadiums have been the trend for years. Anything in the ~40,000 range would be in play.
Vancouver is one of the warmest Canadian cities. Yes, there’s rain; plenty of it. But the summer months are typically dry, with an average of only one in five days during July and August receiving precipitation. This is great news for the retractable roof at BC Place, as many of the team’s games could be played open air. Furthermore, more so than any other Canadian city, Vancouver’s climate lends itself well to baseball as it can be played for much of the calendar year. One can assume that’s why many of the current Canadian MLB players are from BC. The warm climate would allow for the Vancouver MLB team to host baseball clinics for much of the year, encouraging further enrollment in the city and province.
Vancouver’s proximity to Seattle makes a rivalry with the Mariners a natural. A team in Van City would also be a bonus for Seattle and the league in terms of travel as teams could visit both teams in one northwest coast swing. That means having the Vancouver MLB team play out of the AL makes the most sense. That way, the schedule could be padded with a number of Seattle and Toronto dates – two rivalries that are guaranteed. Therefore, AL West works best if Vancouver was an expansion team. If they were a relocation destination for say the Tampa Bay Rays, then there would have to be some shifting. Maybe that would lead to MLB blowing up the leagues and doing divisions based on geography – something I’ve been an advocate for.
I mentioned that there are more Canadians playing in the Majors than ever before. Well, many of them happen to be from BC. Lawrie, Morneau, Bay – all BC boys. It would be a huge draw if one of them played for the Vancouver MLB team, but just having the BC boys roll through town a couple of times a year is bound to help at the gate.
In 2012, the Canadians, the Short A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, averaged 4,445 fans a game in a 5,100 capacity stadium. The success of the Canadians shows that’s there’s an appetite for baseball in Vancouver. And if Vancouver did get an MLB team, they could sign an affiliation with the Canadians so that Vancouver residents of all earning brackets could be exposed to professional baseball at some level. This would allow fans to follow rising stars that may one day earn a spot on the big club.
By hosting the 2010 Olympics, Vancouver has earned a spot as a sporting destination and a global city. This may go a long way in convincing MLB to give Vancouver a chance.
The above reasons are why I believe that Canada and Vancouver are ripe for an MLB team. But I’m sure there are many of you out there who think Vancouver is a long shot. Do you think Canada can support a second MLB team? And if so, what city makes the most sense to you? I want to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below or get at SB Canada on Twitter (@SportsBizCanada) or LinkedIn.
Adam Puddicombe is a weekly blog contributor to Sports Business Canada