Relocating a team to Portland makes sense

An appealing market that makes geographic sense is a big reason why Portland, Ore., should be a serious candidate to land a big-league team.

Originally Published: January 12, 2007
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

The idea of baseball in Portland, Ore., is new for a lot of people. But it has been a lifetime habit for Boston Red Sox icon Johnny Pesky, and he's 87 years old.

Pesky was born in 1919 and grew up following his hometown Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. He has spent most of his life on the opposite coast, but is intrigued by the movement to bring the Florida Marlins or another major league baseball franchise to Portland.

"What Portland always had was good fans,'' Pesky said in a 2006 interview. "I haven't been back in five years, and the growth has been phenomenal … Portland is bigger than more than a few other cities that host major league baseball. Why shouldn't Portland have a club? I think they should get a shot. I think Portland will have a team in three or four years.''

Then again, if the Marlins solve their stadium issues in Miami and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays find a way to become competitive, it could be another 34 years before MLB moves another one of its teams. That's how many seasons passed between the shifting of the Washington Senators to Arlington, Texas, and the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C.

Cold Plate Special: San Juan, Puerto Rico (and everywhere else outside the
48 continental states)
While baseball grows revenues globally, the location of its franchises is more centralized than it has been in 30 years -- with Toronto the only team located beyond a border -- and there's little cry for change. While visionaries once saw MLB operating teams in Latin America and perhaps even Tokyo, the industry's businessmen have found it easier to draw money out of those economies than make commitments to them.

Monterrey, Mexico made a strong bid for the Expos but it never appeared to be taken seriously, in large part because of the potential disruption to the lives of players and team executives. The logistical problems posed by travel, foreign currencies and security issues make it uncertain that the players union would ever sign off on a true international franchise.

The Expos test-drove the Latin American market when they shifted games to San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium in 2004 and '05 and played to a surprising number of empty seats. American-born players weren't big on extended stays in Puerto Rico.

If MLB ever does look to Latin America or Asia, it will be when Ken Griffey Jr.'s grandsons, not his son, are in the major leagues.

But whether it's by relocation or another as-yet-unforeseen round of expansion, history says the makeup of the MLB membership won't stay the same for too long. Since the Dodgers and Giants moved west in 1958, the sport hasn't gone longer than 16 years without adding or moving teams, averaging an expansion or relocation every eight years.

Look for Portland, a jewel of a city in the shadow of Mt. Hood and near Oregon's scenic coast, to be ready when the next movement comes.

It has already earmarked $150 million for a public-private stadium partnership -- financed in part by a highly creative plan diverting the income taxes of major league players and executives of Portland's new team to retire stadium bonds -- with seven potential stadium sites, including three along the Williamette River downtown. While that stadium is being built, the Beavers' PGE Park could be expanded to about 25,000 seats to accommodate a speedy transition for an existing team, like the Marlins.

Pesky is right about the size of the Portland area compared to some cities that have had MLB franchises for a long time.

"If you took the Pittsburgh stadium and put it in Portland, then Portland would be a stronger market than Pittsburgh,'' economist Andrew Zimbalist told The (Portland) Oregonian last year.

With a population of about 2 million, Portland ranks as the 24th largest metro area in the United States. That's ahead of Cincinnati (25), Kansas City (27) and Milwaukee (37) and right behind Pittsburgh (21), Denver (22) and Cleveland (23). Nielsen ranks the Portland market 23rd, up from 24th a year ago (it passed Buffalo), and way ahead of Kansas City (31), Milwaukee (33) and Cincinnati (34).

Perhaps the most appealing thing about the Portland market is that it currently counts the NBA's Trail Blazers as the only franchises from sports' four basic alphabet groups (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB).

According to math by the Portland Baseball Group, only Los Angeles and New York have a higher ratio of population to major sports franchises. San Diego is the only bigger metro area that doesn't have at least three teams, and it has the big two in the NFL and MLB.

A Portland franchise would be positioned to receive civic and corporate support. Adidas, which has its 352,000-square foot headquarters in North Portland, has supported the push to bring an MLB franchise to the city. Nike, based in nearby Beaverton, might join the battle for naming rights to the new ballpark.

If the Marlins did wind up moving there, MLB could also realign in a way that makes more geographic sense.

Tampa Bay could move to the National League, where it might develop a rivalry with Atlanta, with Portland's team joining Seattle in the American League West. Texas could be shifted to the AL Central -- a change it was promised more than a decade ago -- and Detroit could move to the AL East. Nothing happens easily, or quickly, in MLB, but this makes sense.

Next in line

Las Vegas: Mayor Oscar Goodman has made the acquisition of a major league franchise a top priority, even bringing a group of showgirls to baseball's winter meetings. The reality lags behind the aggressive marketing, however. Some have a perception that Las Vegas is America's boomtown, but it's hardly Phoenix. It's 31st in the size of metro areas and 48th among television markets. None of the four major sports leagues have been willing to court scandal by moving into a city built on the back of gambling, and it doesn't seem likely baseball will be the first.

San Antonio: The Marlins seriously explored their options in the central Texas city last year, but city officials were turned down when they forced owner Jeffrey Loria to make a quick decision about a stadium offer. This was a major relief to the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, who weren't excited about a third franchise in their state. Mayor Phil Hardberger correctly points to the size of the San Antonio TV market (37th) as a major drawback for bringing a second big-league franchise to a city that is home to the NBA's Spurs.

Charlotte: Like Portland, Charlotte is on its way up. Its TV market ranks 27th, gaining a place in the latest rankings, and it is home to nine Fortune 500 companies. The Minnesota Twins flirted with a move to Charlotte in 1998. But saturation provides the same problem here as in Indianapolis, as the NFL and the NBA beat MLB to the market. A structure remains in place to build a 40,000 seat baseball stadium, but it could be a long time until one is needed.

Northern New Jersey: A third team in the New York/New Jersey market is an intriguing idea, and might be the best way for other franchises to slow the two powerful New York teams. But Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Mets owner Fred Wilpon would oppose any move to bring a team here at least as adamantly as Orioles owner Peter Angelos did the Expos' relocation to Washington, D.C., and no one has stepped forward to challenge the Yankees and Mets.

Orlando: In a dream world, you'd bulldoze Dolphin Stadium and Tropicana Field and merge Florida's two weak franchises into one, based in the middle of the state. Orlando's TV market is 20th, larger even than Portland, and Disney-based tourism would give an Orlando team some natural advantages. The Devil Rays are playing a regular-season series at Disney World this season, but it's hard to see how MLB unravels its Florida mess to land in the Magic Kingdom.

Norfolk, Va.: Briefly floated as an option for the Expos when the Washington bid was in turmoil, city officials have had talks with the Marlins. Few take it seriously.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).