Inconceivable: MLB Realignment Proposal Gets Leaked

The award -winning publication, Baseball America, ran a story on Wednesday with a leaked proposal being considered by Major League Baseball that would realign the divisions, shorten the regular season, and add more playoff teams. The theory being that the reduction in travel costs will offset the revenue lost from the shortened schedule.

The proposal would eliminate the American League and National League as baseball fans have grown accustomed to throughout the history of the sport. The new realignment would group the teams geographically without allegiances to the current divisional groupings.

The new realignment concept would include expansion of the league by two teams to bring the total number of teams to 32; allowing the realigned proposal to divide the teams evenly. The new plan would create four divisions with eight teams each, and the two teams mentioned in the expansion component are Montreal and Portland, Oregon.

I have covered the expansion plans for all the major sports leagues for about four years now. I completed a huge series of articles on expansion about two years ago which considered several factors for different potential markets for new teams in each sport. These two cities are not surprising as top expansion destinations for baseball to consider at this point.

The support to bring back the Montreal Expos has been growing in the past few years and they have a potential ownership group and a few different sites identified for a downtown ballpark which I covered in a piece I wrote last year. Montreal makes sense because they have a built-in fan base from their first iteration that MLB can draw from and grow. The trepidation that some will have, and it is understandable, is that the city had a team and lost it already, that same type of fan apathy can happen again. That situation would be obviously very unideal for the league.

Portland came in “second place” in the race to get the relocated Expos in the early 2000s. The city has some solid demographic evidence to support a team and some potentially problematic detracting factors (media market size, weak potential corporate sponsorship) and they have no current stadium to support a team.

However, according to this report and some other research, the ownership group in Portland can still access a state grant for funding for a portion of the new stadium which was approved for the pursuit of the Expos relocation and still has not expired.

The last time MLB expanded was in the late 1990s and the valuations on those teams have gone through the roof relative to their initial expansion entry fees. The formula for the expansion fee for the two teams added in this proposal would apply the average franchise valuation and factor in the increased value based on revenue models as well as the average value increase over the past twenty years.

The new expansion fees will provide significant revenue to each owner and would be incentive enough for them to add two new members to the ranks. The newly proposed alignment would put teams like the New York Mets and New York Yankees in the same division. The format would put the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox in the same division, and would break up certain rivalries that the average fan has grown to enjoy.

The Mets would be in a division without any of the other members of their current division, the NL East, and the Minnesota Twins would play all of their road games in the Eastern time zone. The questions will almost certainly arise around the designated hitter rule with the dissolution being proposed of the two league structure in place currently.

The purists are going to have several issues with this proposal including the marked increase in the number of playoff teams. The realigned league would have 12 playoff teams: the four division winners, and eight “wild card” teams that would play each other to determine who plays the four division winners in the Division Series, then the final four teams would compete to determine the World Series participants.

The shortened regular season would lead to more playoff games which would invariably increase the value of the television and media rights deals that MLB would seek to broker with their broadcast partners in the future.

The debate will most certainly be spirited regarding the expanded playoffs and the value of “making the playoffs” only to play a winner takes all one game elimination wild card game. The other side will defend the decision with the rationale that the league will have two more teams, and the expanded number of postseason slots should keep more teams in contention. This will translate into better interest in late season games in more markets which should help attendance levels in late season games with a reduced regular season.

The detractors to this proposal will inevitably feel that the elimination of the divisions we have grown traditionally accustomed to (i.e. AL East, NL West) in favor of a completely different / highly geographic setup which eliminates some historic rivalries will damage the television ratings for the sport.

In my view, baseball is different than the other major sports because it does not have the same national appeal. The television ratings for MLB have proven that it is a regional sport and while the nationally televised “Game of the Week” is nice, that game does not generate ratings the way a national broadcast for the NBA or NFL “Game of the Week”.

The argument could be made that this new proposal will become too specifically focused which could hurt the interest in the sport. A good example is who is going to care about a Baltimore Orioles versus New York Mets game outside of those two markets? Not that many people.

The new proposal is also going to face resistance from certain team owners especially in the western regions and some of the small market teams which will be placed into divisions with several larger market teams. The team owners in the eastern regions and the southern areas will most likely support this type of proposal because it will drastically reduce their travel costs, which is becoming a growing concern for team owners across Major League Baseball.

The league has other issues though that this proposal, or one of similar type, will not repair. The pace of play situation is a huge problem for the sport. The league has been looking at ways to speed up the length of games because millennials and younger people are not interested in anything that takes three to four hours out of their life to do. The average length of a game went down a couple of years ago and this season is up over three hours and five minutes. That needs to get resolved or else they will have a more difficult time maintaining fan interest in the future.

The long- term viability of certain franchises, namely the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays needs to be clarified before they expand and add two new teams to the league. Those two franchises are struggling to generate attendance and revenue and their respective owners are trying to get new stadiums built for them thinking that will solve all of their issues.

The proposal is radical, it is inconceivable to me that they would alter and eliminate the National League and American League and dissolve the current division structure and playoff structure. Then, I think of the changes to the league structures when they moved Houston to the American League which made necessary an interleague series all year long because of the unbalanced number of teams. The MLB offices did that to slowly dissolve the lines between the two leagues, to prepare the fans for something else in the future: one league.

The debate will continue as the months move forward. It should be noted that MLB knew what it was doing when it “leaked” this proposal. This was a calculated move to soften the ground around making these types of changes. It is a test sample, this does not mean this proposal for realignment is set in stone.

Conversely, the league has certain issues that you might consider giving them credit for recognizing: the cost of travel for a whole roster of players and support staff is getting very expensive, the amount of games in different time zones is draining the players, and the season is a six month grind with not enough off days (this proposal would give one day off a week to players and allow for travel the next day rather than overnight flights which can be a safety issue).

Major League Baseball has some issues that they must resolve and they are also trying to adapt to a changing landscape for the viewing of sports content and for maintaining fan interest in a world full of other distractions. This proposal seems radical, bizarre, and doomed to a baseball purist like myself.

However, we must all realize that this was just a test, the real changes are coming down the road, and I cannot imagine how inconceivable the actual realignment will be when it rolls out in the future.

NFL To Los Angeles Update: More Twists & Turns

The ongoing quest of the NFL relocation process to Los Angeles took a few more twists and turns recently following a set of meetings between the league, the owners, and the parties from three NFL teams interested in gaining a foothold into the nation’s second largest media market.


Those meetings took place in the Chicago area and presentations were made by the Chargers, the Raiders, and the Rams regarding potential relocation to Los Angeles and their respective stadium proposals. I have reported on this topic for a few years now and I can attest that the situation is an evolving one, to put it diplomatically.


In order to provide some backdrop for readers who are not aware of the relocation scenario with the NFL and Los Angeles it essentially boils down to back room politics within one of the most profitable sports leagues in the world. The Rams, who initially played in L.A. and moved to St. Louis for a sweetheart deal on a new stadium in the mid-1990s, are now positioning themselves for a move back to Southern California. Their owner, Stan Kroenke, has made a huge land purchase in Inglewood on the site of the former Hollywood Park horseracing track (see my earlier article which focuses exclusively on this deal) with the aim to build a world class football stadium on the site.


The Chargers and Raiders moved quickly following Kroenke’s land move to secure land for a joint stadium project in Carson, California which has been fast tracked through the government permit and environmental review stages to be a more “shovel ready” project at this point than the Rams proposal. The Chargers have worked with San Diego (though some in San Diego municipal government claim the Chargers never worked in good faith) on a new stadium for 15 years with no progress being made in that time period.

The Raiders have worked with Oakland for a similar time frame (if not longer) to find an acceptable proposal to replace the aging Coliseum but with no success. The Raiders have positioned themselves well in the “race to L.A.” because they do not want their own stadium, they prefer to be a partner or a tenant in whatever stadium bid gets accepted by the NFL.


The NFL would prefer to have two teams in the market and not three, so somebody is going to be left out of this equation, and it is looking more likely that it is not going to be the Raiders. In the mainstream media press conference after the Chicago meetings regarding the L.A. relocation, an NFL Vice President was quoted as stating that the Raiders have no viable way of staying in Oakland.


Horse Race


The horse race to L.A. was viewed prior to the meetings in Chicago by NFL insiders as scenario where the Chargers/Raiders proposal in Carson being the lead proposal for acceptance by the league ownership. The rationale being that both teams are based in California and have worked diligently to remain in their current markets with no progress seen in that regard.


The view prior to the meetings was that Kroenke’s move with the Hollywood Park land purchase was too bold and aggressive. It also should be noted that St. Louis has put together a viable option for a new stadium on the waterfront for the Rams to remain in Missouri that has intrigued NFL owners and league executives.


However, according to sources in the mainstream sports media, after the meetings in Chicago it appears that the Rams proposal for the stadium at Hollywood Park in Inglewood has gained significant traction. There is also some movement by San Diego to put together a proposal for a new facility to keep the team from relocating.

It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out between now and the expected official decision on which teams will be in L.A. which is expected in January 2016. The Giants owner, John Mara, stated to the media that he expects a team to be playing in L.A. by 2016 in a temporary venue.


Alternate Plans


Once the two teams that are approved by the NFL to relocate to Los Angeles are announced, the issue becomes finding a temporary home for the teams while the construction of their long term home is being undertaken. The Rose Bowl has, according to mainstream reports, told the NFL that they are not interested in temporarily hosting a NFL franchise. The LA Coliseum apparently is willing to serve as a temporary venue for a relocated franchise to the city.


Then, on Monday, in a strange turn of events, San Antonio has stepped up and announced that they would be willing to host the Raiders temporarily if they get relocated to LA because their lease with Oakland ends at the end of this season. The Carson stadium will not be ready for another two years and the Inglewood stadium could take three years to construct.


My first thoughts when I saw this news earlier was that it was strange, but the more I thought about it, it represents a really smart move by San Antonio. The Raiders owner, Mark Davis, has already visited San Antonio and met with officials there as a potential relocation site for the franchise (see my earlier article on the Oakland stadium) though that turned out to be a maneuver to gain leverage so that Oakland would approve funds for a new facility for the team.


The scenario in Oakland between the municipal government, county leadership, and the Raiders executives has gone downhill rapidly from bad to worse. The Coliseum is known throughout the league as the worst facility and the appetite in Oakland for spending public funds for a stadium is tepid at best. The NFL beat writer for the Raiders reported to CBS Sports that Mark Davis went to the Oakland officials with a reduced stadium plan purposing an intimate venue with 50,000 seats versus some other NFL stadiums which have close to 70,000 capacity. The smaller facility would have a reduced price tag and environmental impact, the two sides could not come to agreement on that proposal.


The Raiders may need a temporary home for a few years until the move to L.A. and it may need to be outside of Oakland with the state of the relationship between both parties. In the hypothetical scenario that the Rams and Raiders are both awarded L.A. relocations by the league, the Rams would most likely play at the LA Coliseum on a temporary basis. It may be difficult to schedule two teams to play at that facility, so that is where San Antonio is making their sales pitch at this point.


When you think about it, it makes sense for both sides. The Raiders could gain exposure to a whole new demographic of fans and due to their success earlier in their franchise history they already have a national following, they could add to that fan base by playing in Texas. The NFL let a study gain media attention a couple of weeks ago where there was a survey done of Raiders fans, and the majority said that they would support the team regardless of where they based their operation. It was an obvious placement by the NFL to soften the ground for the LA relocation of the franchise, but it could also play a role for San Antonio to appeal to both the Raiders and the league that they can be a viable temporary home.


It makes sense for San Antonio because they would gain tax revenues from the team operations, game days, and an increase in tourism/ hotel stays from the team playing there temporarily for two to three years. The Alamodome would be the site for the games and that facility is undergoing an over $40 million dollar renovation including wider concourses, a new scoreboard, larger locker rooms, and other amenities in preparation for the stadium to host the NCAA basketball Final Four in 2018. The Raiders would be able to play games indoors in an upgraded facility that is far nicer than Oakland Coliseum at this point. The local fans in San Antonio would get NFL football for two to three years right in their city, and the city would be able to show the NFL that they can handle an expansion or other relocated team on a permanent basis down the line.


Switching Places


On Monday night a report emerged regarding the Chargers – Raiders joint project in Carson. The NFL has reported that if that stadium initiative is accepted by the league, then the teams will no longer remain in the same division, the AFC West in this case, or the same conference. The NFL would realign the teams so that one would most likely join the NFC West.


In that scenario, in order to keep the conferences and the divisions evenly balanced in the four divisions with four teams in each conference, another team would have to change conferences as well. Carmen Policy, who is heading up the NFL to LA movement at this point and was heavily involved in the presentations in Chicago related in this report that several intriguing realignment options are on the table at this point.


I had thought about this scenario while writing an earlier article on this topic. In many ways, approving the Inglewood project is a much more streamlined process for the NFL because the Rams would relocate to Southern California and remain in the NFC West, and the Raiders would most likely be their co-tenant and remain in the AFC West with no realignment of the league being necessary.


However, that still leaves the Chargers in a potentially untenable situation in San Diego, which the NFL certainly internally knows much more about just how dire that situation is, certainly more than I do. That may be the impetus behind the drive for the Carson project, to resolve the Chargers stadium issue  as well as the Raiders issues all in one bold sweeping move.


I know that Jason LaComfora of CBS Sports first reported this several months ago, and it is an intriguing idea. He thinks that if the Rams move to LA and the Inglewood project goes ahead and the Rams leave St. Louis, then the team that is left out of the LA market could wind up moving to St. Louis and playing in the new proposed riverfront stadium. In light of recent events, with the NFL open to realignment, all options could be on the table. The Chargers could wind up moving to St. Louis and staying in the AFC West where they would have a regional rival in their division in the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers would also still play the Raiders and Broncos in that scenario twice per season as they currently do.


In my view, that would be the biggest issue with the Carson project is having to shift multiple teams and realign the league. That would eliminate the rivalry games that NFL fans look forward to from back in the old AFL days, fierce rivalries between the Broncos and Chargers or the Raiders and Chiefs.


The other point that I have to mention here is that the NFL does not want 3 teams playing in the Los Angeles market, and if they decide to keep the Rams out (it seems Kroenke is set to go there) how will the league prevent a billionaire from moving the operation of his team from St. Louis to the nation’s second largest media market and the entertainment capital of the world?


The issue is further complicated when consideration is given to the fact that the Rams once played in Los Angeles and they have a passionate following and supporters there that want the team to return to Southern California.


In that scenario, what happens to St. Louis and their plans for a new riverfront stadium? Some within NFL circles question whether St. Louis deserves another shot at a team because they lost the Cardinals previously, so if the city loses the Rams as well, are they the right market for an NFL team?


This situation certainly is a delicate one for the NFL and for three franchises who are vying to gain entry into a coveted and largely untapped marketplace. It will be interesting to see how the NFL, the owners, and the executives from the three teams involved handle the next steps in what has become a race to get NFL football back to Los Angeles.


(Some background information courtesy of CBS