The match up of David versus Goliath is not new to the world of sports, and things are no different when it comes to finding a new market to host an MLB franchise. Of the 46 metro areas included in this study, a small group of five stands the tallest task of all: overcoming small population sizes to be considered for a MLB team. To be more specific, this group presented as "The Underdogs" includes the five metro areas in the study that are smaller than Milwaukee (the smallest MLB metro area).
Why is Milwaukee so significant for defining the group? Well, it's because of just how much smaller the Milwaukee metro area is compared to the other MLB hosts. The area has a population size 37.75% as large as the average of the 46 markets included, and it has a population 30.76% the size of the current MLB hosts. The Underdogs are going to need to present something more to the table to be seriously considered as a market, given they are the only markets smaller than Milwaukee. Let's take a look at The Underdogs and what they bring to the table.
Underdog #1: El Paso, Texas
El Paso is the smallest of the Underdog metro areas. Of the 46 markets included in this study, it is the only one with a population below one million people. Due in part to its small population size, El Paso produces only 13.57% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that the other 46 markets produce. This creates a major uphill climb for the city which will need to be covered by affluence and the ability for corporate involvement.
Unfortunately, El Paso does not present the kind of affluence that is desired from a MLB host. It produces GDP/capita at 69.13% of the rate that the average market does, and it is estimated that the number of individuals with a college degree living in the area sits between 15-24% (making it one of two such cities in this study). When the area's high unemployment rate (8.9%) is included, El Paso is seen as even less desirable.
In the first post in this series, I came up with a model for predicted attendance which can be seen here. When El Paso is run through the model, here are the results:
"Good Team" (90 wins expected): 31,701 fans per game
"Average Team" (81 wins expected): 29,130 fans per game
"Poor Team" (70 wins expected): 25,988 fans per game
Overall, attendance is lower on average in reality than it is when predicted in the model. To give perspective, El Paso (with a Poor Team) has the second lowest predicted attendance when compared to MLB cities (only ahead of Pittsburgh).
Without a strong corporate presence and weak results in affluence and predicted attendance, El Paso does not seem to have a shot at becoming a MLB host market. The news is not entirely bleak, however. Last September, El Paso was announced as the next home of the Padres' AAA affiliate after the Tuscon Padres were purchased by Mountainstar Sports Group of El Paso.
Underdog #2: Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville comes in as an Underdog for two reasons: it has the second smallest population of metro areas included in the study and is only 99.4 miles from Cincinnati (according to Google Maps). Currently, Louisville serves as the host market for the Reds' AAA affiliate (the Louisville Bats). The Bats do extraordinarily well for a minor league market, as they frequently finish near the top of the attendance figures, which provides a boost to Louisville as a potential host.
In terms of population, Louisville is much larger than its fellow Underdog El Paso. The metro area is home to more than 1.2 million people, although it only has a population size 24.43% of the average MLB market. In terms of affluence, Louisville scores well. Despite a small GDP, Louisville boasts a GDP/capita 91.64% of the average MLB market (this puts them in the neighborhood of Cincinnati) and it is estimated that between 25-34% of the residents have graduated with college degrees. Below are the results of the attendance predictor:
Good Team: 31,778 fans per game
Average Team: 29,206 fans per game
Poor Team: 26,064 fans per game
Ultimately, Louisville's biggest weakness is that of all of the Underdogs: a lack of a large sum of GDP. However, Louisville does have the affluence to compete as a MLB market, which means that it should be considered for hosting a MLB team. For now though, Louisville will likely have to continue to play host to a AAA team.
Underdog #3: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Oklahoma City is nearly identical to its sister Underdog Louisville. In terms of affluence and population the metro areas are nearly identical. Oklahoma City is also the host of the Astros' minor league affiliate Oklahoma City Red Hawks. As expected, the attendance predictor numbers come out pretty similarly:
Good Team: 31,781 fans per game
Average Team: 29,210 fans per game
Poor Team: 26,067 fans per game
It might seem a tad frivolous to run the numbers, but it's important to remember than an extra three fans per game amounts to an extra 243 fans per season. Every additional fan that attends a game has an opportunity to spend more money, have a good time at the ballpark, and can go on to tell other people about that good experience. Developing a fan base is all about outreach, so those extra fans are important. Because of this and the fact that Oklahoma City is 211 miles from the nearest MLB market (Arlington), Oklahoma City is a better potential landing spot for a team than Louisville.
As an added bonus for Oklahoma City, the metro area was awarded the NBA's Seattle Supersonics in the recent past. The franchise, known as the Thunder, operated at 100% attendance capacity during the 2012-2013 season. They haven't operated below 97.7% capacity since their relocation to Oklahoma City.
Underdog #4: Memphis, Tennessee
Even though it is only the 2nd largest of the Underdogs, Memphis is the strongest candidate among the Underdogs to host an MLB franchise. The reason for this is a combination of its population size (26.20% of the MLB average) and affluence ($49 GDP/capita and 25-34% college graduate rate). The only true mark against Memphis is its 9.3% unemployment rate, which is high relative to the MLB average.
Good Team: 31,794 fans per game
Average Team: 29,223 fans per game
Poor Team: 26,080 fans per game
These attendance figures are strong enough for Memphis to compete with the weakest of MLB's franchises. Much like Oklahoma City, Memphis plays host to both a AAA affiliate (St. Louis' Memphis Redbirds) and a NBA franchise (the Memphis Grizzlies). Memphis serves as a viable candidate to host an MLB franchise if the new ownership group can deal with the fact that the new franchise would be 283.6 miles from St. Louis (one of the absolute strongest MLB markets).
Underdog #5: Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville may be the most populous of the Underdog markets, but it might just be the weakest candidate to host a team. Jacksonville carries a population similar in size to Memphis, but it is roughly 8% less affluent in terms of GDP/capita, and it actually produces less overall GDP than Memphis does. Here is what the attendance predictor believes:
Good Team: 31,798 fans per game
Average Team: 29.226 fans per game
Poor Team: 26,083 fans per game
There is, however, one thing the attendance predictor cannot account for: Jacksonville is a Florida market, and Florida markets do not do well. Tampa averages under 21 thousand fans per game, and Miami has averaged under 20 thousand fans per game over the last five years (and currently, with a one year old stadium, they aren't drawing at all). It isn't quite fair to just assume that Jacksonville will follow suit with Miami and Tampa as a weak market, so let's borrow some figures from the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jacksonville Jaguars operate in the bottom third in attendance nearly every year. In fact, attendance problems have gotten so bad that the team has had documented concerns over games being blacked out on television. The Jaguars have issues drawing fans for 8 games out of a season for the sport that draws better than any other. Therefore, it is not reasonable to assume than an MLB franchise would be any different, especially in a less popular sport over 81 games.
To me, rooting for the Underdog is almost always fun. In this case it does not appear that the Underdogs have much of a shot. Their population sizes and overall production of GDP are generally too small to be considered viable candidates to host a team. That being said, if Milwaukee can host an MLB franchise it wouldn't surprise me to see one of these five cities eventually get a shot at hosting a MLB team.
A reminder: never underestimate the underdog.
Credit to ESPN, SB Nation, and the US Census Bureau for the information that went into this article.