Yesterday, before the All-Star Game, Commissioner Rob Manfred was doing his typical “state of the union” luncheon with the BBWAA. It was pretty much all the standard talking points you’d expect from him: fan safety improvements, progress on the pace of play, making instant replay reviews faster and how the league is open to the idea of expansion. WHAAAAAAAAAA????????
“Maybe one of the reasons I got this job is, I’m bullish on this game,” Manfred said. “I think we are a growth business, broadly defined. And over an extended period of time, growth businesses look to get bigger. So yeah, I’m open to the idea that there will be a point in time where expansion may be possible.”
While there is obviously nothing definitive, this is a groundbreaking statement from Manfred considering that he made comments back in February that functionally threw cold water on the idea of expansion. He’s now gone from that to intimating that the league isn’t just open to expansion, but that they are already assessing potential markets to see which could be viable (hi, Montreal).
So why the change of heart? Well, money. Money changes a lot of hearts.
In the last few years, sports franchises have seen their values skyrocket. It all started with the Dodgers selling for $2 billion. That was followed by the LA Clippers selling for $2 billion themselves. After that the much lower profile, much smaller market Atlanta Hawks managed to sell for $850 million. And now the NHL, the red-headed stepchild of the four major leagues, has the Pittsburgh Penguins on the verge of selling for what they believe will be well over $700 million and then opening up their own expansion process where the expansion fee will start at a cool $500 million. Imagine what MLB could charge for an expansion franchise?
Viable markets or not, there is literally billions of dollars to be had if MLB gets into the expansion game. MLB can line their pockets and figure out how to fix the markets later. That’s something that will certainly earn Manfred a positive job review from the owners, but if he goes through with it, he has to realize that by delving into expansion, he’s opening up MLB to so much more.
MLB would presumably add two more teams, one in each league. However, that would once again lead to unbalanced divisions, something the league only just recently fixed. You know what that means, don’t you? More realignment!
Either the league will have to condense back to two divisions per league, which seems unlikely as it would mean teams playing a lot more games out of their home time zone, which is bad for the local TV ratings that teams thrive on. Or the league would have to go to four divisions of four teams each per league. You know what that means, don’t you? Playoff realignment!
The league only recently added a second wild card, but if they move to a four-division format, they’d either have to drop back down to one wild card and force a division winner to play in the one-game playoff or keep two wild cards and expand the playoff field to six teams per league. Either way, the traditionalists are going to lose their minds.
But wait, there’s more!
Assuming the league balances each league with 16 teams each, we will once again see a shift in how interleague games are handled. There would no longer be the need for an interleague series always being played somewhere. That would allow the league to shift back to more event-based interleague scheduling, to once again make it a bit more rare and special.
Or the league could go the complete other way and embrace interleague even further by using expansion as an excuse to institute the DH in both leagues. That’s something they might need to do to make the expansion-related realignment make sense. The league will want to keep divisions tightly grouped by geography, but that could be difficult depending on where the expansion teams ultimately come from. To make that easier, teams could be forced to move from one league to another, something not well received by teams due in part to the change in DH-rule. If there is a universal DH, that wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Suffice it to say, there is a lot more for Manfred to consider with expansion than just which cities to place teams in. With those billions of dollars waiting to be scooped up though, no one can blame him for his sudden enthusiasm for the idea.