As a freelance sports writer, I've been lucky enough to enjoy a game at every MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL venue, plus hundreds of college and minor league sites. And while I'm no economist or prognosticator, I can envision MLB leaving St. Petersburg, Fla. come the 2028 season, if not sooner.
But where? There are three sets of questions to ask when discussing MLB relocation.
1. Factor: Population Size.
How big is the metropolitan area? In MLB, size matters. Of the 30 current MLB teams, only seven are located in markets with less than 3 million people in their respective greater metropolitan areas, according to the 2010 U.S. Census (Cleveland, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee). Small markets that host an NHL and NBA team might be able to get away with it because they play only half as many home games than the 81 games baseball teams do, plus MLB facilities are two to three times bigger, so more fannies can be in the seats.
In the U.S. and Canada, there's only one market in the U.S. and Canada without an MLB team and a metropolitan population greater than three million: Montreal (3.82 million). That doesn't necessarily mean MLB wouldn't relocate to a market with less than 3 million. Milwaukee, MLB's smallest market at 1.75 million, had the seventh highest attendance in 2011, drawing more than 3 million fans. Cincinnati drew more than 2 million and Pittsburgh came close to that mark. But unlike Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two of the oldest franchises in MLB, which leads us to ...
2. Factor: Population Makeup.
This category requires four very key questions:
A) Are there a lot of transplants in the market, or are most of the residents natives?
One of the reasons the Rays fail to draw is because many of the residents of Tampa-St. Petersburg were born elsewhere. These fans go to Tropicana Field to see the Red Sox, Yankees or other teams because that's where there true affiliation lies. So one key question to ask about relocation is how many of the residents are natives with no tie to an MLB team? That question also leads to .
B) How far is the market from another MLB city and where do affiliates lie amongst the fans?
Two U.S. regions that have been cited in economic studies as ready to support an MLB team are Northern New Jersey and the Inland Empire section of Los Angeles, namely, Riverside-San Bernardino. There's just one key problem these studies don't take into account - just how close these markets are to existing MLB teams. It's extremely unrealistic to think sports fans in the suburbs of New York City are going to stop rooting for the Yankees and Mets, franchises they've grown up supporting for generations. Ditto for Southern Californians where fans have a long-time affinity to the Dodgers, Angels and Padres.
C) What kinds of people live here?
Every market is unique. In some markets, sports teams are an integral part of the fabric of the community (like in St. Louis and Milwaukee) while others get labeled as "lousy sports towns" and rightfully so. For example, were it not for its sheer population size, it's uncertain if MLB would even have a team in Miami, Atlanta or Toronto. Baseball will always come second in these cities, not first. Hockey rules in Canada and college football dominates the South. And even when these teams are good, sellouts are not a guarantee. Remember the Braves' run of 14 straight National League East crowns? There were Division Series games in which plenty of seats were empty. If MLB were to relocate, it would need to ensure the market has a strong culture of supporting its sports teams, but especially baseball, which leads us to .
D) What's the baseball history in the community like?
This is vitally important, especially for smaller markets seeking MLB's attention. For example, does the market have a strong amateur program that has actually produced big leaguers? Has the market ranked among the top in Minor League Baseball attendance?
3. Final Key Factor: TV Landscape, Corporate Sponsorships and Regional Marketing
This is huge in baseball. With teams playing practically every day over a long 162-game season, reaching a large television audience is integral to a franchise's success. The Brewers, for example, had the third highest television MLB viewership in 2011, according to Nielsen ratings, with only the Phillies and Cardinals with a larger per game TV audience. Although based in Milwaukee, the Brewers have statewide appeal across Wisconsin.
When the Rays eventually depart the Costco of MLB in 16 years, if not sooner, here are 10 markets in which the Rays might land, from most likely to least likely:
Most likely: Tampa, Fla.
The most realistic option for the Rays is probably building a cozy, 37,000-seat ballpark that is convenient for all to reach, ideally across the bay from St. Petersburg in an urban section of Tampa between Ybor City and downtown. But despite being at the height its franchise success the past few seasons, the Rays couldn't even come close to selling out a home playoff game in 2011. Even if the Rays payroll were higher, it's not statistically realistic to think they'll be in the playoffs every year like the run of 14 consecutive appearances by the Atlanta Braves.
So the question is whether it's realistic to think a new ballpark is going to significantly increase the number of fans that will financially support the Rays once the new ballpark smell has waned and/or the team doesn't make the playoffs. With so many transplants living in Tampa where allegiances lie with historic franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox and others, the maximum financial affinity to the Rays in the market should be restudied thoroughly before they start building a new ballpark - and it appears the Rays are doing just that.
Most realistically, were an MLB team to move out of the Tampa Bay area, it might not be until 2028 when the Rays use agreement ends with St. Petersburg.
The Skinny: With a population of 2.4 million, Vancouver is about the size of metropolitan Pittsburgh and is Canada's third largest city. But Vancouver ranks No. 1 in terms of relocation potential for one chief reason: BC Place in downtown Vancouver, which was renovated for $563 million (Canadian).
"We did the renovations, keeping baseball in mind," explained Graham Ramsey, a spokesperson for BC Place. "To me, one of the biggest challenges is date availability."
BC Place has 220 events scheduled in 2012, from conventions to concerts and more, which would leave only 145 open dates to try and squeeze in an 81-game MLB regular season schedule, plus playoffs. Even more daunting? A Major League Soccer (MLS) team and a Canadian Football League (CFL) club already share BC Place during the baseball season, so scheduling a 10-game home stand could be quite the conundrum. Yet MLS and CFL teams make it work at Rogers Centre (aka SkyDome) in Toronto, home of the Blue Jays. And like Rogers Centre, BC Place can be played with the roof open or closed, so no rain outs.
Upsides: BC Place can accommodate up to 40,000 baseball fans. Vancouver is the ethnically diverse melting pot that MLB covets as it tries to grow the game abroad, especially in countries outside its core nucleus in the Caribbean and Latin America. Vancouver's population increased by 30,000 in 2011, including in several suburbs where MLB players hail from such as New Westminster (Justin Morneau), Langley (Brett Lawrie) and Maple Ridge (the retired Larry Walker).
Downsides: BC Place hasn't been game tested nor reviewed yet by MLB to see if it would meet its standards. No baseball team has even taken batting practice since the renovations. MLB might also be leery of the market, especially since the NBA's Grizzlies only lasted six seasons here (although the weak Canadian dollar at the time had a lot to do with the relocation, not just the dwindling attendance, plus hoops season competes with hockey season - baseball doesn't). Other downsides: the Seattle Mariners, 144 miles south of Vancouver, might block the move (instead of embracing a local rivalry). But the biggest obstacle: given the size of the market, just how far can the Vancouver sports fans dollar go, with an MLS and CFL team already established, plus a existing NHL team?
Greater Metro Population: 2.4 million (compares to Pittsburgh)
Canadian TV Market: 3rd largest in Canada (after Toronto and Montreal)
The Skinny: Go ahead and laugh, but the fact is there are a lot of great baseball fans in Montreal - many of whom would still like to maim Jeffrey Loria. Baseball fans outside the Island City forget that when the Expos were rocking the MLB universe in 1994, Olympic Stadium was the place to be. And don't forget the ballpark was supposed to be baseball's first retractable roof - before SkyDome. The Expos' demise in Montreal also had to do with the sluggish Canadian economy at the time, especially against the U.S. dollar, not to mention the stadium's remote location, ongoing problems and ownership's abandonment by trading its best players. With funding for a downtown ballpark, a franchise in Montreal could thrive again. And don't say it can't happen. Baseball returned to Washington, a fair weather sports town. Why couldn't it return to a more passionate sports town like Montreal? If it's to happen though, wealthy Quebec financiers would likely have to step up to the plate to privately finance a new ballpark.
Upsides: A large population with money to spend - two key ingredients for any franchise. Plus, consider this reality: the Expos/Nationals have won just one division championship since their founding in 1969 and that came in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign in which the team won the second half of that season. Yet despite its utter failure year after year to make the postseason, the club averaged at least 18,000 fans every campaign from 1979 through 1997, with the exception of just three seasons in that long timeframe. It was only after the club traded Pedro Martinez following the 1997 season that Expos fans threw up their hands in disgust (and who could blame them?) and its attendance completely nosedived.
Downsides: Show me the money. I can't imagine the provincial government in Quebec or the City of Montreal paying for a new ballpark, which could keep MLB away. And for goodness sakes, build it in heart of the downtown core.
Greater Metro Population: 3.82 million (compares to Minneapolis)
Canadian TV Market: 2nd largest in Canada (after Toronto)
Carolina Batter up: Raleigh-Durham-Cary versus Charlotte
The Skinny: Comb the 2011 Minor League Baseball attendance numbers and you'll find the two teams in the greater Raleigh-Durham area drew very well. The Triple-A Durham Bulls attracted more than 450,000 fans and the Double-A Carolina Mudcats more than 250,000. That's more than 700,000 fans for Minor League Baseball. What's more, Greensboro, home to a Single-A team and within an hours' drive of Durham, drew 388,000, and nearby in Winston-Salem, a High-A team drew 312,000. Compare those numbers to Charlotte's two Minor League teams - its Triple-A club and a Single-A team outside of town in Kannapolis - and it's not even close.
I've never been sold on Charlotte as a MLB market for a couple of reasons: 1) this is NASCAR country and 2) the city's had two incarnations of an NBA team and neither has exactly raked attendance records. With the Panthers already in town and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte aiming for Division I football in the future, I believe Charlotte may be stretched too thin to support another major sports team. Charlotte also has been unable to secure funding for a new Triple-A ballpark. The Queen City also isn't terribly larger than Raleigh-Cary-Durham and hasn't grown as much as the greater capitol region. Still, Charlotte can't be totally discounted. It has the second largest amount of banks and companies in the power and energy and industries also call this place home.
Raleigh-Durham-Cary Upsides: The only major professional sports team, the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL, arrived in 1999, and the region's sports history is rooted in its three premier universities, Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. But this well-educated populace, coupled with its Research Triangle, a center for high-tech and biotech research, has the greater Raleigh-Durham-Cary region poised to potentially be the single fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S. over the next 15 years. The region is also frequently rated as of the best in the U.S. for business. Suburban Cary, home to the USA Baseball Complex, was the third-fastest growing city of 100,000 people or more between 2008 and 2009. Although college basketball rules in this region, the season is long over by the time baseball season begins.
Raleigh-Durham-Cary Downsides: It's unclear whether this market is ready right now for another professional sports team. Raleigh-Durham's NHL franchise ranks in the bottom third in attendance, even after more than 10 years in the market and a Stanley Cup championship. For any team to thrive in Carolina, regional and statewide marketing would be crucial. Might this region be ready for MLB come 2028?
Greater Metro Populations: Charlotte, 2.4 million (compares to Pittsburgh); Raleigh-Durham, 1.7 million (compares to Milwaukee)
U.S. TV Market: Raleigh-Durham, 24th; Charlotte, 25th (compares to Pittsburgh, 23rd, and Baltimore, 27th)
The Skinny: The Rose City has flirted with MLB for years but has never been able to lure Bud Selig down the Colombia River. Why? The fact it lost a Triple-A team a few years ago can be viewed as a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view. Portland supports its NBA and MLS franchises with genuine passion, but would it seriously radiate with an MLB team? Personally, I'm not so sure.
Upsides: Portland sports fans support the NBA's Trail Blazers and MLS' Timbers very well, and there are a good chunk of corporations here, from Adidas to Nike. With the right marketing, a franchise might thrive. Instead of branding itself a city team, a franchise here could also try a statewide reach.
Downsides: Is the market really ready for MLB or even interested? They couldn't even keep their Triple-A team, which relocated. Not exactly a great sales pitch to bring MLB to town, in my opinion.
Portland Greater Metro Population: 2.2 million (compares closest to Cincinnati)
U.S. TV Market: 22nd largest (compares closest to St. Louis, 21st, and Pittsburgh, 23rd)
The Skinny: What Music City lacks in numbers (1.6 million in 2010 U.S. Census), it may make up for in corporate support and most certainly entertainment value, which can't be discounted. But the population numbers to support a third major professional sports team in the home of the Country Music aren't there yet. Will they be in 10 to 15 years?
Upsides: I can imagine every night being an "entertainment event" along the Riverfront, starting with who's singing the national anthem? Other Music City pluses: Its NFL Titans fans are among the lord of the rings when it comes to selling out luxury suites and the city's well-educated populace (Vanderbilt, Tennessee State, Belmont and Lipscomb), coupled with the state's tax-friendly lure of businesses, makes Music City a location worth exploring. No one thought hockey would sell in Nashville, but many fans have finally wrapped their arms around the Predators - and those tickets are much more expensive than baseball tickets. Imagine what Nashville could do with a good baseball team? A four-hour drive to Atlanta could also create a Georgia-Tennessee border war. If MLB were to work here, marketing the team statewide would also be essential.
Downsides: Finding and financing a suitable long-term venue. The city's current Triple-A club has struggled to secure financing for a new ballpark - that's a very bad sign because a deal for a new big league yard would have to be in play for any move to happen.
Nashville Greater Metro Population: 1.67 million (compares closest to Milwaukee)
U.S. TV Market: 29th largest (compares closest to Baltimore, 27,th and San Diego, 28th)
The Skinny: In 2006, before Nolan Ryan owned the Rangers, he was the boss of a Triple-A team in Round Rock, north of Austin. I asked Ryan then if he thought Austin could support a MLB team. He said perhaps in the future. Perhaps the future is Central Texas. Although the Triple-A team draws more than 600,000 fans annually, it's uncertain if the state capital could alone support a team, given its small metropolitan population of 1.75 million in the 2010 U.S. Census (compares to Milwaukee). But brand a club as "Central Texas' team," and you could potentially attract weekenders from San Antonio, Waco, College Station and elsewhere in the region. With a metro population of 2.1 million, San Antonio is larger than Austin, but not as centrally-located, but it still might work there also years from now.
Upsides: This is a strong sports region with a solid economy that is poised for continued economic and population growth. The Spurs regularly are atop the NBA in attendance and the Texas Longhorns have one of the strongest fan bases in college sports. Both cities have well-educated populaces with disposable income. Both regions are also rich in baseball history. And while there are indeed Rangers and Astros fans in Central Texas, what makes Texans unique is the pride they have for their individual regions. I could see an MLB team succeeding here, with fresh new rivalries created with the Astros and Rangers.
Downsides: Since both TV markets are small, regional marketing would be essential. And are these cities really ready for the big time? San Antonio seems more interested in acquiring a Triple-A team than swinging for the MLB fences. Both cities may not be ready for MLB now, but perhaps by 2028?
Greater Metro Populations: San Antonio, 2.1 million (compares to Cincinnati and Kansas City); Austin, 1.75 million (compares to Milwaukee)
U.S. TV Market: San Antonio 36th largest; Austin 47th (either would be the smallest in MLB)
Salt Lake City, Utah
The Skinny: Like Nashville, the population in the Crossroads of the West is less than stimulating (2 million within a 30-mile radius of downtown, according to the Economic Development Corp. of Utah, which is higher than the 1.7 million in the 2010 U.S. Census). But what Salt Lake City lacks in size, it could potentially make up for in dollars, with some 52 percent making at least $50,000 annually. Another plus? Most Utahans were born and raised locally and have no strong affinity to any particular MLB team.
Upsides: You've got to say this about Utah sports fans: they are passionate, historically drawing well for the NBA's Jazz and its premier college teams, Utah and Brigham Young. And during baseball season, there's no competition until football starts in September. Solid regional marketing and multi-state regional television penetration into Idaho and Wyoming would also be essential for success.
Downsides: Numbers. The only way the Salt Lake Valley gets an MLB team is if its citizens put their money where there mouth is because MLB will be skeptical it can work here given the population size. Locals might have to put down deposits on season tickets before a ballpark is even built.
Greater Metro Population: 1.74 million (compares closest to Milwaukee)
U.S. TV Market: 33rd largest (compares to Milwaukee, 34th, and Cincinnati, 35th)
The Skinny: Indianapolis is a sports-crazy market, from supporting the NFL's Colts to college hoops to the NBA Pacers (when they're good). It's also one of the few medium-sized sports cities with three sports museums (NCAA Hall of Champions Museum, Indianapolis 500 Museum and National Art Museum of Sport). But impediments to landing an MLB team are multiple and daunting.
Upsides: Indianapolis is expected to continue to grow economically in the future. The city reminds me a lot of Pittsburgh, a great medium-sized sports town that supports teams from the NFL, MLB and NHL. Indianapolis (2 million) is smaller than Pittsburgh (2.4 million) but not by a ton.
Downsides: One of the biggest basketball states in the U.S. doesn't always support its NBA team, which makes you wonder if the market is stretched too thin financially to support a third professional sports team. But Indy's biggest detriment isn't just population - it's also geography and affinity. You can drive to Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago within a few hours, and many fans have allegiances to these tradition-rich clubs. Indianapolis flirted with getting an MLB team in the 1980s but it's didn't pan out. The only way MLB lands here is if fans put money down on season ticket deposits to show there affiliations can lie with a hometown team - and not the Reds, Cardinals, Cubs or White Sox.
Greater Metro Population: 2 million (compares closest to Kansas City)
U.S. TV Market: 26th largest (closest to Baltimore/San Diego)
The Skinny: If you were to ask me what are the top 10 medium-sized sports cities in the U.S., Oklahoma City would rank at or near the top of my list.
Upsides: OKC is a great sports town and region, supporting not just the NBA's Thunder with great enthusiasm, but also University of Oklahoma football and basketball (even women's hoops in impressive numbers), plus the current Triple-A franchise downtown. The economy here is strong, especially in the aerospace and oil and gas sectors.
Downsides: The biggest problem is there simply aren't enough people here currently to support an MLB team. The only way OKC gets a team is if its populace puts down season ticket deposits before a new ballpark is even built. What's more, solid regional and statewide marketing would be essential. And this region needs to continue to grow and grow - and grow.
Greater Metro Population: 1.25 million (compares closest to Milwaukee)
U.S. TV Market: 44th largest (would eclipse Cincinnati (35) as smallest TV market)
Fugget about it, already:
Why these 10 areas below will never make any relocation lineup card:
Northern New Jersey/Hartford, Connecticut: And MLB team will never play in either of these places. Fans in this region are diehard Yankees, Mets or Red Sox fans! Enough already for the love of Pete!
San Bernardino-Riverside, CA: Same argument as above, most fans here are Dodgers, Angels or Padres fans.
San Juan, Puerto Rico: MLB experimented here, remember? And it didn't go so well when the Expos played a second set of games here in year two.
Monterrey/Mexico City: On paper, both of these markets may have the numbers to support an MLB team. But the drug war is sadly getting worse.
Orlando, Fla.: A Double-A team left town due to poor attendance and many residents were born and raised elsewhere, which is also where their MLB affiliations lie. And have you seen this city's unemployment rate? Plus, so many lakes result in only one Interstate through town and hideous traffic. In short, the city is fractured geographically (hmmm, sounds like Tampa Bay).
Norfolk-Portsmouth-Hampton Roads-Newport News, Virginia Beach, Va.: You think Orlando and Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg are geographically fractured? That's nothing compared to this region.
Las Vegas, Nev.: A mostly service-based, one-dimensional economy, which is not a good recipe for success. What's more, many residents were born elsewhere which is where there true team allegiances sit. It may not sound glamorous but no way, no how, does an MLB team ever relocate to Vegas.
Memphis, Tenn.: The city hasn't overly embraced the NBA's Grizzlies and it barely blips the top 50 U.S. TV Markets. Plus, the unemployment rate here is quite high.
Louisville/Lexington, Ky: Like Memphis, very small TV markets, plus these two communities within 70 plus miles of each other are historically (and literally) dominated by University of Louisville and University of Kentucky athletics, respectively.
Sacramento, Calif.: Ask the A's; NFL's 49ers, Raiders and Chargers; and Cowtown's NBA Kings how that new facility sports construction project is coming along. And did I mention the State of California is flat broke? Plus, Sactown is only 80 miles from Oakland and 90 miles from San Francisco. It's a great sports town but MLB relocation here? Fugget about it.
The NBA initially landed in Oklahoma City as a result of Hurricane Katrina pummeling New Orleans - and the Hornets nest, known as the New Orleans Arena. Oklahoma City embraced the Hornets. Play MLB exhibition games - post-spring training/pre-regular season tilts - in multiple different markets over the next several seasons to test potential future waters for the Rays.
Joe Connor is a contributor to NBCSports.com and author of the annually-updated online spring training travel guide, "A Fan's Guide To The Ultimate Spring Training Experience" which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: http://www.modernerabaseball.com and http://www.mrsportstravel.com.