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Hello 2019! Three MLB Stories to Watch in the New Year

Tampa Bay Rays Ybor City ballpark rendering 7

We’ve spent a lot of time in the last two weeks reviewing the best of 2018. Now comes the time to turn our attention to 2019. We’ve peered into the crystal ball to compile a list of what we think will generate the most headlines and interest in the New Year.

The Tampa Ballpark Search Begins Anew

With the Tampa Bay Rays pulling the plug on a proposed Ybor City ballpark, the team’s long-term future is in play. Whether or not there’s a resolution to the issue in 2019 is a big question, but there’s no doubt there will be plenty of talk about the Rays’ future home in a shifting landscape.

Local officials say the Ybor City proposal isn’t dead—just subject to re-planning, for now. But there’s an event in the spring that could change the parameters of any new-ballpark talk in Tampa: municipal elections that will see a new mayor and city council. Outgoing Mayor Bob Buckhorn was willing to discuss new ballpark without making a big commitment to funding, and the candidates to replace him will probably follow the same course. Whether there’s an appetite to hashing out the details of a ballpark funding plan remains to be seen, however, and the consensus seems to be that any new talks will need to be initiated by the Rays, not local officials.

We don’t expect a similar quick resolution to the Oakland A’s ballpark situation. After a big announcement of a proposed new facility at the Howard Terminal, we’re entering a study period that includes a year-long environmental review, determination of a funding package and negotiations over the future of the Coliseum site.

The Rangers Prep for a New Ballpark Move

This is the final year for the Texas Rangers playing out of Globe Life Park, with a move to the new Globe Life Field set for 2020. The new ballpark will feature a retractable roof and better climate control, promising to provide a much better fan experience.

What we expect to see in 2019 when it comes to Globe Life Park: a game plan for the facility’s future. At one point the plan was to tear down part of the ballpark and keep the grandstand as the basis of a new amphitheater surrounded by new development, but now it looks like the plan has shifted to keeping much of the old ballpark intact to host pro football in the form of the spring XFL league launching in 2020. As of now the Rangers and Arlington are exploring redevelopment that could possibly include two high-rise buildings on opposite ends of the ballpark. More details should emerge down the road, but a conversion project would build off of certain features of Globe Life Park, including its distinct facade and existing office buildings in the outfield.

And the Rangers need to make some final decisions on the new ballpark. Right now the facility is planned to sport synthetic turf, but there’s a whole host of fans who prefer real grass. There are tradeoffs to both approaches. The better baseball experience comes with a grass field, but there are maintenance issues under the hot Texas sun and fewer non-baseball events are possible. Financially, the better decision would be to install synthetic turf—but this may be a case where the right decision isn’t necessarily the one that best serves the bottom line.

MLB Formulates a New Streaming Structure

With Disney and Fox placing the 22 Fox regional sports networks (RSNs) on the market as a condition of Disney acquiring many key Fox assets, a potential MLB purchase of the RSNs could dramatically overhaul how Major League Baseball is sold to the masses.

MLB teams have a love-hate relationship with the RSNs: they love the revenue but don’t like the lack of control. Plus, there’s also the sense in some front offices that teams could better monetize streaming rights in the form of their own offerings. There’s been considerable weakness in the cable industry in the last few years, as consumers are increasingly frustrated at being forced to purchase a spendy package when all they want is a limited number of channels. Consumers are also willing to subscribe to specialized services if they see a value there: witness the popularity of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, which is becoming less a discounted delivery offering and more a media offering with noteworthy new original series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

MLB and its teams are among the bidders for the RSNs, while the New York Yankees have a right of first refusal on any sale of the YES Network. As we wrote in November, using an RSN as the basis for a streaming service would open up new possibilities for ad and subscription sales that could also be combined with sponsorships or even season-ticket sales for MLB teams. RSNs are attractive properties because of the rights they control, not necessarily because of their financial futures as cable channels: a streaming RSN has the potential to attract cord cutters who find paying a higher fee for cable access off-putting, when all they want is a subset of the cable offering.

This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.

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