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Until Ballpark Situations Resolved, Talk of Expansion Premature

Henderson rendering

With the news that the Arizona Diamondbacks had explored a move to the Las Vegas suburbs, it was a stark reminder that it’s more than just Tampa Bay and Oakland facing ballpark and market challenges—and MLB expansion may not be the slam-dunk many observers assume.

In case you missed it, it was reported last week that Henderson (NV) officials had approached the Arizona Diamondbacks regarding a potential sports/entertainment district built around a $1-billion 36,000-capacity retractable-roof ballpark. The deal was sweetened with a lot of breaks (an exemption from property taxes, municipally ownership) that aren’t on the table in any Phoenix-area municipality—yet.

And while the Diamondbacks aren’t actively seeking a move to Henderson, the door to a move has not been closed. Even if the D-Backs ownership isn’t actively seeking a Henderson move, its existence provides some leverage in any further talks for a renovated Chase Field or a new ballpark somewhere in the Valley, even if the Diamondbacks downplay that leverage. But any move would take years: MLB now takes an active role in franchise relocations, and any wooing of the Diamondbacks means Henderson goes through the commissioner’s office.

It sounds like the focus for the Diamondbacks is a renovation of Chase Field: it sits in a good location, well-served by mass transit and freeway access, with infrastructure and parking already in place. Two challenges emerge: how to modernize the sprawling facility to make it a more intimate venue, and how to pay for that modernization.

So that leaves us with three MLB franchises facing facility issues. Oh, wait, there’s a fourth: the Los Angeles Angels.

If anything, the future of the Angels at a renovated Angel Stadium or a new ballpark at the same location is growing more muddled, not less, as talks progress. In theory, the Angels want to extend the Angel Stadium lease while also determining whether the ballpark is renovated or replaced. It will take upwards of $150 million to renovate to keep up with the rest of the sport, and upwards of a half-billion dollars for a new facility.

After years of negotiations, however, there’s still no consensus on an Angels ballpark plan. Part of the issue is that neither Anaheim nor the Angels have stepped forward with any sort of solid proposal—publicly, at least. Do the Angels want a new ballpark? Does Anaheim want to keep the Angels in the 150-acre ballpark Platinum Triangle area, and under what financial terms?

The other part of the issue: neither side has overwhelming leverage. Yes, the Angels have been talking with Long Beach about a waterfront ballpark at a challenging site, and there’s reportedly been one other location in the Los Angeles area discussed. And while Anaheim controls the land, with city officials adamant about receiving fair market value for the land along with a potential community benefits agreement a la L.A. Live, there’s certainly a fear of the unknown if the Angels do indeed leave Anaheim. Look for any final agreement to be a compromise that doesn’t totally please either side.

So that leaves us with four MLB franchises facing facility issues. Oh, wait, there’s a fifth: the Toronto Blue Jays.

Whether the Blue Jays will seek a replacement for Rogers Centre isn’t a decision to be made in the short term. With no clear plan to renovate the 30-year-old ballpark, however, the Toronto Blue Jays and the city may be looking at an entirely new ballpark down the road, as the team and the city explore the facility’s future. This does rise to the level of an unresolved issue for Major League Baseball.

That leaves us with at least five MLB teams with unsettled ballpark situations, with Portland and Henderson openly wooing relocations. Yes, the chances are good that Arizona, Toronto and the Angels will stay in their current market. But we don’t know that for sure, and until we do, don’t expect to hear any talk of expansion from MLB officials.

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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