If you were to bring a Minor League Baseball team to an open market, where would you look? In this article, we list the top open markets for each U.S./Canadian minor league, basing our choices on population, income and market potential.
Some of these markets already host independent and summer-collegiate baseball, but as we’ve seen in other situations (like, say, Wichita and Fayetteville), many communities are willing to either invest in or accommodate a Minor League Baseball team if one becomes available.
Not surprisingly, some of the best open markets are those losing their MiLB teams after this season. And there are plenty of existing MiLB markets that could support a higher-level team, such as Johnson City, TN, which currently hosts a Rookie-level Appalachian League team. We won’t get into any intra-MiLB moves here. And we have purposely avoided any suburbs near an MLB market. Many of these suburbs would indeed be attractive baseball markets, but MLB teams tend to oppose MiLB efforts but will tolerate independent-baseball efforts. Rather, we’re focusing on purely open markets. In most of these cases there have been efforts in the last decade to bring in a Minor League Baseball team, so many of these markets are not unknown entities.
We’re basing the rankings on data released by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB)’s list of 384 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) for the United States, last released in 2018. Population sizes are based on 2018 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
International League: Orlando (MSA #22; 2.57 million population)
It’s amazing that a market the size of Orlando, FL doesn’t support professional baseball on any level, save in satellite communities like Lakeland and Daytona Beach. No spring training, no MiLB, nothing after the planned departure of the Florida Fire Frogs from Kissimmee. Part of the issue is a facilities challenge: the only pro-level facility left in the area, The Stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, isn’t being pushed as a pro-baseball home. Owner Disney has focused its ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex efforts on youth sports, as indicated by the announcement in August that it will be host to plenty of Ripken Sports action. Meanwhile, the former home of the Fire Frogs, Osceola County Stadium, is set to be converted to a pro-soccer venue in 2020. It will take a Las Vegas-style effort, with plenty of private investment, to make Triple-A baseball work in Orlando. One key reason why the Aviators and Las Vegas Ballpark were so successful in 2019 was a location far away from the Strip. There’s a budding sports district within Orlando proper that includes an MLS stadium, Camping World Stadium and an NBA arena—a district that could only be helped by an MiLB team and an accompanying investment in a sports entertainment district attracting attendees to other sporting events. Big markets require big visions.
Pacific Coast League: New Orleans (MSA #46; 1.27M population)
The departure of the New Orleans Baby Cakes for Wichita in 2020 leaves open a pretty large market that already supports major-league sports. There’s a facility issue here: the existing Metairie, LA ballpark will need a lot of work to meet today’s modern fan expectations, and with the state currently focused on Superdome renovations, it may take some creative financing to make a team work. Another noteworthy alternative: Tucson, AZ. Pacific Coast League baseball did indeed fail in Tucson (MSA #53; 1.04M population), but you could argue it was a facility issue as much as a market failure, with MiLB always taking a back seat to spring training. Kino Stadium is a basic ballpark, to be sure, and on a hot desert night it simply wasn’t an attractive spot to take in a game. Tucson has evolved into an interesting college town, and a facility better suited to the climate (lots of shade and cooled spots) would give a pro baseball team a greater shot at success.
Eastern League: Stamford / Bridgeport (MSA #58; 943,823 population)
There have been attempts to bring MiLB to Stamford, CT and Fairfield County, but all seems quiet for now. With Stamford known as a corporate center and nearby communities (Darien, New Canaan) sporting high incomes, Fairfield County is a market with potential. Yes, there are plenty of complications from the New York MLB teams when it comes to MiLB teams in their market (put a team in Fairfield County and you’d need to put another team in the area, such as eastern Long Island). But this is simply too large an area and too prosperous to ignore. An alternative may be the open New Haven MSA (#66; 857,620 population) or Ottawa (discussed below).
Southern League: Baton Rouge (MSA #71; 831,310 population)
There have been plenty of efforts to bring pro baseball to Baton Rouge, LA in recent years. So the market has been on MiLB’s radar. But let’s not forget Mobile, AL (MSA #131; 413,757 population), which is losing its Southern League team to Huntsville.
Texas League: Beaumont (MSA #133; 409,526 population)
There are a number of interesting open markets in the Texas League footprint, especially many that make sense on the travel front. Besides Beaumont, there’s also Lubbock, TX (MSA #158; 319,038 population), Shreveport, LA (MSA #125; 436,341 population) and Waco, TX (MSA #180; 271,942). We’re not counting the Killeen area (MSA #120; 451,679) in the Waco numbers, as you’re getting south enough to be looking at part of the Round Rock region. One drawback in looking at the Texas League footprint: You’re looking at a lot of open markets of roughly the same size and with the same corporate base.
California League: Bakersfield (MSA #62; 896,764 population)
Minor League Baseball reluctantly gave up the Bakersfield, CA market when it shifted two California League teams to the Carolina League. In other respects, Bakersfield has supported minor-league sports; the Bakersfield Condors are a consistent AHL draw. Getting a new ballpark built in California with public money is now virtually impossible, however.
Carolina League / South Atlantic League: Wilmington, NC (MSA #166; 294,436 population)
There are have been a few runs at an MiLB team in Wilmington in recent years, but they’ve all failed due to citizen opposition to public funding of a new ballpark. It’s an entirely different situation if there’s a privately financed facility in the works, as may be the case.
Florida State League: The Villages (MSA #308; 128,754 population)
The Villages is an affluent retirement community east of Ocala in central Florida, spanning three counties. There’s plenty of disposable income in the area and a population looking for activities. (It’s a market where 30,000 people over the course of a two-month season pay to see polo. Polo.) It would need to be a privately financed ballpark: One of those three counties, Marion County, has elected officials that helped kill a proposal for a New York Yankees-affiliated MiLB team in nearby Ocala (MSA #149; 359,977 population). The team would need to be marketed as a regional draw (including Ocala and Leesburg) to work. Another intriguing possibility: state capital Tallahassee (MSA #140; 385,145), though competing with college-baseball powerhouse Florida State University would be a challenge.
Midwest League: Madison (MSA #86; 660,422 population)
Madison, WI is a boom town these days (yes, Ballpark Digest is based there), and the population includes lots of millennials with plenty of discretionary income. Combine that disposable income with a solid corporate base led by the likes of Epic Systems and American Family Insurance. A new ballpark would be a challenge, however (we can’t see Warner Park as a long-term home to Minor League Baseball), with the city of Madison pretty much tapped out with lots of long-term capital commitments. Evansville, IN (MSA #160; 314,672 population) was once under consideration to land another MiLB team, and there’s a definite facility issue there as well. However charming it is, Bosse Field really isn’t suitable in its present state to host Minor League Baseball.
NY-Penn League: Ottawa (CSA #5; 1M population)
Ottawa is a former International League market and a target for a Class AA Eastern League team. An independent Can-Am League team has struggled and is in the process of being sold, so there would be some challenges. One of those challenges, the weather, would be addressed with a team in a short-season league. An alternative, which we discussed regarding the Eastern League, is the New Haven MSA.
Northwest League: Bend (MSA #227; 191,996 population)
Bend, OR is primarily based on a tourist economy, but in recent years the economy has expanded and become more diversified to include sizable employers in healthcare and tech. It fits squarely within the Northwest League footprint.
Appalachian League: Huntington (MSA #150; 352,823 population)
A college town, Huntington, WV may sit slightly outside the Appalachian League footprint, but it’s definitely an attractive market for the circuit: Marshall University is building a new ballpark, and the shared-facility model with short-season teams and universities have worked out in other MiLB markets.
Pioneer League: Bozeman (48,532 population)
Our choice of Bozeman, MT is definitely outside the box. The population estimate is a little misleading, as the total Bozeman market as defined as being within Gallatin County is 107,810. It’s been tabbed by the U.S. Census Bureau as being one of the fastest-growing micropolitan areas in the country. Plus, Bozeman is the high-tech center of Montana, and MiLB certainly could be sold as an amenity to these high-tech firms seeking to bring talent to the area. And it fits squarely within the Pioneer League footprint on the northern side of the circuit. Another strong contender: the Fort Collins, CO (MSA #151; 350,518 population) area, which includes Windsor, where a Pioneer League team could potentially land.
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