The race for the next MLB expansion team is on, and several cities in the southeast are hoping to come in first.
The next brand-new team won’t come until the league resolves stadium issues for the Tampa Bay Rays and decides on the Oakland Athletics’ relocation to Las Vegas. Nevertheless, increasing the number of MLB franchises remains a hot topic, with Nashville, Raleigh and Charlotte vying for attention.
Looking at those three locations, Nashville has the edge when it comes to player sentiment, financial backing and broad-based community support.
Why Nashville leads the pack in the southeast
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB Player’s Association released their 2022-2026 labor agreement last year. In the agreement, the sides identified the potential to expand the league by two teams (see page 77 of the agreement) at some point, but probably not before the end of the current labor agreement.
However, that hasn’t stopped several cities (beyond those cited above) from putting forward serious bids for a new team, including:
- Salt Lake City, Utah;
- Portland, Oregon;
- Austin, Texas;
- Vancouver, British Columbia; and
- Mexico City, Mexico.
When it comes to the South, contenders must be in a strong broadcast market and far enough from Atlanta to not overlap with the Braves’ fanbase and local media reach.
Nashville fits the bill on all these fronts and has several other advantages. It is 27th on the list of U.S. broadcast markets and doesn’t have an MLB or NBA team. The city also has a deep history of die-hard baseball fandom that dates back to the 1800s.
Players prefer Nashville
MLB players overwhelmingly prefer Nashville as the next city to get a team, according to a June 2023 poll from The Athletic. Of the 103 players polled, 63% chose Nashville as the best site for a new franchise. Montreal was second (10%) and Charlotte was third (5%). Montreal had the Expos for 35 years until 2004, when the team relocated to Washington, D.C., and became the Nationals.
One player polled mentioned a possible overlap with other MLB teams in the southeast.
“I think the only issue with them going to Nashville would be that there are so many Cardinals, Braves and Reds fans in that area,” the player told The Athletic. “I think it’d be like any other team; there’s not gonna be a huge fanbase at first.”
Strong business and community backing
Among the groups behind efforts to secure a franchise for their city, Nashville’s consortium stands out for several reasons. With a ramped-up campaign that took off in 2020, Music City Baseball (MCB) has a roster of heavy hitters in business and sports on its board, including:
- Alberto Gonzales, a former U.S. attorney general and the board chair of MCB;
- MLB legend Dave Stewart;
- NFL legend Eddie George, former Tennessee Titans star and now Tennessee State football coach;
- Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; and
- John Loar, a business executive who has experience in MLB and NFL franchise acquisitions, including the sale of the Seattle Seahawks.
MCB backers include well-known entertainers, including Darius Rucker, Justin Timberlake and Luke Combs. Hall of Famer Tony La Russa is an adviser to MCB. No other community organization in the southeast competing for a franchise has as many well-recognized names and wealthy supporters.
Diversity and minority representation efforts linked to proposed team name
Diversity is a central tenet of MCB’s mission. Board members are predominantly people of color. In addition, MCB inked a revenue-sharing agreement with the Kansas City-based Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Former World Series champion and board member Stewart leads MCB’s Diverse Equity Initiative, an effort to prioritize minority investors in the team.
“The time has come for Black ownership in Major League Baseball,” Stewart said. “Now, more than ever, we need to change the dynamics and unlock access to ownership for minorities. We are creating a historic opportunity with the Nashville Stars, and I’m proud to lead our efforts to secure an ownership group that is aligned with our core mission, values, and legacy.”
The proposed name of the team, the Nashville Stars, is in honor of the Negro Southern League team that played in the city in the 1950s.
North Carolina pro baseball hopes for Raleigh and Charlotte
Across the border in North Carolina, Raleigh and Charlotte have also been in discussions for an expansion team. Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham rank higher than Nashville on the list of the biggest U.S. broadcast markets. Charlotte is at No. 21, while Raleigh is at No. 23.
Raleigh has an organized community effort backing the city’s campaign for an expansion team, MLBRaleigh. The group began its drive for a team in 2018. Its activities include a social media campaign, fan-interest events and identifying two sites near downtown for a pro baseball complex.
In October, Carolina Hurricans owner, Tom Dundon, jumped on the MLB Raleigh bandwagon. “It’s the only thing we’re kind of missing if you look at the size of the state and the support of the teams,” Dundon told WRAL.com. “It sort of feels obvious.”
Regarding player sentiment, The Athletic poll also captured the emotions of a player from Charlotte who referenced the Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox: “I’m biased, I know, but people love baseball in Charlotte. When the Knights built their stadium, it was with the idea of expanding it. They always rank high in attendance. I think a team there would be really successful.”
The Charlotte MLB expansion grassroots movement for a new team is not on the scale of Raleigh’s or Nashville’s. The Charlotte Bats seems to be primarily driven by one individual with no major backers or corporate support like the other cities.
Sports betting options in Tennessee and North Carolina
If MLB officials consider the sports betting markets of the two states, North Carolina sports betting has better revenue potential. Sports betting in Tennessee is legal but only available online. Currently, 11 sports betting apps operate in the state.
North Carolina sports betting only recently became legal outside of three tribal casinos in the state. However, when expanded sports betting goes live in 2024, the state will allow up to 12 online sportsbooks, not including up to two mobile sportsbooks owned by tribes.
Retail sports betting will be allowed at up to eight locations at sports venues, racetracks and golf courses. This means that a new MLB stadium could also house a retail sportsbook, which cannot happen in Tennessee. Consequently, NC MLB betting options outpace those of Tennessee.
Whatever happens, realignment is on the table
The last time MLB expanded was in 1998 with the addition of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. If a push for another team in the southeast is successful and another team gets added to the West Coast, the league would face the issue of realignment of 32 teams.
The MLB could decide to eliminate the existing structure and follow the lead of other professional leagues to create geographic-based leagues or conferences. The expansion team could compete against the Rays, the Braves, and the Miami Marlins in a newly formed division.
Image: John Minchillo / AP photo