The case for Raleigh over Charlotte for MLB expansion

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been pretty open about the fact that Major League Baseball is in the early phases of planning for expansion in the coming years. He has also been pretty open about which cities and regions he feels may be good fits.

In almost every mention of expansion cities, Manfred has mentioned Charlotte, NC.

After hearing this a few times, we started to wonder why Charlotte has become the go-to city for pro sports in North Carolina, while Raleigh has seemingly been an afterthought.

Looking at the high-level population data and the fact that Charlotte has the biggest pro-sports presences in the state, it makes sense that an organization trying to bring a pro-franchise would start with The Queen City and work its way down.

However, when you uncover the Triangle’s census discrepancies (discussed later in the article), start to look at growth trends over the past ten years, and factor in pro-sport overlap, you begin to realize that maybe Charlotte isn’t the wisest long-term choice for MLB after all.

Let’s take a closer look.

As you can see, the Charlotte ‘metro area’ is bigger than the Triangle’s (for now) and their TV market is a tad larger. However, even today, the difference isn’t that great and Raleigh and the Triangle continue to make up ground every year.

When it comes to financials, the Raleigh area has the advantage. Residents here have a higher median household income by almost $5k (giving them more money to spend annually on entertainment).  Add in the fact that Raleigh’s metro area population and job growth are out-pacing Charlotte by a decent margin (both of those data points rank in the nation’s top 5 according to Forbes) and you can see why it’s odd that this region hasn’t at least been in the conversation for MLB expansion.


The Population Myth based on a Census Discrepancy

Instead of focusing on city populations, if you really want to find out if baseball is viable in your region, you need to focus on the adjacent communities from which you could realistically draw.

In cases where a single large city anchors several small suburbs, the census’ Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) stat characterizes market size pretty accurately. The MSA was designed for these traditional, hub-and-spoke cities.

The Triangle, however,  is unique in its metro-area composition (thanks to its 3 cities within 30 miles, all falling into one commuter-belt.)  In this scenario, the MSA calculation as a measure of size and MLB viability is misleading.

Obviously, an MLB team in the Triangle would pull from Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, along with suburbs in-between. But look at the census population data for the area. What you’ll see is that it’s split in a peculiar way. Raleigh’s MSA pairs it with Cary, but not Durham or Chapel Hill. That discrepancy renders the MSA stat useless if trying to predict pro-sports viability in the region.

A more meaningful measure of our market is the Combined Statistical Area (CSA) because it aggregates the entire Triangle, which more realistically represents the draw pool for a Raleigh team.

When you do that, you see that the Raleigh area and the Charlotte area aren’t that far apart in population. Factor in Raleigh’s growth trajectory numbers and you’ll see that eventually, the Triangle area may end up being the larger and more viable in the long run.

Further, compared to Charlotte, Raleigh is closer to other metros like Fayetteville and Greensboro, both only a little more than an hour away.

When you start looking at the potential for pulling from those areas you see that Raleigh has a big advantage. Greensboro has a population of 290,222 and Fayetteville has 209,889 residents.

Meanwhile, venture an hour outside of Charlotte and you don’t have any kind of real population centers. You’d have to go over 100 miles to Greenville, SC for their population of 68,219, or travel 94 miles to Columbia, SC whose population is 133,114. Greensboro is 100 miles away as well, but the further you go out, the less likely you are to pull from that population.



The competition for the entertainment dollar

What is there to do when you come to visit Raleigh? Sure, there are diverse food options and we have a great beer scene, but where do you point your out of town guests in the summer months?

In downtown Raleigh, there is the underappreciated and under-marketed Memorial Auditorium. You could check out a concert at Red Hat Amphitheater or visit one of the many museums. But after that, where are people in this city spending their entertainment dollar?

Sure you have ACC college basketball and college football, but those sports combined only have 1 month of overlap with Major League Baseball’s 6 month season. And yes, there is the option to check out a Carolina Hurricane game, but that too only has a month of regular season overlap.

The point is, Raleigh is one of the richest metro areas in the United States, and the people of this area don’t necessarily have many options when it comes to spending their entertainment dollar. This makes the addition of an MLB team (which plays 81 home games per season) an attractive location for investors.

Meanwhile, Charlotte is seen as a pro-town and rightfully so. They already have both pro basketball (The Hornets) and pro football (The Panthers). Because of this, Charlotte, on paper, seems like the place you’d add your MLB franchise. However, before we jump to that conclusion, let’s dig a little deeper.

You can’t deny the Panthers. They’ve done well. They were 8th in overall attendance last season and finished 7th this season. Unfortunately, the Charlotte Hornets don’t see the same success when it comes to attendance. They rank 24th out of 30 teams in the NBA’s attendance rankings this year and that’s after finishing 26th out of 30 last season.

Couple those attendance numbers with the fact that MLB would have 3 months of overlap with NBA and 2 months of overlap with the NFL and you’d have your already struggling NBA team getting cannibalized by your new MLB franchise (or vice versa).

The stadium hurdles facing Charlotte’s Major League Push

Most of the MLB to Charlotte scenarios start with the MLB coming in, taking over for the Knights (who would move out) and up-fitting the stadium to become a major league park. Things, however,  aren’t exactly that simple.

Between 2010 and 2013, Charlotte real-estate attorney Jerry Reese spent 6 years fighting in courts to stop the Knight’s stadium from being built because he foresaw the mistake being made.

The Knight’s stadium was proposed to be (and since has been) built on city-owned land in the heart of downtown. It was the ideal spot and a minor league park fit perfectly.  The one problem, however, was that if Charlotte ever wanted to become an MLB city, it would have to build somewhere else, since the current lot isn’t big enough to accommodate a Major League stadium.

During the time of these lawsuits, numbers were already trending in the right direction for a pro franchise to land in Charlotte. Reese was doing all he could to get those numbers into the public eye and convince Charlotte to ditch the MiLB idea and instead begin to lay plans for a Major League team.

The problem was that MLB wasn’t talking about expansion at the time and the only way for Charlotte to get MLB in the foreseeable future was to have a current team relocate.  Don Beaver, who now owns The Charlotte Knights, wasn’t oblivious to this.

He had been tracking the numbers for years and actually tried to bring the Minnesota Twins to Greensboro area in 1997. That deal fell through but when the opportunity arose to own a AAA franchise, he jumped at it and made it happen.

There is a ton of money now invested in a stadium that, if MLB chose Charlotte, would not be able to be used.

Reese who has been enamored with bringing MLB to the area, actually stated that after all his meetings and litigation with the city and MLB, he felt Charlotte was too enamored with football to devote time and money to baseball.

Reese finally conceded that baseball was likely destined somewhere else in North Carolina. At the time (2014) his guess was the Durham or Triad area, but over the past 5 years Raleigh has rocketed up the population charts and money has followed, putting us square in the targets to make a run at pro baseball.



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