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MLB must expand into Latin America for its own survival

Expanding within the United States isn't good enough for MLB. If they wish to grow, the best place to look would be Latin America

MLB hasn’t expanded since 1998, but over the past decade they’ve made their intention to add at least two teams to the league very clear. Their primary concern is financial, and it’s shared with just about every professional sports league in the country.

MLS expanded to 28 teams this year and will add a 29th next year. The NHL expanded to 32 teams this year. Expansion into Seattle and Las Vegas seem inevitable for the NBA, while the NFL and European soccer powers like Real Madrid and Manchester United look overseas when searching for new fans. It’s not only smart for MLB to keep pace and expand–it’s imperative that they do so, and quickly.

And if they have any intention of growing their business, and any sense to protect their game far into the future, they should look primarily towards Latin America for that expansion.

Baseball is the number one sport in Latin American countrięs like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela while holding a secondary status in places like Panamá, Mexico, and Colombia. Despite MLB’s best efforts, however, the chances of the sport gaining popularity elsewhere in Central and South America seems unlikely. Whether MLB likes it or not, there really isn’t anywhere else in this hemisphere to find a new audience.

But that doesn’t mean expansion is impossible, or even unwise. If anything, MLB has stumbled into an enviable situation by having an entire region of fans ready for a bold expansion. Call it a new generation Pan-American baseball league, call it baseball’s analogue to Russia’s KHL, call it a potentially tri/quad-lingual baseball empire. Call it whatever you want, but MLB better call it soon, because its survival is on the line.

Mexico should be the league’s top priority

Back in 2016, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred listed Montreal and Mexico City as his two favorite cities for MLB expansion, and despite North American commentators doing everything they can to explain why Mexico won’t work, MLB still wants a team in Mexico. They really want a team in Mexico. And they absolutely should, because it’s a smart short-term and long-term business opportunity.

As both the NBA and MLB have learned with their respective teams north of the border, placing a franchise in Toronto didn’t just mean acquiring a fan base limited to Toronto, but a fan base that extends throughout all of Canada. MLB hopes they can repeat that success in Mexico. By having just one team south of the border, whether it be in Tijuana, Monterrey, or Mexico City, MLB would have access to an entire country of 130 million people, a country more than three times the size of Canada. It’s enticing!

Opening up the Mexican market would likely come with a national television deal, which could outpace any regional television deal from any MLB franchise. It would also expose the league to an audience of baseball fans that have had little reason to pay attention to MLB with their own successful Summer and Winter domestic leagues. It would also likely come with a state-of-the-art baseball-specific stadium, which could play host to international tournaments like the World Baseball Classic and the Caribbean Series.

Most importantly, however, a successful baseball franchise in Mexico opens up the possibility of successful baseball franchises elsewhere in Latin America. And that’s important, because a Pan-American presence is not just smart for MLB–it’s necessary for its survival.

MLB fans dying out

In one of the smartest pieces of baseball commentary published over the last decade, Keith Olbermann painted a portrait of what he considered to be the sport’s most concerning issue: the aging of its fanbase. Between 1995 and 2013, the median age of avid baseball fans climbed from 38 to 47, as the median age of the USA’s population increased only five years from 39 to 44. It doesn’t take a statistician to come to the conclusion that the North American baseball fan is quite literally dying–at a slow pace, for sure, but dying nonetheless.

You know whose avid baseball fan population isn’t dying? You already know the answer. Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic all have a population with a median age ten years younger than the median age of the United States. Mexico and the Dominican Republic are also experiencing a healthy 1% annual population growth in comparison to the United States’s 0.4% growth, while both the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have doubled their GDP in the last twenty years. These countries have populations that are young, upwardly mobile, and already interested in baseball, and all without an MLB team to call their own. Latin America is not just MLB’s most lucrative possibility for expansion, it’s their best hope to stay relevant in a world increasingly attentive to soccer and basketball.

So when Manfred sees Mexico City as a logical destination for MLB’s 31st or 32nd team, he better not see it as anything but a good start. Why stop at 32? Let’s make it 45! Let’s put teams in Montreal, Mexico City, Monterrey, Tijuana, Havana, Santiago, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Caracas, Curaçao, Trinidad, Panama City, Managua, Barranquilla, and Cartagena. Let’s have a National, American, and Latin American league within MLB for all you traditionalists, with four languages spoken across two continents in an entire hemisphere of baseball.

Yes, it’s ambitious (and maybe unrealistic), but this is the type of big thinking MLB needs for its own survival. Domestic expansion alone won’t bring MLB the long-term security it needs. New teams in cities like Nashville, Portland, Charlotte, or Las Vegas might bring new revenue in the short-term, but the initial jolt of excitement each of these cities would provide would eventually give way to the inevitability of an aging population stateside.

We live in a capitalist and globalized world that only rewards businesses that find ways to grow, and if MLB can’t expand to new audiences it needs to maintain the attention of those that are already somewhat tuned in. There’s no shame in remaining provincial–hockey and cricket have certainly found ways to grow within their own hemispheres–but there is a decades-long missed expansion opportunity that MLB can fix. All we need is ganas.