RALEIGH — Spring training is a time for optimism among baseball fans.
As Major League Baseball teams spend the month at spring training, preparing for opening day in three weeks, if a group of people in Raleigh have their way, one of them may soon be headed to the Triangle after finishing training in the Florida or Arizona sun.
MLB Raleigh is a grassroots campaign dedicated to convincing Major League Baseball that the Triangle should be considered for an expansion franchise.
“Two years ago, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred started talking a little bit about wanting to see expansion,” said Lou Pascucci, a spokesman for the organization. “A year ago, he said that expansion was definitely going to be part of their plan. Then he started to rattle off a few cities he felt were viable, right off the bat.”
That list included a half dozen cities: Montreal, Vancouver, Nashville, Las Vegas, Portland and Charlotte. The Triangle wasn’t mentioned. That got Pascucci and his friends thinking.
“We were just a group of guys that loved baseball,” Pascucci said. “We started asking, ‘At what point do we get the amount of growth here where the Triangle starts being a viable option?’”
In other words: “What do those cities have that Raleigh and the Triangle does not?” he asked.
They began looking into the numbers and were surprised.
“When hockey came here (in 1997), the census had us as a single metro area,” Pascucci said. “The statistics showed that the Triangle was a small but viable market for professional sports.”
Over the next 10 years, that changed, not because the area stopped growing, but because the component cities in the Triangle were separated.
“The city of Durham was pushing for a split,” MLB Raleigh’s website explains, “giving them the ability to brand themselves independent of Raleigh. A push that eventually won out.”
Once Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary were all separated, the idea of any one of them looking big enough to be considered an MLB market was laughable.
“We looked like two small cities,” Pascucci said. “But if you drop a radius (and draw a circle) around the Triangle, like you would with a normal hub and spoke city, we’re in line with small-market MLB cities.”
Indeed, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Metro Area (which also includes Dunn, Oxford, Henderson and Sanford) has a 2017 population of 2,199,459, according to official census estimates, with a 14.9 percent growth rate since the 2010 census. Continuing at that growth rate, the area would be larger than Nashville, mentioned as a viable option by the commissioner, by 300,000 people and just 50,000 people smaller than Vancouver.
The Raleigh market would be larger than current MLB small-market cities Cincinnati (by 200,000) and Milwaukee (by 500,000) and would be within the range of Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
The area’s rate of expansion is still increasing, as well, and employment and income numbers are favorable compared to other expansion candidates and current MLB cities. MLB Raleigh’s site points out that Raleigh is the richest metro area in the United States without an MLB team within 100 miles. It’s also the largest TV market in the country without a regionally broadcast MLB team.
MLB expansion isn’t expected to come for another five-to-eight years. The league has to first contend with a new labor deal next year, then deal with troubled current markets in Tampa and Oak-land. Once that done, it’s expected to begin choosing the homes for new franchises.
MLB Raleigh wants the area to be ready.
“We’re viable now,” Pascucci said. “We’ll certainly be viable and may have midmarket numbers by that time.”
Right now, the goal of the organization is to generate support for the idea and put the area on MLB’s radar. An ownership group still needs to be organized. A stadium plan needs to be formulated (although the organization has already identified four potential locations in the city).
Local businesses are on board with the movement.
“Every single person we spoke to said, ‘Let’s do it!’” Pascucci said. “They told us we could use their venue to host events. They offered to do video for us.”
The kickoff event will take place on April 13 at Trophy Maywood. It will serve as a rally for the cause and a fundraiser for Boys & Girls Club of Raleigh.
“It will be a day party to show support,” Pascucci said. “A lot of companies are coming out to join forces. But really, the big thing is let’s come together and show the level of support while raising as much as we can for the Boys & Girls Club.”
After that, it’s up to MLB.
“We just want to get the ball rolling,” Pascucci said. “We’ll see what happens from there.”