Canada’s jewel on the Pacific, Vancouver is the third largest city in Canada and is best known its temperate climate, which does not dip below freezing on average any month of the year. This oceanic climate has played a strong role in BC becoming the go-to location for Canadian baseball talent, turning out players such as Larry Walker, Justin Morneau, Jeff Francis, and Brett Lawrie. Vancouver has a strong baseball history, although not an MLB one, having had a team at some level in the minors fairly consistently since the 1920s as part of the Western International League, a precursor to the modern day Northwest League. Vancouver touted itself as a potential MLB destination at around the same time it hosted the world’s fair in 1986 and were promoted to MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn at the '82 All Star Game in Montreal by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, so the story goes. When the question of baseball adding a second team in Canada is raised, Vancouver is always mentioned right alongside Montreal, but could Vancouver actually support an MLB franchise, or are they better suited to being a minor league destination?
Vancouver is likely a large enough city to support an MLB team, their population of just over 2.3 million people ranking as the 24th largest metropolitan area in Canada and the States in 2011. This 24th place ranking would make them the 27th (26th if the team is as a result of a relocation rather than expansion) largest market in the MLB, ahead of only Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City and Milwaukee and just behind Denver and Pittsburgh. All of the cities around Vancouver have experienced financial success as baseball towns, and all of them have had success as multi-sport cities, all featuring an NFL team in addition to their MLB team and all but Cleveland and KC featuring NHL teams as well, counting the Green Bay Packers as a team from Milwaukee for the purpose of market analysis. According to a recent Conference Board of Canada study, approximately 2.5 million citizens are required for a city to successfully support a Major League Baseball team, using the rule of thumb that the population of the city must be roughly equal to the number of tickets available for one season (81 times 30000 = 2.43 million). Vancouver falls just short of this threshold, but it comes very close and several MLB teams do not reach this threshold and continue to experience success.
Helping Vancouver to overcome its relative disadvantage in city size when compared to the rest of MLB is their strong economy, the median total income for a Vancouver family was $67550, which ranks them in the upper echelon of median income for MLB cities. An average Vancouverite also has slightly under $30000 of disposable income per year. Both of these figures are quite similar to those of Toronto, which as we know, has successfully supported the Blue Jays for many years now.
Vancouver would obviously be impacted by the fluxuations in the Canadian dollar that helped contribute to the demise of the Expos. However, the currently strong Canadian dollar plays in their favour at the moment and a strong, wealthy ownership group could mitigate the effects of the dollar’s changing value. Vancouver’s location on the Pacific coast has led to it becoming one of the largest gateways in North America for pan-pacific trade, bringing billions of dollars into the city annually. Vancouver is also home to 10% of all corporate headquarters in Canada, which would lend a significant boost to corporate tickets and sponsorships to the new team.
As is the case with Montreal, Bell is the obvious frontrunner to own any new Canadian baseball team. Bell had net profits in excess of $2 billion last year and wants to purchase content generators, which live pro sports definitely are, as evidenced by NBC’s new contract with the NHL, valued at $200 million per year. Although the Vancouver team will not be as lucrative for TV as an entire league is, the Colorado Rockies signed a deal worth $20 million per year in 2004, and are likely due for a large jump in the value of their deal when it comes up for renewal in 2014. A national sports network owned by Bell, broadcasting the Vancouver team and as Bell would hope, Hockey Night in Canada, could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For reference, Rogers Sportsnet made over $200 million in revenue in 2011.
Not to be counted out is David Thompson, part-owner of the Winnipeg Jets and of Thompson Reuters, the 17th richest man in the world. Thompson Reuters is already a major media conglomerate, and its parent company The Woodbridge Company, which Thompson owns, once owned a significant portion of CTVglobemedia. If they were interested at all in re-entering the Canadian speciality TV market, a network featuring exclusive access to Canada’s other MLB team would be an excellent way to make an entrance. Shaw Communications could also be counted in as a dark horse candidate for ownership, with similar aspirations for a major sports network, but does not have profit margins that approach those of Thompson or Bell, making them a less likely choice.
Although Vancouver is home to the lovely Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, which is home to the Jays short-A affiliate the Vancouver Canadians, the Nat, as it is known in Vancouver, is very much a minor league park. It’s capacity tops out at 5157 fans and in spite of its recent renovations is 51 years old. Millions upon millions of dollars of renovations and expansions would need to be done in order for it to be able to become a Major League ballpark. The question of if the Nat would even be in a good location for an MLB Park is another barrier to its possible upgrade to MLB stadium. Nat Bailey Stadium is in the Riley Park-Little Mountain neighbourhood of Vancouver, though a beautiful neighbourhood and host to some Olympic events in 2010; it is too far removed from the downtown to be a realistic choice of location.
Another possible location for the Vancouver team would be newly renovated BC Place, in the heart of downtown and easily accessible by the Skytrain and Aquabus. After the $563 million renovation that took place in 2011, BC Place is a state of the art modern stadium, complete with a retractable roof, a brand new high-definition video board, a state of the art sound system, 1300 premium club seats and 50 brand new private suites. The new roof’s height and the placement of the scoreboard could prove an issue to MLB configuration for the stadium. The roof is approximately 190 feet above the playing field, roughly the same as Tropicana Field, which has been problematic in several instances in the past. The scoreboard is only 140 feet over the playing surface, which depending on the placement of home plate could be very problematic. When the Seattle Mariners played a series of exhibition games at pre-renovation BC Place in the 1990s, the approximate location of the new scoreboard would have been right above second base, a bad place to have low clearance. Aside from the issue of clearance, which could potentially be remedied by moving the scoreboard for baseball purposes, the stadium can configure nicely as a baseball park.
BC Place, and it's old roof playing host to a Jays-Expos exhibition in 1994
If neither stadium can be made acceptable for the residence of an MLB team, the hypothetical Vancouver team would be in a tough place. The provincial government has committed large sums of money to the construction of the 2010 Olympic venues and the 2011 BC Place renovation. Building a new, downtown stadium would be costly and finding a location for it would be difficult in Vancouver’s busy downtown core. Throw in the likely lack of funding from the provincial government and a new stadium looks unlikely.
Vancouver has a long history with minor-league baseball and has harboured major league aspirations in the past. A good sized city, with a vibrant economy, high median income and an expanding corporate presence makes it a good destination financially and the dearth of potential strong, Canadian owners helps their chances. The presence of a freshly renovated, state of the art stadium in the middle of their downtown, field issues aside, makes Vancouver a strong candidate to become home to an MLB team at some point in the future.