Mexico City’s uphill climb toward landing an MLB franchise

MEXICO CITY — By the time the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants take the field Saturday for their historic two-game series at Mexico City’s Alfredo Harp Helu Stadium, a flurry of Major League Baseball officials will have waxed poetic about the capital city’s warm reception and appetite for the sport. In-between the pomp and excitement common with these visits, one thought will linger above others: Is this metropolis of 22 million people equipped to sustain a full-fledged major league franchise?

It’s a fair question, one that pops up every time any top-tier U.S. sports league treks south of the border to grow its brand, or when the topic of expansion is broached. MLB’s answer for now is a resolute “no.” Commissioner Rob Manfred said Monday during a meeting with the Associated Press Sports Editors that he has “never been close to the idea of Mexico as an expansion opportunity.”

The weekend Mexico City Series will nevertheless give that Latin American market an opportunity to showcase its regular-season major league potential for the first time. Given that the Oakland A’s signaled an imminent move to Las Vegas last week, it is logical to deduce that expansion will once again be on MLB’s agenda once the Tampa Bay Rays‘ stadium situation is resolved.

Polls frequently identify baseball as one of the most popular sports in Mexico, though the connection hardly needs to be quantified. Fifteen Mexican-born players are on active rosters. Historically, the country has produced 146 major league players, dating to the 1933 debut of Mel Almada — the last player to record a hit off Babe Ruth. The Babe himself swatted his last exhibition home run in 1946 at the Parque Delta stadium in Mexico City in front of an adoring crowd.

The national team’s semifinal run featuring Rays star Randy Arozarena at last month’s World Baseball Classic drew huge pro-Mexico crowds in Phoenix and Miami as the squad’s jersey supplier struggled to meet demand from fans. The Mexico City Series itself sold out in under an hour.

Still, Mexico City’s viability as a major league venue will continue to be scrutinized in the wake of Manfred’s comments. As the series between the Padres and Giants gets underway, ESPN looks at some of Mexico City’s big league challenges should it seize on an expansion or relocation opening.

Stadium sustainability

The series marks the first time Mexico City will host regular-season baseball, though a pair of exhibition games between the Padres and Houston Astros were played there in 2016. The city of Monterrey in northern Mexico hosted the previous 11 regular-season games in the country, with the Padres taking part in seven of them — including the inaugural series in 1996.

Manfred hasn’t always been cool to the idea of an expansion team on international soil, indicating in 2016 that if he had a preference, Montreal or Mexico City would be where “we could go plan on a sustained basis.”

“Mexico has a lot of potential as a market for MLB in the future,” Rodrigo Fernandez, MLB’s top lieutenant in Latin America, told ESPN. “The country continues to grow and will become more attractive as time goes on. MLB has been here for years now because we understand the potential Mexico has moving forward.”

Mexico City’s ballpark is named after Alfredo Harp Helu, the billionaire businessman and Padres stakeholder who also happens to own Mexico City’s summer pro ballclub, the Diablos Rojos. The stadium was built at a cost of $166.5 million and, upon completion, was deemed an ultramodern facility by MLB. However, it seats just over 20,000 fans. For context, the smallest stadium in the majors in terms of capacity is Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, at 25,000.

“The stadium is big league level,” Fernandez said. “The only thing separating it is the capacity — big league parks tend to be larger.”

No ballpark in Mexico exceeds 25,000 in capacity. Any modifications to the Mexico City stadium would require another major investment, one that would almost certainly have to come from the private sector. Public funds are typically not made available for infrastructure projects in sports as they are in the U.S., where only three teams — the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Giants — have privately owned stadiums. The Texas Rangers, for instance, have called two ballparks home since 1994 that were built with varying degrees of public funds.

The weekend forecast for the area calls for no inclement weather, but rain delays could be a major problem during the course of a major league season. Mexico City averages 43 days of precipitation in July and August alone, and the ballpark is not domed.

As with the previous series in Monterrey, ticket availability will be hard to come by in Mexico City. However, mass ticket sales for an 81-game home schedule might be a challenge with waning demand as a season progresses.

Footing the bill

The fluctuating nature of Mexico’s currency, the peso and its relative weakness against the dollar has also long been an issue. A study by Mexico’s Department of Labor released last year found that the average salary for a Mexico City resident fluctuates between 11,904 and 12,931 pesos per month, which converts to about $660 and $720 U.S. It would seem difficult to believe the market could produce a comparable amount of local revenue akin to any city in the United States.

That’s to say nothing of skyrocketing player payrolls in MLB, where the average for 2023 is $159,732,757. Eight teams, including the Padres, have blown past the $200 million mark. The New York Mets will spend over $344 million, more than twice the mean.

“It’s viable, maybe not in the short term, but later on,” said Eduardo Ortega, the Padres’ Spanish radio play-by-play voice. “Right now, economically speaking, such a thing is prohibitive to most countries outside the United States. In Mexico, specifically, I think it’s hard to say this generation or even the next will see a franchise located here.”

Manfred indicated in 2021 that any potential expansion bid would draw a fee upwards of $1 billion — underscoring the need for a bidder with deep pockets. Harp would be an obvious candidate with a reported net worth of $1.58 billion. Then there is his wealthier cousin, Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim, who in in 2008 flew in then-Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez to the outskirts of Mexico City to dedicate a youth baseball field. The sporting portfolio of Slim, whose net worth is estimated to be $95.5 billion, includes investments in soccer teams and Formula 1 sponsorships.

Safety and culture

In 1994, Harp was kidnapped in Mexico City and held for ransom for 106 days. In his autobiography, titled “Vivir y Morir Jugando Beisbol” (“To Live and Die Playing Baseball”), he laid out the ordeal, metaphorically, in baseball terms: “The [kidnappers] threw their pitches and tied my arms so I couldn’t hit, so I would strike out looking. Those days I was captive felt like losing 106 games in a row.”

Mexico City has experienced a sharp decrease in homicides since 2019 and is considered relatively safe in comparison to Mexican cities on the northern border ravaged by drug-trafficking violence. However, the U.S. Department of State recommends citizens “exercise increased caution when traveling to Mexico City due to crime.”

Providing safety to personnel would obviously be the priority for any team in Mexico City, but cultural considerations would also need to be addressed in a city where English is not the predominant language.

“As a Mexican, I do dream about seeing a team down here someday,” Ortega said. “But those types of issues make it that much harder.”

There is precedent, albeit on a smaller scale. Mexico City’s NBA G League team, the Capitanes, has featured several Americans players on its roster — including NBA veteran Kenneth Faried. Meanwhile, the State Department estimates that 1.6 million American citizens live in Mexico. The capital city itself has also become a popular hub for digital nomads comprising professionals of all walks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of whom have relocated from the U.S. because of the more affordable cost of living.

A real longshot

In 2003, Monterrey businessman Carlos Bremer made a play to bring the Montreal Expos to his city before the team eventually became the Washington Nationals. The region has the stamp of approval of Dodgers legend Fernando Valenzuela, who in 2018 identified Monterrey an “apt city to one day have a big league franchise.”

Still, a proposal from any Mexican hopeful would face stiff competition from a flurry of other North American markets vying for expansion or relocation opportunities that don’t have the built-in roadblocks that Mexico City and Monterrey do.

“The commissioner has been clear in saying which markets are in the running currently,” Fernandez said. “Nashville has been mentioned, Portland as well. In these last few years, we’ve focused on other priorities with growing the game in Mexico, and because of that the number of fans has grown greatly.”

The A’s recent purchase of land in Las Vegas points to a preference for the Western U.S. Meanwhile, the possibility remains that the Rays could have their pick of whatever city north of the Rio Grande decides to build that franchise a stadium.

Still, Manfred and MLB will continue to make inroads in Mexico, which along with Puerto Rico is the only venue in Latin America that has hosted baseball games on a regular basis. More series are being planned in Mexico each May until 2026.

As the NFL did in 2021, MLB has awarded international marketing rights to its teams so they can take advantage of growth opportunities in specific countries. Mexico is almost certain to play a significant part of that initiative.

“For now, we’re focused on offering our fans in Mexico the best experience and a variety of events they can enjoy,” Fernandez said.