Raleigh prepping diligently for when MLB expansion window opens

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(The Center Square) – Once independent of each other, groups that want to bring Major League Baseball to Raleigh are working in collaboration.

MLB is yet to open up the process, but getting things in place ahead of the finalization of situations involving the Oakland A’s and Tampa Rays — the commissioner’s two timeline pieces — is advantageous in what figures to be a competitive process to land one of two openings that will give baseball 32 teams.

“I think it’s clear that there is going to be a serious effort to bring MLB to North Carolina,” Lou Pascucci told The Center Square in an email exchange. He’s with MLB Raleigh alongside Ryan Foose and Will Gadd, who started on the project nearly five years ago and now are aligned with former state budget director Charlie Perusse, Gov. Roy Cooper and Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon.

“I think when you look at the market metrics, this state and this region make all the sense in the world,” Pascucci said. “The Triangle region is already ahead of existing markets in terms of population, it’s ahead of seven current MLB teams in terms of media market, and it’s the second fastest-growing metro in the country. With MLB looking to expand, North Carolina, rightfully, should be in the mix.”

At an estimated 10.8 million, North Carolina is ninth-most populous in the country. The first seven have at least two Major League teams each, and Georgia at No. 8 has one. The state was without a major pro franchise until the NBA Hornets (1988), followed by the NFL Panthers (1995) and the NHL Hurricanes (1998).

Hockey is nontraditional in the South, yet the Hurricanes are No. 7 in average attendance. Baseball is traditional, and the state’s nine teams in the Minor Leagues include two in Triple-A, three in High-A, and four in Single-A.

In October, Tom Dundon told the North Carolina Sports Network, “I will lead a group to put our best foot forward to get a Major League Baseball team in North Carolina. I know I’m biased, but I think Raleigh is the best place in the country for a new MLB team. And when I say that, I think we have the facts to back that up.”

Dundon bought the Hurricanes for $420 million in 2018. The franchise, according to Forbes, is now worth more than $800 million. His personal net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion.

Pascucci said, “Tom is the perfect person to do this. He’s local, he already runs a successful sports franchise, and with the new PNC deal done, he’s going to be here for a long time.”

Baseball hasn’t given a timeline for opening the next round of expansion. The last true expansion was 1998, with additions of the Tampa Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Montreal Expos relocated to Washington in 2005, and the Houston Astros switched leagues in 2013.

While 32 teams present a better symmetry option for divisions, leagues and scheduling models, Commissioner Rob Manfred has said expansion would wait until stadium situations are resolved for the A’s and Rays. Oakland is on the way to losing its franchise to Las Vegas, and the Rays are on the way to a new stadium.

Pascucci said he anticipates something “in stone” in both cases before MLB sets a timeline. The suitors, however, are lining up. Sports books already have odds posted, with Nashville a top betting favorite and more than a half-dozen other cities with at least one of the main four professional leagues checking in somewhere on the boards.

Charlotte is among them, too.

“We are prepping our marketing push to be more statewide-focused (as far as messaging goes), although all the discussion and movement at this point are focused on Raleigh, we’ll need the whole state behind us for this push,” Pascucci said. “We are working through land options. There are a handful of locations that are being examined for a stadium, but nothing we are ready to talk about publicly. Right now we have more than most.”

Taxpayer dollars will likely be involved. It’s usual for sports stadiums, and it’s been the norm for scores of economic projects in the state in a number of industries.

“We have government support,” Pascucci said, adding, “We have a local billionaire leading the charge. We have consultants with tons of experience in stadium financing and expansion planning. We have political advisors involved who have spent many years working in and with the North Carolina government and we’re in contact with all the right stakeholders statewide.

“We have what we believe are the strongest market viability metrics of any expansion contender as well. And obviously, we have a very strong community movement that is being leveraged. All of that makes up the planning that is going into this push. Right now we are working hard to get all the ducks in a row so we can present ourselves as the strongest contender when they open this expansion committee.”

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