When President Obama met with Raúl Castro announcing the thaw in US-Cuba relations, the first thing that came into my baseball-happy mind was: when will MLB locate a team in Havana?
The opportunity to expand its presence into Cuba does not seem lost on MLB either.
In December, MLB players and officials made a three day goodwill trip to Cuba in which eight MLB baseball players, including four Cuban defectors, provided a clinic to Cuban children.
Just last week the Tampa Bay Rays announced that they will play a game in Havana to coincide with Obama’s trip later this month.
But is there any path by which MLB, USA, Cuba, and the economics of all three may come together to locate a team in the City of Columns?
Last week MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said that expansion is not an “immediate issue.” However, he acknowledged the attractiveness of expanding to 32 teams.
Additionally, the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays both suffer from stadium and attendance issues and are the subject of frequent relocation speculation.
If MLB did move a team or create two new ones, where would it go? In February 2015, Manfred gave a clue about his thinking on the subject when he said he is in favor of “internationalizating” the game. He stated that Canada and Mexico “would be the kinds of places that [he] would be interested in.”
Moving to Havana would certainly internationalize MLB. The island nation of eleven million adores baseball. Like the Dominican Republic, baseball is not only the national sport of Cuba, it is a symbol of Cuban nationalism. The interest is there.
While the notion of moving MLB into Cuba might seem attractive, obstacles still exist.
Finding Revenue for a Cuban Team
Perhaps the largest impediment to locating an MLB team in Cuba is finding sufficient revenue. Operating an MLB team is expensive. Just player payroll alone is an average of around $130 million.
In the MLB, television contracts are driving team revenues. These lucrative TV contracts are paid for by the television networks’ advertising proceeds and cable subscription fees.
While Cuba recently allowed commercial advertising for the first time in decades, the Cuban economy is no shape to provide sufficient advertising or domestic TV contracts proceeds to maintain a competitive MLB team.
However, there is no reason a Cuban MLB team could not find revenue by marketing itself as “Latin America’s team.”
If the team could secure television contracts in economically sound, baseball-familiar Caribbean markets like Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Colombia, it could achieve television contract revenues at least matching a small market MLB team if not considerably better.
A Havana team might even be able to introduce baseball to further Latin markets such as economically emerging Ecuador, Peru and Chile or perhaps even nudging into Europe through Spain.
A Cuban team could achieve a US cable contract through a US Spanish language network such as sports network Univision Desportes.
Trading a Team for a Newly Created Cuban Farm System.
So who pays for Cuba’s new team? It seems unlikely that Cuba would move its communist thaw so fast as allowing a privately owned enterprise the scope of a MLB team to suddenly set up shop.
One solution would be to have the other 29 (31 in an expansion scenario) MLB teams own the Cuban team. However, this might raise some competitiveness concerns when the team’s rivals are the ones paying the bills. Additionally, the Cuban state is very weary of American reach into Cuba.
Thus, perhaps a community owned team a la the Green Bay Packers is in order. But how would Cuba ever pay for it? It could trade the MLB for it.
Cuba has something that the MLB desperately wants: a wealth of Cuban baseball talent and the facilities and teams with which to scout and develop them.
The MLB teams have each invested tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars in scouting and development facilities in talent rich Venezuela and especially the Dominican Republic.
In the Dominican Republic, the MLB teams own not only state of the art training facilities but each operates a baseball academy. In the high stakes game of talent scouting, acquisition, and development, these facilities are not only money well spent but necessary for MLB competitiveness.
The MLB appetite for Cuban talent is no less strong and the teams are willing to compensate generously for that talent.
However, that talent is presently closed to the MLB. Cuban law prevents Cubans from defecting. US law prevents them from entering the US. MLB and Cuban baseball are cooperating to prevent defections.
Nevertheless, defections continue because the demand is there. Many are the stories of player agents going to truly extreme lengths and personal expense to help players defect in anticipation of a big payday. Just a couple weeks ago, MLBPA agent Bart Hernandez was arrested in Miami on human trafficking charges for his efforts in bringing a player to the US.
Thus, given the demand for its talent, Cuba has a large bargaining chip in access to its players and prospects. But that alone probably wouldn’t be enough to cover the billion dollars or so it it would take to buy a MLB team. So give more.
Cuba has a large, highly popular collection of baseball leagues under the umbrella of the Baseball Federation of Cuba. The highest league, the National Series, features 16 teams, while the other leagues are primarily developmental going all the way down to little leagues.
To pay for a Cuban community owned team, Cuba and MLB could partner to expand the Baseball Federation of Cuba such that it could be divided into 30 (or 32) equal collections of training facilities, developmental teams, and National Series teams. The teams would then either buy out an existing MLB team or, in expansion scenario, pay for the creation of a new one. The teams would hold a lottery for their slice of Federation teams and facilities.
MLB gets a new yet established, talent rich farm system and a new, emerging international market. Cuba gets an MLB team with a system of US farm teams and facilities throughout the Caribbean.
If , with the participation of television partners, the MLB and Cuba set their minds to it, there is no reason that the MLB couldn’t move to Cuba in the next few years.
This whole enterprise would obviously require large revisions to US and Cuban policy. However, both governments have always given baseball special status under the law. And who knows? Maybe it will be baseball that heals the long US-Cuba divide.