PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Major League Baseball took in $8 billion in revenue last season, but there's always more blood to squeeze from the stone.
Look in Tampa Bay, for instance. Major League Baseball teams used Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., as a threat after the cities built a domed ballpark there in 1996. The Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners all used the facility as leverage for their own new stadiums until 1995, when league owners finally added an expansion franchise in Tampa and cashed out.
Since 1998, the Tampa Bay Rays/Devil Rays have averaged 30,000 fans per game only once: In 1998 when they saw 2.5 million fans come through the turnstiles. Since then, they've ranked at or near the bottom of the American League in attendance. Despite making the playoffs four times in the past seven years and making it to the World Series in 2008, the Rays haven't averaged more than 20,000 fans per game since 2010, when their attendance ranked a team-best ninth out of 14 AL teams.
Last month, the mayor of St. Petersburg met with Rays President Matt Silverman to discuss the team's desire to leave Tropicana Field, where they are bound by contract until 2027. That stadium won't be paid off until 2016 at the soonest, but Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig advised the Rays' front office last year not to offer the city any compensation if it broke its contract.
That's the kind of business partner Tampa/St. Pete and Pinellas County are dealing with, and baseball's revenue-sharing scheme has only exacerbated the problem. Baseball's 29 other owners have leaned on Tampa management to get a new stadium so they can quit subsidizing the team through revenue-sharing payments.
That's a familiar refrain for the Oakland A's as well. The team's noted Moneyball frugality has given it postseason success much like that of the Rays, but hasn't stopped it from finishing in the bottom half or near the bottom of the AL in attendance since 1993. The team hasn't averaged more than 30,000 fans per game in their sprawling Coliseum home since 1992, it hasn't topped 2 million in total attendance since 2005 and it drew as few as 17,500 fans per game as recently as 2010. Sewage backs up into its bathrooms, games are postponed on days when no rain falls because drainage is terrible and NFL teams complain about infield sand on the Oakland Raiders' playing surface.
Major League Baseball hasn't shown any desire to expand in recent years, but its owners clearly wouldn't mind if some second-tier town paid for a shiny new stadium with tons of revenue enhancements for its more downtrodden clubs. While public opinion has turned against such expenditures since $634 million fleecing of Miami by the Marlins organization and its new Marlins Park in 2012, that doesn't stop midrange towns from aspiring to the big time. With a little help from the good folks at Nielsen, we found the five largest television markets without a baseball team and made a case for each:
Television market size: 1.09 million
Similarly sized MLB market: Baltimore (1.08 million)
This isn't exactly some tiny burg.
The Colts have been to the Super Bowl twice during their time in Indianapolis and won once on Peyton Manning's watch. LucasOil stadium hosted the Super Bowl in 2010, the Big 10 Football Championship each year since 2011 and the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four in 2009. The Final Four fared so well here that it is coming back in March 2015.
Andrew Luck has the Colts looking like a contender and Paul George led the NBA's Pacers deep into the playoffs here for the past three years. So why no Major League Baseball when pro baseball's been played here since 1887 and the Indianapolis Indians have called the place home since 1902?
The team has been linked with the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos, but currently serves as the Triple A farm club for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who just broke a 20-year playoff drought last season. The city spent $18 million building Victory Field for the Indians in 1996 and seems wholly content remaining at that level.
If Indy were to get an MLB team, it would be one of the smallest three-sport towns in the U.S. Cleveland comes close, but ask the folks in the Indians front office how empty the Progressive Field stands can get during lean years. After years of selling out the former Jacobs Field and averaging more than 42,000 fans per game, the Indians spent the past decade drawing fewer than 30,000. In three of their past four seasons, the Indians drew fewer than 20,000 per game -- bottoming out at 17,200 on average in 2010.
Indianapolis could get by with similar numbers, but it doesn't have to.