While I may disagree with Bud Selig’s arguments regarding small-market franchises and what needs to be done to support them, there is no argument against Milwaukee’s position as a small market. With 882,210 television homes in its media market, per Nielsen, only Cincinnati (868,900) is a smaller major-league market. Milwaukee ranks 35th and Cincinnati ranks 36th; along with Kansas City (33rd, 899,020 homes), they make up the only three major-league franchises outside the top-30 media markets.
These, in my estimation, are baseball’s true small-market franchises; perhaps you could get away with adding San Diego (28th, 1.0 million), Baltimore (26th, 1.1 million), Pittsburgh (23rd, 1.2 million) and/or St. Louis (21st, 1.2 million) to the list. But baseball’s definition of the small market has grown absurdly expansive since Selig started forcing the small market debate in 1985. And I think there is no better example of that than the team in the city I now call home, the Minnesota Twins, whose status as a small-market team is a result of nothing short of con artistry.
Minneapolis-St. Paul is the 15th-largest media market in the nation, with 1,723,210 television homes. It is one of six media markets with between 1.6 and 1.9 million television homes, including Tampa-St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Detroit, Seattle-Tacoma, and Miami-Fort Lauderdale. Despite the market size of the Twin Cities — and the total lack of competition from nearby markets, as Milwaukee is the closest fellow major-league city at 294 miles away — the Twins have been labeled a “small-market franchise” since at least the late 1980s, even as they were winning two World Series championships in five years and paying multi-million contracts out to players like Kirby Puckett and Gary Gaetti, whose $2.4 million salary in 1989 was the highest of any player in the major leagues.
“Such is the price of success for the Twins, who won the World Series in 1987 and won more games in 1988,” Tracy Ringolsby wrote in January 1989. “Baseball’s salaries take abilities into consideration, not market sizes. That’s where the Twins are going to find themselves in a squeeze. They play in one of the smaller population areas in the big leagues and have one of the least attractive local radio-television contracts.”
Of course, as I just illustrated above, the population argument simply isn’t true. It feels rather like an assumption made by the kinds of people who dismiss the Midwest as an entirely rural block of “flyover country.” Minneapolis is a small market compared to cities like New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, of course, but the difference in market size between squarely large-market Boston (2.4 million TV homes) and Minneapolis is less than the difference between Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Do you consider Detroit a small-market team? When I asked my Twitter followers if Detroit was a small market baseball team, the answer was resoundingly “no.” Minneapolis-St. Paul is effectively the same-sized market.
do you consider Detroit to be a small market baseball team?
— Jack Moore (@jh_moore) January 24, 2016
The true con of the Minnesota Twins and their owner Carl Pohlad claiming small-market status didn’t really begin until the new millennium and the start of contraction rumors. There was no reason for the Twins to be grouped with truly flagging franchises like the Expos, Devil Rays, and Marlins. “Minnesota is hardly the weakest link,” reads an Associated Press column from 2001. “The team has made money each of the last five seasons, outdrawing the Yankees as recently as 10 years ago, when the economics of the game still allowed small-market teams to contend. In that sense, the Twins are practically a rallying cry.”
Despite all of this, the Twins continued to be held up as an example of how small-market status meant instant doom for a baseball franchise. Pohlad continued to claim it was impossible for his franchise to survive in Minneapolis. It got to the point in the 2001 offseason where former professional wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura called for the institution of a salary cap and revenue sharing — Bud Selig’s personal hobby horses — to be connected to the building of a new stadium for the Twins.
The Twins stormed to a division title in 2002, winning 94 games and holding the division lead straight from May 27th through the end of the season. Speaking at a journalism conference that August, as the Twins had racked up a double-digit division lead, Selig stated the Twins’ success was an “aberration” and that the Twins and the Expos were “number one and number two” in the league with the least potential for growth. Selig claimed the Twins’ fortunes couldn’t change without a new stadium.
The Twins, instead, won the American League Central in each of the next two seasons and would win three more division titles over the next six years, only one of which came after the Twins made their move to Target Field. The Twins were a rallying cry for the small markets, indeed — proof that winning was possible despite the imbalances.
The game that Selig and Carl Pohlad were playing was a complete farce. As the New York Times reported in 2002, there was a clear conflict of interest in Selig’s desire to contract the Twins. The club was worth an estimated $100 million on the open market, but under Major League Baseball’s ownership structure, Pohlad would be owed $150 million from the other major-league owners if the team were contracted. Pohlad had previously lent Selig $3 million in 1995, after Selig had become interim commissioner — an action forbidden by Major League Rule 20 (c):
No club or owner, stockholder, officer, director or employee (including manager or player) of a club shall, directly or indirectly, loan money to or become surety or guarantor for any club, officer, employee or umpire of its, his or her league, unless all facts of the transaction shall first have been fully disclosed to all other clubs in that league and also to the commissioner, and the transaction has been approved by them.
Even without the shady loan history, Selig stood to benefit from the Twins’ contraction. It would placate the large-market owners he needed in his camp for the upcoming CBA negotiations. But most critically, it would open up the Minneapolis-St. Paul television and radio market, an obvious target for his Milwaukee Brewers. If the Brewers had picked up Minneapolis-St. Paul’s population in the cable market, it would have resulted in a massive increase to the team’s revenue stream.
The Twins were proof that winning was possible on a budget. But despite what their low payrolls may have suggested, they weren’t proof that baseball couldn’t be profitable in Minnesota. That was merely proof that Pohlad was cheap. As Jim Caple wrote in 2009, “A top Twins executive once told me that Pohlad didn’t mind not making money off the Twins, but he was dead set against losing a dime on a baseball team.”
Still, the threat of contraction did its job. The small-market label has stuck hard to the Twins ever since, and they managed to wring $350 million in public contributions to Target Field out of it. The subsequent five seasons have proven the viability of the Minneapolis market — they have managed to draw at least 2.2 million fans per year over the past five seasons despite failing to come within even 10 games of a division championship.
If the billionaire Pohlads had been willing to take a short-term loss, they could have made their way out of the Metronome years earlier without taking the public for such a ride. Instead, Pohlad and Selig played games with the public to service their own greed. The threats of contracting the Twins were never about Minneapolis’s “growth potential” or any of Selig’s typical economic concerns. Those threats were about bullying the people of Minneapolis and creating a culture of fear outside of the untouchable cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And in that sense, even though the contraction plan never went through, the gambit worked perfectly.