Even amid game cancellations, MLB still has keen eye on Mexico

Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City, which prior to the Covid-19 pandemic was slated to stage regular-season MLB games this year between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres

  • Country being increasingly viewed a potential site for expansion franchise
  • Mexico City larger than 28 MLB club markets
  • Diamondbacks, Padres have marshaled resources for continual marketing into country

The April 18-19 two-game series in Mexico City’s Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres has been cancelled as Major League Baseball remains dormant due to the still-spreading Covid-19 pandemic.

For the short term, MLB says there’s been no discussion about when to reschedule the landmark series, which was to be the first regular-season games in league history played in Mexico City.

But that doesn’t change MLB’s long-term, strategic focus on Mexico as a major market, not only for internationally-played games between existing clubs, but also a possible home for an expansion team – although that development might be a decade away.

Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall and Erik Greupner, his Padres’ counterpart, each sit on MLB’s international committee. Both said in exclusive interviews before MLB canceled spring training and delayed the start of the regular season at least until mid-May that the sport is highly bullish on Mexico.

“Sitting on the international committee, we’ve obviously prioritized markets,” Hall tells SportBusiness. “We know what markets are important to us, not only as already favorable toward baseball and its popularity, but those we need to introduce baseball to as being a growth market in the future.

“Mexico is obviously already established. I think as long as we continue to go to Mexico with a presence and promote Major League Baseball, it has a chance not only to grow there as a sport, but it could be one of those options in the future for expansion.”

Greupner said Hall may be more aware of the possibility of baseball ultimately expanding to Mexico City, and Hall’s nearly three decades of experience working in baseball roughly triples Greupner’s time in the sport. But the Padres, playing just 20 miles from the Mexican border, have always been fascinated by the US’ neighbors to the south as an alternate market.

“We just view it as an opportunity to be ambassadors for a great game on a global stage and we think Mexico is the perfect environment to go down and play regular-season games,” he says. “From baseball’s perspective we really view Mexico as a growth market. They’re a very knowledgeable and passionate fanbase down there. Among other sports, baseball has always been very popular.”

Two years ago, when the Padres played a regular season series against the Dodgers in Monterrey, Mexico, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred reiterated his position that he’d like to expand to 32 teams with Montreal – the Canadian city that was home to the Expos before relocating in 2004 to become the Washington Nationals – and Mexico City as the prime prospects for locating those new teams. 

“My personal favorite would be either Montreal or Mexico City,” Manfred said at the time. “Mexico City, in particular, would be new ground for us.”

Manfred also said he’d “love to see expansion” after a new labor deal is signed with the MLB Players Association beyond the 2021 season and long-term ballpark problems are resolved in Oakland, California, and Tampa Bay, Florida.

The A’s have been diligently working on an ambitious two-site project that includes a new facility at Howard Terminal near downtown Oakland. The club currently plays in the antiquated Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, first opened in 1966 for football and now MLB’s fifth-oldest ballpark behind Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium.

The Rays’ efforts, meanwhile, are stalled after they pulled out of negotiations near the end of 2018 to build a new ballpark in Ybor City on the Tampa side of the bay. The club last year was given permission by MLB to discuss a sister-city project to play half their games in Montreal. But that concept was rejected by officials of Pinellas County, home to the Tropicana Dome in St. Petersburg, Florida. As a result, the Rays remain locked into a lease to play there through the 2027 season.

The sports industry and overall US economy remains at a standstill as communities everywhere cope with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, any chance of moving forward on either of those ballpark projects in the immediate future may be seriously delayed.

That also suspends the timetable for MLB’s expansion. There are also currency concerns in both Canada and Mexico, as both the Canadian dollar and Mexican peso are worth far less than the US dollar, and MLB salaries must be paid in American currency regardless of where revenues come from.

But Mexico remains squarely on the mind of the sport.

Fueling those passions in part is a robust market size that may help overcome any currency concerns. Mexico City’s metro-area population is more than 21m, somewhat similar to that of New York, but far larger than any other any other current MLB market. 

“Mexico City seems to make a lot of sense with the size of the population,” Hall says. “There’s an ease in travel.”

There’s also a relatively new 20,000-seat stadium in Mexico City, Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu, owned by and named for the billionaire Helu, and is expandable for MLB play. The owner of the Mexico League’s Diablos Rojos, Helu is one of the richest men in Mexico, and also a minority shareholder in the Padres. 

In addition to raving about the facility, Hall also touted the relative ease of flying within several hours from Mexico City to numerous US markets. Had the cancelled series this spring still been played, the Diamondbacks would have traveled from Phoenix to Mexico City and then on to Atlanta, much like any other multi-city road trip over the course of the season. The Padres, similarly, would have gone from San Diego to Mexico City and then on to Chicago.

“It’s logistically possible,” Hall says. “I think it can be done.”

Arizona Diamondbacks president and chief executive Derrick Hall

Prior Diamondbacks history

The Diamondbacks have played 12 times previously in Mexico, the most of any MLB team, but never during the regular season. Beginning with the club’s expansion season of 1998, the bulk of those visits have been to play spring training exhibition games in Hermosillo, a town just across the Arizona border in the Mexican state of Sonora.

But last year, the Diamondbacks played a two-game preseason series against the Colorado Rockies in Monterrey’s Estadio Monterrey, a 22,000-seat facility which opened in 1990 and was renovated in 2018 prior to the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers playing a three-game series there.

The trip last year to Monterrey was a huge success for the Diamondbacks.

“Those were exhibition games for us,” Hall says. “We sold out. We had a great fanbase there already. But we’ve been going to Mexico, we’ve had more games down in Mexico than anybody.”

The Diamondbacks are so serious about building their relationship with the Mexican government that late last month, prior to Covid-19 travel restrictions coming into force, Hall led a contingent of club executives on a promotional visit to Mexico City in advance of the now-canceled regular season series. They toured the ballpark, and visited with Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, otherwise known as AMLO, in his office.

Hall was accompanied by Luis Gonzalez and Erubiel Durazo, former players who are now his special advisors. They presented a Diamondbacks jersey and a signed baseball to Lopez Obrador. The jersey had No. 3 on the back stitched below the red letters AMLO.

“He’s a big baseball fan and he’s committed to the success and growth of the sport,” Hall said after his visit with Lopez Obrador. “We are proud of our growing fan base across Mexico and really enjoyed our conversation with the president, who has made the growth of our sport an important part of his administration.”

Hall left Mexico believing that future expansion there is viable.

“I really do [believe that],” he says. “The Commissioner, he’s got a lot of cities he’s looking at, for that possibility. We’ve heard Montreal. Both borders. [But] with the proximity [to Mexico], the relationship. I can tell you our governor, and in particular the governor of Sonora, the relationship is as strong as it’s ever been. We’re always encouraging fans to cross the border, coming to and from our games. We go down there a lot. We want to be known as Mexico’s team.”

Erik Greupner (right), president of business operations for the San Diego Padres

Padres ambitions

Mexico is San Diego’s number one international market, and the Padres were about to embark on their fourth regular-season series beyond the border before it was scuttled, though again, the first in the capital city.

“Northern Baja is exclusively part of our territory,” Greupner says. “Obviously it’s a real meaningful part of our fan base. Any opportunity we get to play in Mexico, we jump at the chance. We’re the fourth best-selling Major League cap as of a few years ago down there, and the only team with a Spanish-language name.

“Our proximity to the border and just the importance of that portion of our fanbase is significant.”

The Padres were part of the first series MLB staged in Monterrey, back in 1996. As the 1990s continued, the Padres under then-owner John Moores and team president Larry Lucchino made more efforts to make inroads into Mexico, particularly Tijuana and the northern Baja. The club ran Sunday busses from the border to games at the club’s former home facility, Jack Murphy Stadium, and opened a team store in a Tijuana mall.

That marketing effort continues today, Greupner said, although the store has made way to online shopping, and busses are not a regular feature running to and from Petco Park.

“There’s a few things we do,” he says. “We’ve been really active on the community side, giving back, building inroads into Tijuana and northern Baja. We actually had a legacy project in 2016 in connection with the All-Star Game. We improved and built fields and recreational facilities at the Boys & Girls Club down there.

“And, more recently, we have done 10 community projects last year to celebrate our 50th anniversary. One of those projects was with the children’s hospital, El Patronato. And we did a project where we have a Padres-branded van that helps these ill children to get their critical care they need from the cancer unit at the hospital.”

The Padres also have promotions with the Mexican League teams in Tijuana, the Toros during the summer, and Xolos during the winter. The Padres additionally hold clinics with their Mexican-born players.

“We’ll do group nights where they’ll invite their fans to come up to Padres games, or Padres fans go down to Toros and Xolos games,” Greupner says. “We’ve always had one of the largest day of game sales in baseball. And a lot of that is folks, who come up from the border. Mexico is our largest international sales country.

“We would love to find ways to get deeper and deeper into that community. We think winning baseball’s going to help. But we’ve always received a lot of support from that community.”

And then there is Harp Helu, a Padres minority owner. Once an owner of Banamex, Mexico’s biggest bank, and still the owners of Avantel, Mexico’s second largest telecommunication company, he has a tale of his own.

In 1994, Harp was kidnapped in Mexico City and held for 106 days. The scary situation was ultimately resolved when his family paid what was reported to be between $30m and $60m, with his release following a dramatic television appearance in which his lawyer – appearing with his son and a priest – unconditionally accepted all the ransom terms.

Both teams know they won’t be playing in Mexico this year. The two planned games this season were Diamondbacks home games, and will be moved back to Chase Field if and when the season begins and depending on the length of the schedule.

There’s no word yet on whether baseball will return to Mexico next year, although these two teams are the obvious participants if it does.

“Whatever number of fans who are in that stadium, I think you get more volume and excitement per fan than any other country in the world,” Greupner says. “We think as we hopefully usher in an era of winning baseball, we’re going to make even deeper inroads into Mexico and build more Padres fans throughout all of Mexico, but especially in the northern Baja region, which is a critical part of our territory.”

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