MLB expansion: History, teams, potential cities and hurdles

Illustration by ESPN

FOR THREE DECADES, Major League Baseball treated expansion as its own manifest destiny. If the game was truly America's Pastime, it needed to be everywhere. Almost as soon as the league began expanding from its original 16 teams, the plan was to double its numbers, starting with a move to 18 in 1961. By the time 1998 rolled around, it was well on its way. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays joined the league for a $130 million expansion fee as MLB's 29th and 30th teams.

More than a quarter-century later, MLB remains a 30-team league. It is the longest period without expansion since the 60-year stretch before baseball went to 18. The lack of expansion is less a failure than a choice: Amid the game's economic boom since the early 2000s, owners didn't want to share MLB's central revenue with two more teams. Interleague play -- which began in 1997 -- allowed for a pair of 15-team leagues, and other money-making sources slaked the financial thirst that previously made expansion so appealing to the game's ruling class.

Slowly -- almost interminably -- that is changing. While no current plans to expand exist, the potential of a nine-figure financial windfall for every existing team reaping its piece of a combined $4 billion-plus in expansion fees for two new franchises -- and the emergence of viable candidates whose merits appeal to owners and the league -- has left the game preparing for a 32-team league as an inevitability, according to owners, high-ranking league sources and other team personnel who spoke to ESPN.

Expansion, those sources said, is not imminent -- and in fact is unlikely to happen until the early 2030s. Creating a franchise out of nothing takes time, and expansion isn't MLB's immediate priority, either -- not amid the fallout from the bankruptcy of Diamond Sports Group, the company that owned local television rights to 14 teams, the unsettled status of the Rays' attempt to build a new stadium and the Oakland A's attempt to abscond to Las Vegas. Not to mention the new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated after the current one expires in 2026, too.

"It hasn't been much of a topic of conversation," one owner, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, told ESPN. "Everybody knows what's going to happen eventually, but it's so far off that people just haven't focused on it."

That changed recently, when commissioner Rob Manfred brought up expansion during a media availability in which he announced his planned retirement in January 2029. During his decade-long tenure, Manfred has broached the topic of expansion multiple times publicly but has not formed the committee necessary to formalize the process. He said Thursday he hopes to have two new cities chosen before he leaves the job.