Wednesday, April 12, 2017

MexPac looking to go national?

There's little doubt that the Mexican Pacific League has become a huge success.  Based in Mexico's western states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California Norte, the MexPac has grown into the Western Hemisphere's most highly-attended baseball league outside the Majors, with crowds averaging nearly 10,000 per game last winter.  In comparison, according to Ballpark Digest, the Class AAA International and Pacific Coast leagues drew between 6,000 and 7,000 fans per opening leaguewide in 2016.  In fact, not one minor league team north of the border came close to matching the LMP's record-setting regular season average of 9,688 per night.  Three MexPac franchises pulled in more than 12,000 per game last winter, with Culiacan leading the loop with a 16,316 average over 34 home dates.

By any measure, those are great numbers for an unaffiliated winter circuit.  One question facing LMP league president Omar Canizales and team owners may be what to do for an encore?  "Puro Beisbol" editor Francisco Ballasteros believes he may have an answer:  Turning the MexPac into a national circuit.

The 2014 move of the former Guasave Algodoneros to Guadalajara, which sits nearly 1,000 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, has been an unqualified success.  The summer Mexican League has had teams in Jalisco in the past, but none were nearly as popular as the newest edition of the Charros have been in Mexico's second-largest city, with an average of 8,914 for the 2016-17 regular season.  Credit for the LMP's success in Jalisco must go to Charros team owner Armando Navarro, a man of equal parts ambition, vision and impatience whose efforts in landing last month's World Baseball Classic Pool D and pulling in very good crowds until the final day showed that he's making inroads for baseball in the same city where the beloved Chivas soccer team plays their home games.

By any measure, the Guadalajara gamble has paid dividends for Canizales and company.  But what of Mexico City and Monterrey?  Canizales has mentioned his desire to place a MexPac team in the nation's capital in the past, a notion that might have been laughed at by some at the time but looks much more realistic in 2017.  There's no question that placing an LMP franchise in Mexico City, with its enormous population and longstanding baseball history, would be a coup for the league.  However, unless the MexPac (or Mexican Premier League, a less-regional name that's been floated in some circles) is willing to occupy Estadio Fray Nano after the Mexican League's Diablos Rojos move into their new stadium in 2018, they will need to deal directly with Diablos owner Alfredo Harp Helu and team president Roberto Mansur.  The Diablos own the new 13,000-seat ballpark, thus making any other team playing there a tenant.  While Harp and Mansur may not be opposed to collecting revenues from a winter league team playing 34 regular season games plus playoffs while the Liga is in its offseason, the Diablos have strugged at the gate over the past few seasons and the two proud men may not be enthused to house a team that could perhaps outdraw their own.  Even though the two leagues play non-overlapping schedules, they ARE competitors, a fact that should not be overlooked.

Monterrey may be the easier city to set up shop for winterball.  The 27,000-seat Estadio Monterrey is owned by the government and not the LMB Sultanes, thus lessening possible interleague jealousies regarding negotiations for playing dates and rental rates.  The purchase of 50 percent of the Sultanes by Grupo Multimedios is a potential game-changer as well.  Ballasteros says the media conglomerate is, in fact, interested in placing a MexPac franchise in Monterrey, noting a recent article to that effect in the group's Milenio newspaper.  Longtime Sultanes owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz may or may not object to another baseball team coming into a city he's had sole territorial reign for decades, but Maiz appears to be losing his grip both on the so-called Old Guard ownership group within the Mexican League and the Sultanes in general.  According to Ballasteros, businessman Carlos Bremer has been mentioned as the preferred owner of a Monterrey LMP team.

So how would this all come about?  Ballasteros speculates that current LMP teams in the smaller cities of Los Mochis and Navojoa (both operating in aging ballparks) would be prime candidates to move rather than a simple expansion.  He notes that there have already been discussions between the MexPac and Televisa TV network regarding future ties between the two bodies.  The LMP plays its schedule between the Apertura and Clausa schedule for Mexico's popular Premier soccer league, and Ballasteros says it was Televisa who floated the idea of renaming the loop the Mexican Premier League to give it a national scope.

The overall question has to be where all this discussion will lead in reality.  Ballasteros ends his column on the cautionary note that it should be "taken into account that the LMP is perhaps the professional sports league most reluctant to change in Mexico."  Perhaps it is, but since taking the helm of the MexPac in 2009, Omar Canizales has shown a willingness to change things within the 63-year-old circuit.  The numbers imply that those changes have usually been the right ones.  Keep an eye on this.