The plan for a proposed minor league ballpark in Virginia Beach is not so different than financial blueprints for stadiums that have been discussed at cities around the country.
The group hoping to bring an independent Atlantic League franchise to Virginia Beach made its proposal to city officials last week. It is expected to learn Tuesday night if the city council accepts the offer to privately finance the construction of a roughly $40 million stadium and 13 youth baseball and softball diamonds on city-owned property in exchange for a percentage of sales-tax revenue generated at the complex to help pay down debt service on the bonds used to back the project.
The plan, in many ways, is similar to other proposals for ballparks that have been built (and not built) in recent years, except for one notable detail: The Virginia Beach stadium would be located just down the road from a successful Triple-A franchise. And while the Atlantic League has thrived by capitalizing on markets affiliated teams either could not or would not pursue, it has largely stayed away from ones with existing minor league teams.
The Norfolk Tides have considered Virginia Beach part of their territory since they debuted in the International League in 1969. Playing in 21-year-old Harbor Park, the Tides have drawn consistent but not spectacular attendance, placing no higher than 10th in the 14-team International League in attendance the past five seasons.
Yet, there is room for two teams in the greater Chesapeake-Norfolk-Virginia Beach region, says Jas Short, chairman of Virginia Beach Professional Baseball LLC, citing the city’s growing population of 1.6 million and steady summer tourism industry.
So, much like the original “Odd Couple,” can two minor league clubs share the same market without driving each other crazy (or out of business)? It depends on who you ask.
“Will they cut into us?” Norfolk Tides executive vice president Dave Rosenfield, who is entering his 54th season with the club, asked. “Probably to some degree, but it’s pretty hard to compare unaffiliated minor league baseball to Triple-A baseball. Virginia Beach is a big city, they might attract some people. But how many people are going to go to that instead of high-caliber Triple-A baseball?
“I’ll put it to you this way: I wouldn’t want to be on their side of it.”
Atlantic League president Peter Kirk has been on both sides, owning several affiliated teams and serving as chairman of Minor League Baseball’s board of trustees. He insists that classification has nothing to do with it.
“Last time I checked, it’s the same 90 feet between bases,” Kirk said.
Kirk believes an Atlantic League franchise can put on as good a show as the Norfolk Tides and that the region could support two teams.
“I’m sure that there are a great number of fans in Virginia Beach of the Norfolk club and fans may continue to support Norfolk,” Kirk said. “Some may choose to support the local team. But more likely than not, because of the nature of minor league baseball, most people will say, ‘It’s a nice Saturday night, the weather is good, which team is home?’ ”
Short approached the Atlantic League more than a year ago about backing his pursuit of bringing a minor league team to his hometown. After conducting its own research, the Atlantic League agreed to bring a team to Virginia Beach if Short could secure the funding for a new ballpark, which he is still pursuing.
The ballpark would be the centerpiece of a 13-field complex that would attract regional and national youth tournaments and be a boon to the local economy, Short said. The stadium would feature many of the bells and whistles of modern minor league ballparks, said Virginia Professional Baseball chief operating officer Clay Dills, including a wraparound concourse, group-seating and entertainment area, and a variety children’s play areas.
“The Atlantic League has done a lot to program their ballparks for them to be profitable,” Dills said. “We will be building a ballpark in a place has never had one before and has a sizable population base in of itself. We hope to tie in with the hotels, and in that market they are looking for a family experience.”
The Atlantic League’s objective in pursuing the Virginia Beach market is not to sink the Tides, Kirk said. In fact, he envisions holding exhibitions against their potential neighbor.
“Step No. 1 for us was to determine would a Virginia Beach team hurt Norfolk. If the answer was yes, the Atlantic League would not get involved. And we determined that it would not,” Kirk said. “We concluded that Norfolk and Virginia Beach (can co-exist), given the geography there and the size of the markets.”
The Professional Baseball Agreement that guides the relationship between Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball includes provisions protecting each franchise’s territory, which is defined as the county a team plays in plus a 15-mile buffer zone around it. Virginia Beach falls well within the Norfolk Tides’ territory, which would prevent any affiliated team from relocating there. The Atlantic League, however, is not bound by such rules.
The Atlantic League has grown into the premier independent league by placing teams in major league markets and filling their rosters with former big leaguers and passed-over minor leaguers. It placed a team on Long Island when affiliated teams could not because of the proximity to the New York Mets and New York Yankees. The Long Island Ducks have since become the Atlantic League’s flagship franchise, attracting more than 5 million fans since debuting in 2000.
When former Astros owner Drayton McLane passed on placing a Triple-A franchise in the suburban Houston market of Sugar Land, the Atlantic League swooped in and placed a team of its own there in what it hopes will become the start of an expansion west. The Skeeters debuted in 2012 and have drawn nearly a million fans in their first two seasons.
The Atlantic League has largely avoided markets with existing minor league teams. The Somerset Patriots debuted in 1999, roughly 30 miles from the Trenton Thunder (Eastern League). And while Somerset and Trenton have thrived, their markets do not connect like Virginia Beach and Norfolk would.
“I can’t go back to the fact enough that Virginia Beach is the biggest city in the country never to have professional baseball,” Short said. “When you add in the tourist population, we think it will be a fantastic opportunity for the citizens of Virginia Beach and tourists coming to Virginia Beach and our organization.”