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Minor League Markets In Short Supply
by Will Lingo
Teams may have nowhere to go.
For what seems like years I've talked about how one of the biggest drivers in the continuing minor league attendance boom has been the minors' willingness to move into new markets.
For the towns that get left behind, it's a bitter pill to swallow and often ignores years of baseball tradition. But the name of the game for minor league owners these days is revenue, especially those who have entered the business in the last decade and have laid out millions of dollars for their franchises.
That's why the trend of recent years has been to leave behind smaller cities--and even those larger cities that aren't willing to build new ballparks--for greener pastures, sweeter ballpark deals and bigger crowds.
The scarcity of viable markets has become evident in the last year or two, though, raising questions about when the attendance boom might level off. It sure hasn't stopped yet, with overall minor league attendance breaking the all-time record in each of the last two years.
Yet even relatively new franchises are struggling after initial success, with the Southern League's West Tenn Diamond Jaxx being the most obvious example.
The Diamond Jaxx were tied to another example of market scarcity during the last offseason, when the Greenville, S.C., market became available. In another example of the classic story, Greenville had not been able to work out a ballpark deal with the Southern League franchise that had been there since 1984, so the team moved to suburban Jackson, Miss., and became the Mississippi Braves.
Good markets are in such short supply now, however, that three different franchises clamored to move to Greenville: West Tenn and two South Atlantic League franchises, Capital City and Hagerstown. Capital City eventually won out.
No Action In Jackson
That left the Diamond Jaxx trying to make their way in Jackson, Tenn., a market that was probably too small for Double-A baseball to begin with. The struggles became even greater under the weight of fan disenchantment, a bad relationship with local leadership, and continual rumors the franchise was on the way out of town.
The public fight over the Greenville market confirmed those fears for West Tenn fans, and attendance slipped to 105,893 in 2005. Now the franchise faces the possibility of being kicked out of Jackson for 2006, with no obvious answer to the question of where it will end up.
It's possible that Baton Rouge, La., or Biloxi, Miss., could become viable markets in a few years, but there are no firm plans for a ballpark in either of those places. That leaves mostly unappealing old markets with substandard ballparks to choose from, a prospect that virtually guarantees big financial losses for a season or two.
Adding to the strange offseason is the Midwest League actually turning down an opportunity to move a franchise to Marion, Ill., where a ballpark deal was in place--in fact, dirt has already been moved to start construction on the $16 million project--and the southern Illinois region seemed anxious to have a team.
Officials said the franchise did not make geographic sense for the league and would add too much travel for league teams, but you have to wonder if the market wasn't also a consideration.
After all, the South Atlantic League has made a go of it with teams stretching from New Jersey to Georgia. The Sally League even is the home of the Lake County Captains, who play in suburban Cleveland and would seem to make more sense in the Midwest League.
Best Move Is No Move
Perhaps we have reached the point where, beyond the occasional midsize city that suddenly starts caring about minor league baseball, the best markets for minor league baseball already have minor league baseball.
Take Charlotte, for example. As the Charlotte Knights presently exist, they are a solid International League franchise but one of the laggards in Triple-A attendance, having drawn 289,495 fans in 2005. Their ballpark, Knights Stadium, opened in 1990 but is something of a white elephant because it's actually in South Carolina, about 15 miles south of downtown Charlotte.
While the Knights have plugged away in suburban Fort Mill, both they and other civic boosters in Charlotte have also pursued a new downtown ballpark for years. So even though it's not an open market, Charlotte is really one of the more lucrative untapped minor league markets in the nation.
Little Rock, Ark., was a similar situation, with a longstanding team but an old ballpark. A new ballpark project is now under way there, which should rejuvenate the franchise in a couple of years.
Now there's finally progress in Charlotte, with a possible downtown land swap in the works that would pave the way for a new baseball stadium near the NFL stadium that's home to the Carolina Panthers.
That's clearly the best route for the future success of the Knights. While the team's ownership may not be happy with its current situation, the team doesn't have a lot of other options. There's certainly not another market out there that would be as appealing as Charlotte with a new downtown ballpark.
It looks like that's going to be the way of the world in the next few years. As many teams are finding, there's simply nowhere else to go.