Bye-Bye Boom

Building boom is fading away around minors

The minor leagues will welcome seven new ballparks this season, which would seem to be the continuation of a 25-year trend that has resulted in more than 120 new baseball stadiums across this great land of ours.

In reality, though, this is what people who follow the stock market refer to as a "dead cat bounce," where a decline is followed by a temporary recovery, but the long-term downward trend remains in place.

Yes, friends, the ballpark boom is officially over. While seven new ballparks open this season, only one project is actively under way for next season: Tulsa, which plays in one of the few remaining old parks in the minors.

Before this season, there had been just seven new ballpark openings in the previous three seasons. And with the decline in the economy in the last year, municipalities or private groups that may have been on the fence about starting a new ballpark project have largely decided to wait on the sidelines.

The minors also have a natural decline in demand caused simply by the number of new ballparks built over the last 25 years. If you figure the life of a ballpark is at least that long, you certainly can't expect a lot of new construction when there are fewer than 30 teams playing in ballparks that were built before 1985 and have not been significantly renovated or replaced altogether.

Construction has been particularly robust since 1994, when eight new ballparks opened.  Ten new ballparks opened the year after that, then eight in 1996, then nine more in 1997. Between 1994 and 2005, in fact, there was only one year (1999, with three openings) when fewer than five new ballparks debuted. The average over those 12 years was nearly seven ballparks a season, an amazing amount of new construction over such a significant amount of time.

(For our purposes, we defined new ballparks as completely new construction or renovations so significant that they completely changed the character of a ballpark, such as Quad Cities' renovation in 2003.)

Inevitable Conclusion

 So it's no wonder you'll see fewer ballpark-under-construction photo montages on Websites around the minors.

"It will have to slow down because so many teams have (new ballparks)," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said. "We're not in a position of need for the next 15 years to be like the last 15 years."

And it's a lot easier to be satisfied with what you have when you see the credit market tighten significantly and are worried more about getting fans out to the ballpark and sponsors to renew their deals.

"In sheer numbers, that number (of teams building new ballparks) has dwindled and run its course because so many ballparks have been built," O'Conner said. "But you would have to have your head in the sand to think that the current economic climate is not going to make ballpark construction and renovation much more difficult. But the two are not mutually exclusive."

What will be interesting to watch is how both the economic and construction slowdown will affect attendance. New markets and new ballparks have driven minor league attendance to records year after year, with more than 43 million fans overall last season.

"Cal Ripken didn't play a game one night," O'Conner said. "There is a point where we won't have a record one year. But our teams are positioned in a way and our seasons operate in a way and our parks operate in a way that we will be able to set records without a constant flow of five to 10 new ballparks a year."