New Stadium Construction Is Slowing To A Crawl

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In addition to the more noted opening of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha this year for the College World Series, the Omaha area also got a new ballpark for its Pacific Coast League franchise.

Werner Park opened this season in suburban Papillion, Neb., as the home for the newly renamed Omaha Storm Chasers. By all accounts, the park has been a boon for the franchise.

I hope the people of Omaha enjoy their two new ballparks. We won't be seeing any similar building booms for awhile.

News of proposed ballpark projects falling through in Las Vegas and suburban San Diego mean we could soon see a year without a new ballpark in the minor leagues. Two PCL franchises had hoped to move into new ballparks in the next few seasons, but now it's not clear what those teams will do (see Page 5).

Minor league baseball has just one new ballpark currently under construction, so an amazing 25-year run of stadium building will continue for at least one more season.

The Southern League's Carolina Mudcats franchise will be moving to Pensacola, Fla., next season. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos will play in a $52 million ballpark under construction on Pensacola Bay in the Florida Panhandle.

That will mean for 26 seasons in a row, minor league baseball has opened at least one new ballpark. The number is one only because Omaha's was the only new park in 2011, and Pensacola will be the only new park in 2012. For the 24 seasons before that, the number was never fewer than two.

And that statistic doesn't include all the extensive stadium renovations that have taken place throughout the minor leagues during that time. For example, the Pawtucket Red Sox (International) still list McCoy Stadium's opening date as 1946, but the ballpark has been almost completely rebuilt since then, getting rededicated in 1992 and renovated again in 1998. The same is true for many other historic parks in the minors.

Clippers Lead The Way

The boom began with the growth of the minor leagues in the 1980s. The Columbus Clippers (International) probably deserve the most credit for getting things rolling, opening Cooper Stadium in 1977 when the conventional wisdom would have suggested not investing huge sums of money in minor league baseball. The Nashville Sounds, who were then in the American Association and have since been folded into the PCL, followed suit in 1978, opening Greer Stadium.

Those investments worked out well for both the teams and the cities, and other franchises and cities soon followed suit. Ballpark construction perked up in the 1980s, peaking in 1988, when five new ballparks opened up.

Soon after that, in 1990, Major League Baseball and Minor League  Baseball went through an acrimonious renewal of the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governs the relationship between the two bodies. For the better part of 25 years, major league teams had almost completely subsidized their minor league affiliates. But when minor league baseball started to become a viable business in the 1980s, the major leagues wanted to shift some of the cost back to the minors, as well as improve conditions for their players. Part of the 1990 PBA renewal included strict new ballpark standards, which many owners lamented as the classic "unfunded mandate" that would force them out of business.

Instead, teams found that local governments were willing to spend money to keep or attract minor league teams, and ballpark construction boomed. By 1993, seven new ballparks opened, then eight in '94 and a peak of 10 in '95. At least six new parks opened in 1996, '97, '98, 2000, '02, '03, '05 and '09.

After 2009, however, as the economy slowed down, so too did construction. Three new parks opened in 2010, and this year it's only Omaha, with Pensacola to follow. To the best of our knowledge, no dirt is yet being moved for a ballpark project beyond that.

The only other project solidly in the works is in Birmingham, where the Southern League's Barons reached a tentative agreement last November to move into a new downtown ballpark. The team currently plays in suburban Hoover, Ala., in a ballpark that opened in 1993.

The Birmingham city council has approved a hotel tax to pay for the new stadium, but  many of the other details remain to be worked out. It's possible that park could open in 2013, but that's certainly not assured.

Several other teams would like new ballparks, but with the economy still limping along, it looks like the building streak could be in jeopardy.