Image credit: Memphis' AutoZone Park
Even when the Lowell Spinners were left out of the 120 teams tapped to remain in Major League Baseball’s restructured minor league system, the hope remained that before long, affiliated baseball would return to the city of 115,000 that lies to the north of Boston.
When the Spinners were left off the list of remaining affiliated teams, the Red Sox came out with a statement explaining how they were working to ensure baseball would return to Lowell, Boston’s short-season New York-Penn League affiliate for the previous 25 years.
Initially, it was believed that $10 million in stadium upgrades would ensure that LeLacheur Park met the new Professional Development License facility standards that MLB will require of minor league teams beginning in 2025.
If Lowell upgraded its stadium, the expectation for many around the minors was that the Red Sox would relocate their Salem, Va., affiliate to Lowell. Boston would then shift High-A Greenville to the Low-A Carolina League—taking the place of Salem—with Lowell fitting into the Northeast component of the High-A South Atlantic League.
But the price tag for the LeLacheur Park upgrades kept growing. What was a $10 million project soon grew to an estimated $30 million. The Andover (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune recently pegged the cost at $40 million.
Thanks to the sticker shock of a project that had expanded in scope by a factor of four, the hopes of baseball fans in Lowell wishing to see a Red Sox affiliate any time soon have largely been dashed.
All across the country, minor league teams are busy working to develop plans, line up funding and sign contracts to meet the significantly upgraded facility standards of MLB’s new PDL system. They do so with a clear set of deadlines ahead of them.
Minor league teams that are not in compliance with a more relaxed set of standards by April 2023 face the potential of fines. By 2024, the standards are stricter. And by 2025, teams are expected to be in compliance with the final set of PDL standards.
Failure to meet those standards could result in MLB taking away their license and sending it to another city.
Minor league teams are working on these upgrades at a time that is adding a significant degree of difficulty to an already challenging set of requirements.
Construction costs have risen dramatically over the past two years since the PDL standards were established. Thanks to a backlog of construction that has been delayed by the pandemic, finding builders to produce projects in a timely manner is also challenging.
“You couldn’t pick a worse time to try to implement these standards,” said Tom Tingle, senior sports architect for the DLR Group. “It’s not MLB’s fault, but the pandemic has had such a significant impact on the supply chain and costs of all these items.”
Multiple experts involved in these renovations said that costs are often running 60% to 80% or more above initial projections. The price tag for new ballparks significantly exceeds the value of the minor league franchises themselves.
The Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts are attempting to line up funding for a new stadium as part of a development process. It’s expected to cost $86 million. A new home for the Double-A Tennessee Smokies in Knoxville, Tenn., is already approved. The stadium, set to open in 2025, is priced at $80 million.
Minor league teams have been trying to hit a moving target. If public funding is part of the process, it generally requires the funding being approved before the project can be put out for bid. With the way costs are rising, there are no guarantees that the funding will prove to be enough when the bids are received.
“It’s really sad. You’re not getting the best bang for the buck because of increased prices,” Tingle said.
There’s going to be a lot of sticker shock, in part because prices have rapidly risen in the past couple of years, but also because in many cases, these will be the first major player development-focused renovations for these stadiums since they were built.
MLB is pushing teams to move their facilities into the 2020s. Before this new PDL system went into effect in 2021, those facility standards were governed by rules set three decades ago. The 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and Minor League Baseball included a significant set of upgraded facility standards. That led to a building boom around the minors, as many cities found it would be wiser to build new stadiums rather than attempt to rebuild 50-year-old facilities to try to meet upgraded standards.
A full 80% of full-season minor league parks in use this season were built after the 1990 PBA dramatically upgraded facility standards.
Since then, four different PBAs between MLB and MiLB were relatively silent on behind-the-scenes facility upgrades.
During that time, minor league teams have largely focused on fan-focused upgrades, with suites, video boards, playgrounds and other amenities being added. After all, those upgrades drive increased attendance and increased revenue. A fan walking through a minor league park’s concourse in 2021 would likely notice a major change from the experience in 1995. But a player heading into the visitor’s clubhouse would likely not notice nearly as much of a difference.
But for minor league operators, there has been a growing realization for years that a bill for upgrading player development-focused aspects of the stadium was going to come due.
Then-MiLB president Pat O’Conner suggested that there was a need for significant revisions to facility standards in a conversation with Baseball America in December 2018, two years before the then-current PBA expired.
“Facility standards have basically been unchanged in the last 25 years,” O’Conner said then. “Now you think about the needs of a major league club. You didn’t have a masseuse. You didn’t have a strength and conditioning coordinator. You didn’t have a videographer. You didn’t have a nutritionist. You didn’t have an extra coach on the staff. Just logistically, there is a physical plant need that we need to address.”
Right now, female coaches and other staff at many ballparks have no designated locker room. The new facility standards mandate a locker room for women and ensure a stadium is automatically in non-compliance if it lacks it.
With proper nutrition being a point of emphasis today, stadiums must have food preparation and dining areas for both teams, something previously not required.
Having covered batting and pitching tunnels is a significant training and preparation aid for teams. And weight rooms have become a significantly larger focus for clubs in the decades since 1990.
The new standards also eliminate the distinctions that once existed between the different classifications of the minors. Before the new PDL, Class A teams could play on fields that were significantly dimmer than what was required at the higher levels of the minors. Now, all levels will have the same lighting requirements.
Teams—and, in many cases, municipalities—may end up spending a lot of money to upgrade stadiums, but in most cases, fans won’t see many of the changes. Every aspect of these new facility standards is aimed at improving the conditions for players and staff.
The new PDL is silent when it comes to the areas of the stadium devoted to fans. MLB’s realization is that minor league operators will handle that aspect of the ballpark experience without the need for any written requirements. That’s because minor league operators know that in order to succeed they have to provide a quality experience for fans.
Staff at MLB are working with minor league teams to ensure that proposed upgrade plans meet the new requirements. MLB is signing off on construction plans, which ensures that there are no ambiguities that could down the road cause disputes over whether an area at a stadium meets or fails to meet the new PDL standards.
What MLB is not offering are assurances that stretch beyond 2030, when current PDLs are set to expire. However, being PDL-compliant by 2025 will ensure that a team retains its PDL for the remaining six seasons of MLB’s current agreement with minor league owners.
Beyond that, there are no guarantees.
While flagship teams in prime markets have little to worry about, in many cases, municipalities will be financing bonds for 20 years or longer to upgrade stadiums, even though there are no assurances that affiliated baseball will remain there in 2031 and beyond.
There are no long-term guarantees for minor league team owners either. In the initial plans for the PDL system, MLB had in place a structure where minor league teams were guaranteed compensation if they were PDL-compliant but left without an MLB affiliate when the current agreement ends in 2030. The exact formula for that compensation was to have been settled by the executive board—a group composed of MiLB owners and MLB officials—seven years into the current agreement.
But the funding for that compensation was to come from a transfer fee that would apply to minor league teams sold during the current 10-year agreement. Minor league owners requested that the transfer fee be dropped, fearing that it could cut into franchise values during sales.
Without that transfer fee, there is no system in place to compensate minor league owners if they are dropped from the affiliated minors in 2031, even if they are in facilities that meet the new PDL requirements.
It’s hard to find anyone who owns or operates a minor league team who didn’t notice that MLB requested to cut the number of minor league players under contract per organization from 180 in-season to 150 as part of the negotiations for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the players’ union. While that request did not make it into the final CBA, the fear remains that MLB could look to lop off another level—or two—of the minors at the expiration of the current PDLs after the 2030 season.
If that happens, municipalities and/or minor league owners could have millions of dollars in debt remaining from stadium upgrades for stadiums that are no longer affiliated with MLB organizations.
And depending on where they are located, there may not be a lot of viable alternative options if MLB did decide to cut the number of affiliated leagues.
When MLB dropped the short-season New York-Penn and Rookie-advanced Appalachian and Pioneer leagues from affiliated ball, it helped the Pioneer League turn into a partner league. The Appy League became a summer amateur wood bat league, while many teams from the NYPL formed the new Draft League, a hybrid amateur wood bat/independent league.
Doing a similar process in 2031 would be more difficult, especially in areas that have proven less fertile for independent leagues. In the 2020 PDL shuffle, Lancaster, Calif., went from having a High-A affiliate to having no baseball at all. Their city manager said they had no viable options.
Typically, the costs associated with independent baseball are higher on the West Coast and the projected revenues are lower because of lower attendance figures. That’s why unaffiliated pro baseball has struggled to ever gain a significant foothold west of the Rockies.
Minor Leagues Ranked by Average Age Of Facilities
The remaining open question is what happens if minor league teams fail to upgrade to meet the standards. The simplest answer is that MLB has made clear it has the right to pull a team’s PDL and move it to another city. And at least for now, MLB has not offered any leeway on that 2025 deadline.
“The way I’m approaching it is in April 2025, we need to be fully compliant or we may lose our license,” said Pat Fillippone, president of 7th Inning Stretch, LLC, the company that owns teams in Delmarva, Everett and Stockton.
But that’s likely not as simple as it seems. If MLB’s goal is to put teams in top-notch facilities, a construction schedule slipping to 2026 will be unlikely to endanger a team’s license.
For teams that fail to meet the standards entirely, their outcome could depend on geography.
There are multiple options on the East Coast that could theoretically replace a non-PDL compliant stadium. There are potential options in the Midwest as well.
Head out to the West Coast—especially California—and it becomes hard to come up with many realistic options to step in if a minor league facility isn’t upgraded.
And it’s there that it is the least likely that every minor league team will even attempt to get into compliance. There may even be safety in numbers. If one team fails to upgrade its facilities, MLB has to find one viable replacement in the area. If four teams in a league fail to do so, it’s highly unlikely that four viable replacement markets can be found.
Multiple people involved in the upgrade process found it highly unlikely that all Low-A California League teams will upgrade their stadiums to meet the PDL standards. Just two of the eight stadiums in the Cal League have been built in the past 25 years.
California has shown less willingness to fund new ballparks, and the costs involved in those upgrades will make it potentially prohibitive for minor league owners to self-fund such upgrades.
The new facility requirements guarantee that the next few years will see one of the biggest building booms around the minor leagues since the early 1990s. But it’s still too early to know how universally those requirements will be met, and what it will mean for 2031 and beyond.
Current Minor League Parks Opened by Decade
There are 120 affiliates but just 119 parks, because Jupiter and Palm Beach share Roger Dean Stadium in the Florida State League.