stadiums

These Cities Built Minor League Ballparks With Taxpayer Money. Now They Don't Have Teams To Play in Them.

A reshuffling and reduction of Major League Baseball's feeder system means spending taxpayer money on stadiums looks even more foolish than it was before.

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When the 2021 baseball season arrives—if it arrives—the minor leagues will look a bit different than they did two years ago. And more than a dozen cities might look extra foolish for spending major amounts of public money on minor league ballparks.

There was no minor league baseball in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was still plenty of drama surrounding Major League Baseball's (MLB) farm system. After months of speculation and occasional news leaks, MLB finalized its plans earlier this month to reduce the number of affiliated minor league clubs that are used by major league teams to develop talent. Previously, each of the 30 MLB clubs had five or six minor league affiliates—starting next year, each will have just four.

It's a move that's meant to save the big league clubs money, as it means paying fewer minor league ballplayers and financially supporting fewer clubs. Even though minor league teams are owned and operated mostly independently of their MLB parent organizations, the much richer big-league clubs provide a steady stream of revenue to their farm teams. Losing its connection to an MLB franchise can be an existential threat to a minor league club, which stands to lose both the direct financial benefits of being affiliated and the indirect benefits of attracting fans who want to see future big-leaguers or rehabbing MLB stars.

None of those things are available in the non-MLB-affiliated independent leagues, where life for ballclubs is nasty, brutish, and often short.

That's the gloomy future to which about 40 former minor league teams have been doomed. Given the uncertainties created by COVID-19—will fans be allowed into the stadiums this summer?—it seems more than likely that some of those franchises will simply cease to exist.

That's a shame, because taxpayers have funneled nearly $250 million into stadiums for teams that are now on MLB's chopping block. That's according to Neil deMause, a stadium subsidy critic and co-author of Field of Schemes (as well as a blog of the same name), who crunched the numbers after the official affiliation announcements were made earlier this month.

"A whole lot of minor-league baseball fans are about to lose their teams, and a whole lot of cities are about to see their investments in stadiums go up in smoke," writes deMause.

One of the biggest losers is New York City, which spent $71 million of public money to help build a waterfront minor league ballpark in Staten Island less than 20 years ago. The Staten Island Yankees, a former affiliate to the cross-town team of the same name, didn't survive this year's minor league reaping. The team has folded and plans to sue MLB, according to a statement.

The story is much the same elsewhere. Taxpayers in Kane County, Illinois, kicked in $19 million to build and later upgrade a minor league ballpark, but the Kane County Cougars got booted to the curb by MLB and are now exploring options including independent leagues. In Charleston, West Virginia, taxpayers put up $25 million in 2005 to build a ballpark for the West Virginia Power. Just 15 years later, MLB is turning out the lights.

Empty minor league ballparks that stand as monuments to failed economic development schemes aren't new, of course. In New Jersey, for example, taxpayers paid to build—and then demolish—stadiums in Camden and Newark within the past couple of decades when those teams abruptly ran out of money.

Unfortunately, this year's reduction in the number of MLB-affiliated minor league teams is unlikely to stop local officials from throwing money at baseball teams. In fact, MLB may be hoping that it does the exact opposite—by reducing the number of affiliated minor league teams in the market, those remaining teams could have greater leverage to extract public subsidies by threatening to leave for new homes.

As deMause notes, one of the reasons MLB gave for seeking to cut teams was to improve minor league "stadium facilities," and some owners of teams headed for the scrap heap have said they were more or less told that subpar facilities doomed them. The message to the remaining minor league owners is clear: Lobby your local governments to pay for upgrades or face the consequences.

But those investments are foolish even when they don't result in abandoned stadiums.  Study after study after study has debunked the idea that publicly funded stadiums are financially beneficial to anyone other than the team owners, who get free infrastructure for their business. And the costs keep rising. Worcester, Massachusetts, recently spent $70 million in public funds on a new ballpark, a record for a minor league facility—one that was completed just in time for fans to be banned from attending sporting events due to the pandemic.

Even in cities that aren't losing their minor league teams, the farm system reshuffling is making civic leaders look foolish for spending big bucks on stadiums.

Consider what's happened in Wichita, Kansas. For years, the city had been home to a Double-A minor league team—that's two steps below the major leagues—until it relocated to Arkansas in 2007. Even though the city already possessed a perfectly fine minor league ballpark, local officials decided to spend $75 million building a new stadium in the hopes of luring a Triple-A team—the highest minor league level—from somewhere else. What more could a midsized city in Kansas want, and all it cost residents was an extra 2 percent sales tax.

It seemed to work. The Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins announced in 2019 that it would relocate from New Orleans to Wichita. The new ballpark was set to open earlier this year.

Then COVID-19 struck, and the season was canceled. Now, as part of the overall MLB reshuffling, the Twins have designated a different team, located in nearby St. Paul, their Triple-A affiliate. They'll still maintain the new team in Wichita, but it will be demoted.

Next season, Wichita residents will be watching Double-A ball once again. They'll still be paying those higher taxes.

NEXT: The 10 Worst Helicopter Parenting Hysterias of 2020

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    3. He will ban professional sports, once and for all?

  4. I mean, cities shouldn’t be chipping in jack shit for any of these so it’s on them.

  5. It really didn’t help these teams that MLB required the stadiums to be built under certain configuration standards–minimum number of seats, etc.–that drove up costs. If I was one of these cities, I’d sue them, too.

    The old minor league teams typically played in spartan facilities that were designed to provide a summer night distraction for attendees. There was really no reason for them to be designed better than the average college or even high school baseball field.

  6. These are valid complaints, but it a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of the problem with government giveaways of other peoples’ money.

    Public libraries are the same: taxing your neighbors to buy you entertainment. But do Reason writers complain about that? No. Because they’re mostly shallow poseurs.

    1. There is a huge difference between a baseball stadium which is used to provide profit to private companies using tax payer money, and a public library which is used to enhance the community by providing books and other media to the community for at no cost. Public libraries have a history going back thousands of years.

      1. Yeah, you are emotionally attached to books and the library and not to sports. That’s the difference. Also, like many vain people, you think reading books for entertainment makes you better than your neighbors who like sports instead.

        Public support for sports predates writing. So your “thousands of years” comment actually favors sports over libraries. In truth, the preferences of long dead people are entirely irrelevant.

        If I have to support one or the other, I’d rather support businesses than the library’s government unions. Better would be to not support either. You love the library so much, then hold a fundraiser and get your rich friends to pay for it instead of taxing poor people.

        1. You don’t are much for the Enlightenment principles America was founded on if you can’t tell the difference between reading books and bread & circuses.

          1. And yet, both of them were required for Rome to last as long as it did.

          2. Dude, giving bread & circuses to starving, illiterate people who’s usual entertainment was…dirt farming…yeah, the bread & circuses did much more for stabilizing civilization.

            If you were a starving peasant, which would you prefer: a book or a loaf of bread?

      2. Public libraries sound like a glaring loophole allowing intellectual property rights to be violated by the mob, reading books or watching videos without paying anything to the copyright owner.

  7. Consider what’s happened in Wichita, Kansas. For years, the city had been home to a Double-A minor league team—that’s two steps below the major leagues—until it relocated to Arkansas in 2007. Even though the city already possessed a perfectly fine minor league ballpark, local officials decided to spend $75 million building a new stadium in the hopes of luring a Triple-A team—the highest minor league level—from somewhere else.

    I’ll grant that THIS was fucking dumb. I remember Buffalo and Tampa-St.Pete doing this in the late 80s-early 90s to try and lure a major league team to the city, and they still lost out to Miami and Denver. Tampa-St. Pete only lucked out because MLB wanted to further exploit interest from Florida’s baseball-crazy Latin population, and even then, the Florida teams have had consistently shitty baseball attendance.

    1. One of the guidelines MLB put out then, was no domed stadiums. Buffalo followed that guideline. St. Pete did not. St. Pete got the team.

  8. This is how National healthcare will function.

    1. No. National healthcare would function in a way similar to the way other countries do it. There are a few different approaches, none of them remotely looks like what this article will describe.

      1. I agree it will function way worse then this. The 250 million blown would take a nano-second not a period of 1-15 years.

      2. Did you know that, in other countries, they pay less for medicine but die slightly less often than we do?

        I look forward to spending less money to live longer, and I know that will all come about through public healthcare. And I won’t even have to skip my breakfast doughnut!

        1. Wichita got what they deserved. They had an incredible independent team there in the Wingnuts. They booted them for the Baby Cakes to move. Serves them right to lose out. Sorry, not sorry.

        2. Then why are you still here, Brian?

    2. except it will add death panels

  9. “There was no minor league baseball in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic”

    Fake news.
    There was no minor league baseball due to governments reaction to the Communist Chinese Virus.

  10. It was all about thrusting the power of ‘enslavement’ over the people since day 1.

    Politicians — Slave’s built those stadiums so who cares! We’ll even take FULL-credit for their creation.

  11. Stadiums pop up all over Russia too without any justification (except for the money laundering opportunities they provide).

    1. Sounds like America too….

      1. The resemblances are increasingly striking.

        City after city was somehow sold on having taxpayers subsidize these unprofitable, ugly monstrosities.

        Stadiums always pop up when an empire is in its decadent phase.

  12. In the case of Wichita, at the time they relocated from New Orleans to Wichita the team was affiliated with the Miami Marlins not the Minnesota Twins.

    From the Twins’ perspective having their top minor league club 15 miles away in St Paul makes a ton of sense.

    1. From the Twins’ perspective having their top minor league club 15 miles away in St Paul makes a ton of sense.

      That happened with the Colorado Rockies when they had their AAA team in Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, the Springs is actually at a higher altitude than Denver, and the team’s best prospects were often routed past there from AA so they weren’t ruined by the playing experience. Two All-Star position players, Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe, had their swings absolutely ruined when they did extended rehab stints in the Springs, and it ended up shortening their careers.

      The Rockies AAA farm club is in Albuquerque now, which is still a little under a work-day’s drive. Amusingly, even though Denver likes to call itself the Mile High City, Albuquerque is at the same elevation.

  13. This is what democracy looks like. Take from some and spend it on the benefit of others, justified by “majority vote”. I prefer the ordered liberty of limited republicanism.

    So when do I get my stimulus check?

  14. Lexington paid for a new stadium less than 20 years ago, and they were cut from affiliation too.

  15. Wichita got what they deserved. They had an incredible independent team there in the Wingnuts. They booted them for the Baby Cakes to move. Serves them right to lose out. Sorry, not sorry.

  16. Why would a minor league field even cost that much? All you need is a field, some chain link fence, and some bleachers. Jeez.

    1. Talk to Major League front offices about that. Now they want their prospects to have big, modern clubhouses. Plenty of office space for larger coaching staffs (manager, a handful of coaches, trainers, nutritionists). Multiple batting cages and a well stocked weight room. Kitchens with plenty of places to eat, and video rooms to review film. The days of Bull Durham being representative of the minors are long, long gone.

      And owners of the minor league teams are gonna want plenty of fan amenities as well.

  17. The team that relocated from New Orleans to Wichita was a Marlins affiliate at the time of the move (in 2019), not a Twins one. Wichita was assigned to the Twins as a Double A affiliate only last month.

    If Minor League Baseball had been played in 2020:
    Twins: Triple-A in Rochester (NY), Double-A in Pensacola
    Marlins: Triple-A in Wichita, Double-A in Jacksonville

    2021:
    Twins: Triple-A in St. Paul, Double-A in Wichita
    Marlins: Triple-A in Jacksonville, Double-A in Pensacola

  18. Spending taxpayer money on baseball stadia isn’t (just) dumb.

    It’s wrong.

  19. Socialism doesn’t work, baseball edition.

  20. As a long time baseball fan, the sport is becoming unwatchable anyway, with games averaging 3 hours, and balls in play becoming more and more rare, it becomes a spectacle of two guys playing catch for 180 min while a guy occasionally hits their ball over a distant fence and runs around the bases. Baseball needs to take action to reform the actual play on the field or it will become a niche sport like horse racing or boxing have become.

  21. Here in Boise, we booted our mayor from office last year–Primarily because he kept trying to ram a new ball stadium down our throats.

    When he lost re-election, he seemed really surprised that we didn’t like his friggin ball park.

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