MLB just killed 18 minor-league teams that got $249m in public stadium funding

MLB issued its final list yesterday of which 120 minor-league teams will get to continue as farm teams for big-league clubs, and which will be left to join a series of independent or amateur leagues or disappear altogether. While a few teams got official notice that they’d be switching levels — the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp jump from Double-A to Triple-A, the San Antonio Missions drop from Triple-A to Double-A, the Frederick Keys are bounced from Single-A to the new MLB Draft League where players will have to play for free to showcase their skills for the annual player draft, and the Fresno Grizzlies just yesterday afternoon accepted their demotion from Triple-A to Single-A once they saw what the alternative was — let’s focus on the truly SOL franchises, those that USA Today listed under the heading “No Current League” (state and former affiliation in parentheses):

  • Lowell Spinners (MA, Red Sox)
  • Hagerstown Suns (MD, Nationals)
  • Burlington Bees (IA, Angels)
  • Clinton LumberKings (IA, Marlins)
  • Kane County Cougars (IL, Diamondbacks)
  • Lexington Legends (KY, Royals)
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs (FL, Rays)
  • West Virginia Power (WV, Mariners)
  • Florida Fire Frogs (FL, Braves)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (OR, Giants)
  • Staten Island Yankees (NY, Yankees)
  • Batavia Muckdogs (NY, Marlins)
  • Auburn Doubledays (NY, Nationals)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns (CT, Tigers)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats (NY, Astros)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters (VT, A’s)
  • Lancaster JetHawks (CA, Rockies)
  • Boise Hawks (ID, Rockies)

That is a whole lot of intercaps being thrown to the wolves, not to mention both of the minor leagues’ Burlington teams. (The Lake Monsters played in Burlington, Vermont.) And while some of these franchises may yet end up joining an existing non-affiliate league — the MLB Draft League has two spots available, according to the Washington Post, and the indy Atlantic League is currently down to just six teams and could add more — many will almost certainly follow the Staten Island Yankees into oblivion.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how much public money was spent on stadiums for teams that have now been annihilated by MLB fiat:

  • Lowell Spinners: $11.2 million (construction, 1998)
  • Hagerstown Suns: $1.06 million (construction, 1930; renovations, 1981 and 1995)
  • Burlington Bees: $3 million (renovation, 2005)
  • Clinton LumberKings: $4.35 million (construction, 1937; renovation, 2006)
  • Kane County Cougars: $19.5 million (construction, 1991; renovations, 2008 and 2015)
  • Lexington Legends: privately funded
  • Charlotte Stone Crabs: $32.2 million (construction, 1987; renovation, 2009)
  • West Virginia Power: $25 million (construction, 2005)
  • Florida Fire Frogs: $45.9 million (construction, 2019)
  • Salem-Keizer Volcanoes: $6.8 million (construction, 1997)
  • Staten Island Yankees: $71 million (construction, 2001)
  • Batavia Muckdogs: $3 million (construction, 1996)
  • Auburn Doubledays: $3.145 million (construction, 1995)
  • Norwich Sea Unicorns: $9.3 million (construction, 1995)
  • Tri-City ValleyCats: $14 million (construction, 2002)
  • Vermont Lake Monsters: privately funded
  • Lancaster JetHawks: $14.5 million (construction, 1996)
  • Boise Hawks: privately funded

A couple of caveats: The Stone Crabs and Fire Frogs played at their big-league affiliates’ spring training sites, so those stadiums will still be in use on a lesser basis; and a couple of other stadiums get use as high school or college fields. Still, that’s $249 million in tax money down the toilet, with little hope of finding replacement teams in the future.

Little hope, I should say, without throwing more public money at the situation. You’ll note that a lot of those stadium construction dates above are from the 20th century — Centennial Park in Burlington, Vermont opened way back in 1906! — which is ancient in the what-have-you-built-for-us-lately world of pro sports. One of the reasons MLB gave for seeking to cut teams when it was first announced last year was to “improve Minor League Baseball’s stadium facilities,” and in fact the Boise Hawks owner specifically said he was told his team was marked for death because it was an age-defying 31 years old:

“We were told our current facility ultimately led to the decision,” [Hawks president Jeff] Eiseman said in a statement. “As we have stated since the day we purchased the Hawks, the venue is a challenge. The failure to not have replaced it in all of these prior years led to this move.”

Not having to pay as many minor-league salaries — in part by forcing minor leaguers to play as amateurs, whether in the new MLB Draft League or the conversion of the entire Appalachian League to a “college wood-bat league” — was obviously a prime reason for MLB’s restructuring of the minors, but increasing leverage for new or renovated stadiums could turn out to be the far more lucrative result. If Boise or Lexington or Batavia wants a new team, they will almost certainly be asked to upgrade their stadiums first; and if the cities that do get rewarded with teams, that will allow MLB to cast existing teams onto the scrap heap, in an endless cycle of stadium shakedowns.

Even now, the new minors structure isn’t 100% finalized: MLB and the surviving minor-league teams still need to work out a player-development contract that will determine exactly what each side will pay toward minor-league team costs; the Tacoma Rainiers owners have already released a statement that they “cannot accept the invitation until we’ve had time to review the deal that will govern our sport, and this relationship, for decades to come.” And there is still the possibility of antitrust lawsuits to fight the elimination of teams, since MLB has effectively taken control of all of its competitors for baseball fan dollars and ordered a bunch of them to shut down — recall that last year an unnamed MLB official told the New York Daily News’ Bill Madden, “My God, we’ll be sued all over the place from these cities that have built or refurbished ballparks with taxpayer money, and this will really put our anti-trust exemption in jeopardy.”

Still, 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. And a whole lot of minor-league players are about to be, in essence, redefined as unpaid interns. Thus has it always been.

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Staten Island Yankees officially fold, sue Steinbrenner and MLB for “false promises”

And we have the first lawsuit of the Great Minor League Baseball War of 2020:

The Staten Island Yankees, who lost their affiliation with the mother ship last month, on Thursday announced they are ceasing operations and filed a $20 million lawsuit against both the Yankees and Major League Baseball “to hold those entities accountable for false promises.”

False promises! That’s not exactly antitrust violations, but it’s something.

The crux of the suit seems to be that the New York Yankees “made repeated assurances” that the Staten Island Yankees would “always” be their minor-league partner, which presumably amounts to a verbal contract or something:

(The suit itself, according to the wretched excuse for a newspaper that is the New York Post, also charges “promissory estoppel,” which I’m not even going to look up because it is too platonically perfect an example of legalese. No, don’t tell me in the comments, I don’t want it ruined for me.)

There’s more to the suit, including accusations that the big-league Yankees ownership objected to the minor-league team wanting to change their name to the Staten Island Pizza Rats, but mostly this comes down to “We bought a minor-league team for its affiliation with the Yankees and then the Yankees pulled the rug out from under us and we went out of business so fire up the lawyers. If this is the last lawsuit we see coming out of this winter of minor-league discontent, I’ll eat my promissory estoppel.

 

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Friday roundup: Raiders stadium runs short of tax dollars, Falcons owner makes film about how great Megatron’s Butthole is, and a Ricketts cries poor (again)

Well, that was certainly something to wake up to on a post-Thanksgiving Friday morning. Not sure how many U.S. readers are checking the internet today, but if that’s you and you’re looking for some non-Canadian stadium and arena news for your troubles, we have that too:

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Staten Island official endorses spending $5m on empty baseball stadium to steal rugby team from Brooklyn

As I reported here a week and a half ago, New York City is set to spend $5.1 million on upgrades to the Staten Island Yankees‘ home stadium even as the Staten Island Yankees may cease to exist, or at least will certainly no longer be a Yankees affiliate. This weekend the New York Post took notice of this, and got Staten Island borough president James Oddo to say he thinks throwing public money at an increasingly empty stadium is a great idea:

Borough President James Oddo said it’s about time the city steps up to the plate and invests in the ballpark with vistas of the downtown skyline, adding that the Yankees’ decision two weeks ago to drop the “Baby Bombers” as part of Major League Baseball’s minor-league consolidation “needs to serve as a wake-up call.”

“This is a moment of time where we have to extract something more than the status quo,” he told The Post. “You have this great stadium that’s underused, and we have to make it a bigger part of the Island’s community than it’s been.

“It was a major investment in tax dollars to build, yet the stadium is dormant for the overwhelming majority of the year.”

It was indeed a major investment to build — $71 million in city dollars, in part thanks to environmental cleanup costs at the site near the Staten Island Ferry terminal — but what would the value be in throwing another $5.1 million on the fire? According to “officials,” says the Post, “the pro rugby franchise Rugby United New York has expressed interest in playing there once it’s reconfigured.”

If you’re not familiar with Rugby United New York, that makes you and most of the population of New York City. The team has played a season and a half so far, with announced attendance settling in at under 2,000 per game following the franchise’s home opener, playing at the Brooklyn Cyclones‘ home stadium in Coney Island. So the primary announced goal of the city rehabbing the Staten Island stadium, apparently, would be to add artificial turf in order to move a team in an extremely minor sports league from one city borough to another.

This is dumb enough, apparently, to even draw opposition from Fansided’s Staten Island Yankees blogger, who writes that spending money on a stadium after its main tenant has left “makes no sense,” and that the prospect of a rugby team is “kind of bleak” and “a tough sell.” Which is maybe what you’d expect from a minor-league baseball blogger suddenly faced with the prospect of not having a team to write about, but it’s also completely accurate. Unfortunately, the New York City Economic Development Corporation is spending this money out of its own budget, so it isn’t likely we’ll get any city council hearings — which is a shame, as I’d love to hear what Brooklyn elected officials think about this move.

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Friday roundup: Charlotte approves $35m in soccer subsidies, NYC spends $5m on stadium upgrades for team that may disappear, NBA joins NFL in welcoming fans back to giant virus stew

Even after dispensing with that crazy San Jose Sharks move threat story, there’s a ton of leftover news this week. So put down that amazing Defector article about how the British have fetishized the Magna Carta as a declaration of citizen rights when it’s really just about how the king can’t unreasonably tax 25 barons, and let’s get right to it:

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Yankees axe Trenton, Staten Island, Charleston teams that received $112m in public stadium money

The long-promised contraction and reorganization of minor-league baseball began in earnest this weekend, as the New York Yankees announced they would be cutting ties with the Trenton Thunder, Staten Island Yankees, and Charleston RiverDogs, while adding affiliations with the Somerset Patriots (formerly in the independent Atlantic League) and Hudson Valley Renegades (formerly a short-season team affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays). The Thunder and Yankees owners apparently learned the news via Twitter:

The Patriots, who play about an hour west of New York City, have long been one of the top-drawing teams in the Atlantic League, though with roughly the same number of fans per game (just over 5,000) as Trenton. Both Trenton and Staten Island have been offered spots in the Atlantic League, reports CBS Sports, but “their futures are unclear at the moment,” which is what happens when you’re suddenly cast into a league that has seen a bunch of teams fold since its 1998 opening, even after getting tens of millions of dollars each in public stadium funding.

Speaking of which, both Trenton and Staten Island got a ton of stadium subsidies as well, money that’s now at risk of going for naught thanks to the elimination of teams. Trenton’s stadium was built in 1994 at a cost of $16.2 million, paid for entirely by Mercer County. Charleston’s stadium was built by the city in 1997 for $19.5 million, with another $6 million in upgrades since to stop it from sinking into the earth. And Staten Island’s was opened in 2001 and cost a staggering $71 million, thanks to cleanup issues at the site, all of which was paid for by the citizens of New York City. It’s possible that both cities will get new indie teams — or even new affiliated teams, though that’s unlikely with the Mets already having the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Philadelphia Phillies four existing affiliates in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, and both of them looking to cut back on farm teams as well — but if not, we could see a renewed wave of shuttered new-ish stadiums.

That would be bad news for baseball fans and taxpayers alike, but potentially great news for MLB owners, who would simultaneously cut back on minor-league payrolls, reduce travel costs by consolidating teams near their parent clubs, and potentially get cities and minor-league teams alike into bidding wars to make sure they have chairs when the contraction music stops. We haven’t seen that yet, but you know it’s going to happen: If the Trenton Thunder, say, can’t line up a new big-league affiliation, how long do you think before its owners go back to Mercer County to claim that stadium upgrades are needed to lure away some other town’s team?

The Staten Island Yankees, meanwhile, included in their tweeted press release this line:

The Staten Island Yankees made every effort to accommodate MLB and New York Yankees requirements, including securing a commitment from New York City for ballpark upgrades

Wait, they secured what now? This was news to me, and I followed New York City ballpark spending even more closely than that on the rest of the planet; I’ve reached out for comment to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency that owns and operates the Staten Island stadium (though it’s been trying to ditch the “operates” part), and will post here when I learn anything more.

All this is certainly only the first show among many, with 29 other teams still set to announce which affiliates will be cast adrift. Just last night, in fact, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Giants are expected to ditch the Augusta GreenJackets and likely the Richmond Flying Squirrels as well. It’s still unclear when minor-league baseball will resume, thanks to the pandemic, but whenever it does, it could look very different than it has for the last several decades.

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