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What you need to know about the business of baseball

As I’ve watched this whole discussion about a ballpark in Wilmington unfold, one thing has become abundantly clear: Not enough people understand the business of baseball.

To be sure, I am not a certified expert on this subject, but I do believe based on my love and knowledge of the sport, including its business side, and a lot of what I’ve heard in the last several days, there’s just a lot of general naivete and ignorance about what’s going on here that I can help clear up. I’m not saying that to be insulting by any means. I’m just saying there’s a certain level of education needed on this subject that I think will help people understand this process to bring baseball to Wilmington and let everyone ask the right questions to get the right answers.

Let’s start with some very basic things, like the structure of professional baseball. We are all familiar with Major League Baseball. There are 30 teams in major cities divided into two, three-division leagues. This is the top level of baseball. Each of those teams has what’s known as a farm system. That means Minor League Baseball (MiLB) teams that are affiliated with each MLB franchise.

There are several different levels in Minor League Baseball. Each MLB team has an affiliate in each of those levels. The top level in MiLB is AAA. This is typically from where guys are “called up” to fill spots on the Major League roster or “sent down” when they are not cutting it in the big leagues. Below that is AA, then high-level A, low-level A and Rookie League. As you can probably figure, the lower the level, the lesser the talent and experience.

OK, so Wilmington is looking to become the home for the current Lynchburg (VA) Hillcats of the high-level A Carolina League. That means while some future Major Leaguers would play here at some point, they would likely be at least two to three years away from the Majors. In reality you will likely only have a handful of future Major League players in any given year and an even smaller number who will become big-league regulars. The truth is that most of these guys will never play in the Majors and will probably be out of baseball within a couple of years.

Aside from a few “bonus babies” (top draft picks who get high-dollar signing bonuses) most of the players will make about $1,000 a month during the season. For the Hillcats, this season features a 140-game schedule with 10 off days, including the three-day All-Star Break in June. Most of those off days will be spent making long bus trips to another city. This is not the big salaries and first-class life of the Majors. Watch “Bull Durham” to get an idea. In fact, that’s the perfect way, because this team is the old Durham Bulls made famous by that movie. Seriously. The Bulls were the Carolina League affiliate for the Braves from 1980 to 1997. In 1998, they became the AAA affiliate in the International League for the MLB expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. That same year, the Braves moved their affiliate in the Carolina League to Danville, VA, and then moved again the next year to Myrtle Beach to become the Pelicans. That team moved to Lynchburg last year and became the Hillcats, and now the Braves want to move it to Wilmington.

And that’s where the business side of things come in.

A lot of people are worried that if the Braves can move a team here from Lynchburg via Myrtle Beach via Danville via Durham, that may mean they could turn around and leave Wilmington. It’s not that simple. Again, the team left Durham after 18 seasons because the Bulls got a better opportunity from Tampa Bay to move up to AAA. They went to Danville for one season only because the stadium in Myrtle Beach was not yet ready. The Braves left Myrtle Beach because the Pelicans were sold to the owner of MLB’s Texas Rangers, who decided to (logically) affiliate his MiLB team with his MLB team. Meanwhile, the Braves, who own all of their other farm teams, signed a player development deal with Lynchburg while they searched for a home for a Carolina League team they would own themselves. And that’s where Wilmington comes into play. As for them picking up and leaving, the Braves and partner Mandalay Baseball Properties say they are willing to sign a 20-year lease in Wilmington. In MiLB terms, that’s pretty darn good. Put that in the “Pro” column in this debate.

So why Wilmington? Well, the Braves say we are in “Atlanta Braves Country.” During their presentation to Wilmington City Council Monday night, the Braves defined “Atlanta Braves Country” as Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. That’s where the Braves want to put all their farm teams, which they would own, and Wilmington is the final piece to the puzzle.

The big question, of course, is why the taxpayers of Wilmington should have to pay for a stadium so major players in a multi-billion-dollar industry can make more money? Blame that on the Major Leagues.

In the 1960s and 1970s many cities got into the sports stadium business. Multi-use stadiums were all the rage. Cookie-cutter steel and concrete monstrosities (usually with hard as rock artificial turf) in which a MLB and pro football team could play popped up in places like New York (Shea Stadium), Philadelphia (Veterans Stadium), Pittsburgh (Three Rivers Stadium), Washington (RFK Stadium), Cincinnati (Riverfront Stadium), Atlanta (Fulton Co. Stadium), St. Louis (Busch Stadium), Houston (Astrodome), Minneapolis (Metrodome), San Diego (Jack Murphy Stadium), San Francisco (Candlestick Park) and even Toronto (Exhibition Stadium) and Montreal (Stade Olympique). And that doesn’t count the single-sport stadiums and basketball/hockey arenas. Of all those stadiums, only Busch Stadium in St. Louis was privately owned.

A couple decades later, as many of those stadiums began to show their age and the economics of sports changed, teams started demanding new, nicer stadiums paid for at least in part with public money. Sometimes they even threatened to move to another city. Fearing a loss of part of their cultural identity and various revenue streams, many city and state governments blinked first (with the notable exception of Montreal) and approved hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for new stadiums and arenas.

Eventually, that mindset trickled down to Minor League Baseball, where there was a greater demand from cities than there was a supply of teams. I grew up a fan of the Columbia (SC) Mets/Capital City Bombers and Spartanburg (SC) Phillies. Before the 1990 season, the City of Columbia tore down old, wooden Capital City Ballpark and replaced it with the concrete and steel Capital City Stadium at a cost of several million dollars. In 2005, the team moved to Greenville, SC, where a new stadium opened the following year. The Phillies bolted north of the border to Kannapolis in 1995. Why? A nice, new stadium, instead of Spartanburg’s antiquated Duncan Park, where the Phillies had played for decades. And that’s been the trend. If you build it, someone will come… and leave another city with an empty stadium.

Now, again, the Braves say they are willing to sign a 20-year lease. Also, having the team owned by its MLB parent is another big plus. That means deep pockets bank-rolling the team. The failure of many MiLB franchises is because of small-time ownership that can’t absorb the lean times while waiting for the good ones or that can’t afford the promotional tools needed to make a Minor League team successful from a business standpoint.

That brings up another point: Minor League Baseball is not just about baseball. Let’s face it. You’re not going to a Minor League game to see the greatest players on the planet. You’re going out for a night of affordable fun, which is usually made up of baseball, giveaways, dizzy bat races and 25-cent hot dog night. What happens in between innings is possibly just as important as what happens on the diamond.

So does baseball make sense for Wilmington? Maybe. As much as the Braves and Mandalay would like us to believe it will succeed as it has to a record-setting extent in Dayton, OH, that’s a poor comparison. I’m sure Dayton is a lovely town, but it’s 1,000 miles or so from the ocean, and that’s a big factor when comparing it to Wilmington. Baseball will have some other very popular summertime activities competing against it here that a town like Dayton does not; namely the beach. But that could also be a plus. When the sun goes down, and the tourists and locals need something to do after enjoying the surf and sand all day, a ballgame will be a good option. But it will also have to compete with things like summer concert series, bars and restaurants, movies under the stars, the Carolina Beach carnival rides, Jungle Rapids, etc.

The bigger issue, of course, is should taxpayers foot the bill? I think that depends on the terms. Will the Braves/Mandalay get ALL the revenues from the ballpark? Can the city negotiate for part of them, whether it be parking or the naming rights for the ballpark as some cities have? How much sales tax will it generate? What kind of overall impact will the ballpark have to the area around it, including the restaurants and bars downtown? How much will the Braves/Mandalay pay for rent during that 20-year lease? Will/can tickets include a tax specifically ear-marked for the debt service or at least upkeep of the ballpark? Will the city raise property taxes or float a bond?

The impact questions can’t be answered definitively unless you actually build the stadium and see how it goes. Some of the other questions can and must be answered up front. If you’re a taxpayer who will be directly affected by this ballpark, then you owe it to yourself to make sure those questioned are answered and answered to your liking.

There are plenty of reasons why baseball is the national pastime, and why tens of millions of people pay to go to games each and every year. If done correctly, bringing baseball to Wilmington could benefit the Port City in many ways. If not, it could be an albatross around the taxpayers’ collective neck for generations.

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