Minor league ballparks can thrive when combined with a passionate local sports culture and an already improving downtown.
On a pleasant day in early April, a steady stream of cars with Michigan license plates filled Interstate 75 and the streets of downtown Toledo, Ohio, all headed for the corner of Washington and North Huron.
More than 12,000* people poured into Fifth Third Field, home of the Toledo Mud Hens minor league baseball team, which was taking on its parent club, the Detroit Tigers, in a pre-season exhibition. For many, it was the first time they’d searched for a parking spot in downtown Toledo, walked by the bars and restaurants near the field, or noticed the condominiums and apartments nearby.
More than just a ballpark, Fifth Third Field has been an economic development linchpin.
Since it opened in 2002, the park, named after the Cincinnati banking chain, has sparked an estimated $50 million in economic development, even though the outskirts of its neighborhood are still dotted with empty lots and abandoned buildings. The community revival was by design, says Joe Napoli, the Mud Hens’ general manager, who was part of the team that developed the ballpark.
"We looked at suburban parks and urban parks and decided to take a page out of the urban book, which says, if you build a ballpark in an urban setting, you have a tremendous opportunity for development," he says.
There’s a ready market. Some 41.2 million people attended games last year played by minor league teams affiliated with Major League Baseball clubs, the seventh best attendance in Minor League Baseball history. Add in independent leagues, and 48 million** people attended minor league baseball games, according to Number Tamer, which tracks baseball statistics. (**UPDATE: We should note, Minor League Baseball maintains that only the teams playing in leagues sanctioned by its organization can be considered minor league teams. It says independent teams are part of professional leagues, and are not minor league teams, although the public often thinks of them that way. Because of its definition, Minor League Baseball disputes our attendance figure of 48 million).
More than 80 new minor league stadiums have been built in all parts of the country in the past two decades, including parks which opened last year and this year in Omaha and Pensacola, Florida,* respectively, according to Minor League Baseball. Although many are still built in suburbs, new parks have become downtown development tools in places as varied as Reno, Nevada, Gary, Indiana, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The building boom is a result of the 1990 professional baseball agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. Alarmed at how parks in different parts of the country were deteriorating, Major League Baseball insisted on its first-ever standards for Minor League Baseball fields, including suggested seating capacity of at least 10,000.
"Because there were no standards, you can just imagine the state of disrepair," Napoli says.
The requirement to improve playing conditions and surroundings in minor league parks raised the prospect of an economic development bonanza for city and suburban officials. The key element for the most successful cities has been to keep expectations in check, says Mark Rosentraub, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, who advises cities on stadium developments.
"The downtowns didn’t deteriorate in an hour. They deteriorated over decades, and the repairs will take decades, too. Time will be different in every situation. You can’t fill the entire footprint with just a stadium," Rosentraub said.
That’s especially true in the case of two minor league stadiums considered to be gold standards for linking minor league baseball to urban revival: Louisville Slugger Field, which opened in 2000, and Victory Field in Indianapolis, which dates to 1996.
Both have been able to piggyback on the athletic enthusiasm that permeated their cities, as well as efforts that were already underway to improve downtown areas. For Louisville, the connection was horse racing, the Kentucky Derby, and University of Louisville sports. Indianapolis, meanwhile, has two professional teams, the NBA’s Pacers and the NFL’s Colts, as well as the Indianapolis 500. In each place, minor league baseball added to the mix but wasn’t the only game in town.
But many minor league cities don’t have professional teams or an active development core. Given that, Rosentraub sees Toledo as an achievable template for what such places can expect from a minor league park.
Like other Midwest industrial cities, Toledo has seen its suburbs grow and prosper at the expense of its center. From 1909 until 1955, the Mud Hens played downtown at Swayne Field. They left town for a decade, returning to play at Ned Skeldon Stadium in suburban Maumee.
It was a converted fairgrounds racetrack, never meant for baseball. And, while it had amenities like suites, a restaurant, and held the 10,000 people that Minor League Baseball suggested, having the park in the suburbs did little to help the city. When it was time to build a new park, Napoli was among those arguing for it to be downtown.
"We could have stayed out in Maumee, we would have had a jewel of the ballpark. But they would have driven out, visited us, gone to the game, got in their car and went home," he says.
Fifth Third Field lacks one thing that Ned Skeldon Stadium had plenty of: parking. There are no team-operated lots or garage, which forces visitors into the surrounding neighborhood in search of street parking, or to find a space in private lots.
"We had to explain over and over that we wanted people to walk two or three blocks to the game," Napoli says.
Somehow, fans have managed. Over the past 10 years, the Mud Hens’ attendance has averaged between 500,000 and 600,000 people per season, including those Detroiters who regularly venture down to see future Tigers and rehabilitating stars.
Says Rosentraub: "Toledo had to build something out of really nothing. What they’ve been able to accomplish is really something."
*Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the attendance of the Toledo Mud Hens game mentioned at the beginning of this piece as 15,000. The correct figure is 12,000. We also midentified the new minor league parks opening this year as Omaha and Grand Junction, Colorado. Omaha's ballpark opened in 2011, and while Grand Junction has a new team this year, its park is not new.