Can Minor League Baseball Survive Its Real Estate Problems?

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Ed Willson has a jar filled with dirt sitting on his desk.

For more than 40 years, Mr. Willson has been a fan of the minor league baseball team in Eugene, Ore., the Emeralds, and a season-ticket holder for 22 seasons. He was crushed when Civic Stadium, the longtime home of the team, burned to the ground in 2015. “It was a serious heartbreak,” Mr. Willson said.

After the fire, Mr. Willson made a pilgrimage to the scorched diamond, where he filled a plastic bag with dirt from the pitcher’s mound that he considered sacred. He planned to give it to the team when it began construction on its new stadium.

Nine years later, the dirt is still on Mr. Willson’s desk. The Emeralds are still without a permanent home. And there’s a risk that the team, after 69 seasons, may leave town altogether.

Although the Emeralds (also known for their Sasquatch mascot, Sluggo) have survived wildfires, losing seasons, recessions, Major League Baseball’s 2020 reorganization of the minor leagues and Covid, they are a team without a ballpark.

And the debate about the Emeralds’ fate — in the birthplace of Nike, no less — is a testament to the struggle for affordable, in-person sports to survive in the current Gilded Age.

Nor are the Emeralds the only minor league baseball team that has reached a crisis point as a result of a ballpark problem. In 2020, Major League Baseball imposed new guidelines for its minor league stadiums. They include LED lighting, changing rooms for women, new fencing, expanded training facilities and a larger clubhouse. Those fixes are pricey.

“I hate to think about the team leaving,” Mr. Willson said of the Emeralds. “It would be one more resource that the community has lost.”

In recent years, the Emeralds have played their games at PK Park, the University of Oregon’s baseball stadium, and fans have consistently filled the newer, less wood-splintered stands. Before 2020, when the team had a shorter, 76-game season (half of them at home), it averaged more than 20 sellouts of more than 3,600 tickets. In a restricted return during Covid in 2021, the team sold 84,000 tickets, the first time it had dipped below 100,000 in generations. Last year, in 58 games at PK Park, the team sold 150,000 tickets, roughly the population of Eugene.

In their temporary home, the Emeralds, a San Francisco Giants affiliate, ended their 2021 season in first place after being promoted to the high-A class, the third-highest level in the minors (below triple-A and double-A but above single-A), and have had their league’s best record in two of the last three seasons. Casey Schmitt, an infielder who made his major league debut with the Giants last year, was an Emerald in 2022.

But the team’s PK Park lease ends in 2030, and the league has also imposed fund-raising deadlines that the Emeralds are not meeting. The team is more than $50 million short of the estimated $90 million it will take to build a permanent home.

“We really love the Ems,” Eugene’s mayor, Lucy Vinis, said. “We’d love to keep them. We also don’t have the money. It’s a very painful conflict.”

Students at the University of Oregon come and go, but Emeralds games, cheap, scrappy and often rowdy, are for locals. There are rumors that the Emeralds, founded in 1955, inspired the Springfield Isotopes, the team in Oregon-bred Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons.” (A lawyer for Mr. Groening declined to comment, citing Mr. Groening’s schedule.) The Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Jim Bunning spent time in the Emeralds’ dugout — Mr. Bunning as their manager — and another Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson, played in Eugene as an opponent.

Much has changed in Eugene since then. Nike became Nike. Its co-founder and chairman emeritus, Phil Knight, has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the construction of world-class sporting facilities in town for the University of Oregon Ducks.

Meanwhile, in the tradition of minor league clubs everywhere, the Emeralds stayed proudly cheap, fan-focused and quirky. The team hosts a themed Grateful Dead night, when tie-dye is encouraged. The Emeralds were early to embrace Pride colors on their jerseys and play several games each season as the Monarcas, a tribute to Latin American players and fans.

In an effort to appeal to a coastal Oregon town, Florence, in 2023 the team announced an “alternate identity” as the Exploding Whales, a nod to the 1970 dynamite-fueled removal of a dead whale on the rugged shore. That event lives on thanks to viral interest on the internet, and the team sold out of Exploding Whales merchandise within 90 seconds of its debut.)

Minor league teams are quiet warriors against the rising expense of watching sports in person. The average price of a National Football League ticket last season was $377, according to TicketSmarter, plus parking and concessions, Multiply that by four and a family outing can easily slide into four figures.

Baseball’s major league teams have tried to maintain more affordable ticket prices, offering nosebleeds at some venues for as low as $6. But still, in 2023, the average cost for a family of four to attend a major league game, including parking and concessions, was $266.58, up 4.5 percent from the previous year, according to the MLB Fan Cost Index. (For the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, that number can soar near $400.)

That makes minor league games, where box seats can be had for $10 and a hot dog still costs a few bucks, a haven for the working class and families with young children. (Yet some fans still bristle at the increasing costs of minor league ball in larger markets, such as a $25 ticket to see the Cyclones in Brooklyn.)

The bargain economics also applied to the players. Perhaps too much. Minor leaguers won major victories last year in terms of pay, health insurance, and name, image and likeness rights. Still, Mr. Schmitt remembered that during his 2022 stint with the Ems, players used a tent for a locker room at PK Park and he had to find a gym in town where he could do his weight training.

“It was a little tough at first,” Mr. Schmitt said.

The ghost stories of lost teams and empty ballparks are all too real for the Emeralds’ general manager, Allan Benavides.

“There’s kind of this sense in the city that we’ve always been here,” he said. “They’re never going to go anywhere, right? There are some folks I talk to in town who just think it’s like crying wolf. Or: ‘Come on, if you don’t get it, what are they going to do? Move you?’ And the answer is, ‘Yeah.’”

The proposed stadium has no greater advocate than Mr. Benavides, going into his 15th season as the Emeralds’ general manager.

A Los Angeles-bred Dodgers fan (who now roots for the Giants, much to his mother’s dismay), he has spent years lobbying lawmakers, petitioning fans and writing opinion essays about the team’s “existential crisis.”

Advocates for the team announced a proposal that would build a stadium at the Lane County Fairgrounds, seating 4,350 for baseball and up to 10,000 for concerts. The price tag: $90 million. In addition to baseball games and concerts, the stadium would host youth sports, mixed martial arts and boxing events, and high school graduations, as well as have potential for disaster relief, Mr. Benavides said.

He talks through his funding map like the coaching staff running through the roster and players’ statistics. As of now, the Emeralds are counting on $35 million from a county lodging tax. County commissioners need to give final clearance for revenue from the hotel tax, which was passed in 2022, to go toward the stadium. The team also needs $15 million from a city bond issue, which voters will decide on May 21.

Thanks in part to an appearance by Sluggo at the statehouse in Salem, the Emeralds have received $15 million from a state appropriation. They also have $1.5 million in federal funds and $23.5 million committed by the Emeralds organization in their coffers.

So, $50 million of it is in flux.

To make his case, Mr. Benavides points to a 2023 analysis from ECOnorthwest, a public policy firm, that estimated the stadium’s construction would stimulate $127.8 million in economic output and $47.9 million in labor income.

In minor league baseball, the parent club (the Giants) pays for players but typically does not finance ballparks, which are generally owned and operated independently of their parent teams. It’s a dynamic that can leave a privately or taxpayer-funded stadium in the lurch.

The Emeralds’ owner, the Elmore Sports Group, a Bloomington, Ind., conglomerate of several minor league teams, would not own the stadium; Lane County would. Thus, Elmore Sports holds the option to move the team.

“As owners, we see ourselves as the caretakers, stewards of the teams,” said D.G. Elmore, the group’s chairman, whose father, Dave, bought the team in the mid-1980s and died last year. “We don’t see it, the possibility of moving teams. I desperately hope we don’t have to do it.”

The fairgrounds complex, where the proposed stadium would be erected, sits in the Jefferson Westside part of Eugene, walking distance from downtown, which has struggled with a recent increase in homelessness and drug use.

The neighborhood surrounding the site is filled with lawn signs for and against the stadium. “No! Stadium at the fairgrounds” may live next door to an image of Sluggo’s outstretched green, fuzzy arms and “Play ball at the fairgrounds!”

The board of the Jefferson Westside Neighbors, the area that encompasses the fairgrounds and surrounding residences, voted in favor of the stadium.

“I’m not sporty, and I don’t follow baseball,” Ted Coopman, the board’s chair, said. The fairgrounds have a large indoor space used for a Holiday Market and conferences year round, wide parking lots where carnival rides bloom in the summer, and barns for livestock vying for blue ribbons, “but their dairy barns are from the turn of the century and not the most recent one,” Mr. Coopman added. “It really needs some help, and it seems like a good way to modernize it and bring more people into the neighborhood.”

Chief among the critics is Taxpayers for Transparency, a group of stadium opponents largely led by the city’s hoteliers. They argue that the public shouldn’t pay for the stadium and that Elmore Sports, a for-profit, out-of-state entity, should not occupy land owned by the county. They have also raised concern about the long-term costs and the lack of guarantees that a new ballpark would keep the Emeralds in town.

As a season of red tape looms, Mr. Benavides will be strategizing in the front office. While he dreams of Shohei Ohtani’s sneezing up some of his $700 million contract with the Dodgers, he’s not relying on it.

He needs the city bonds to pass on May 21, the lodging tax revenue and then the county commissioners’ approval on everything.

As for Mr. Willson, the Ems superfan, he’ll continue to lobby his lawmakers, with his jar of pitcher’s mound dirt looking back at him.

“It’s starting to feel like we need a miracle to get the funding,” he said. “Fortunately, this is baseball. So miracles happen all the time. I’m hopeful.”

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