Could a Lake Norman Class-A baseball team succeed?
by Staff Writer
HUNTERSVILLE – Major corporations like Lowe’s Home Improvement, Ingersoll-Rand and ABB have offices in the lake area, and for good reason. There’s an exponentially growing population and always something to do with so many local attractions.
Could minor-league baseball add to the allure of Lake Norman?
Charlotte has the Panthers, Bobcats, Checkers, Knights, Hounds and Eagles. Concord has a NASCAR track. The closest minor-league teams are in Kannapolis and Fort Mill, though construction on an uptown Charlotte stadium for the Knights is in the works.
“Out over (the long-term), it’s a definite possibility,” Lake Norman Region Economic Development Corporation Chief Executive Jerry Broadway said.
“What would really speed up that happening would be someone stepping up and saying, ‘This is something I want to have.’ It’s hard to make that a reality without that, especially in the near future.”
With a population of more than 130,000 between Statesville and Charlotte, including Lincoln County, demographic and growth projections could make the region attractive for a Low-A professional baseball team, said Andrew Moon, an associate with the Sports Advisory Group, which handles the sale of minor-league franchises.
As always, money key when discussing sports franchises and new stadiums.
“Class-A teams usually sell in the $7 million to $11 million range and if you want to be affiliated with a (Major League Baseball) team, you’d have to relocate a franchise,” Moon said.
“There is no expansion team. But teams aren’t going to listen or have interest until you put together an initial stadium plan,” which costs in the $25-30 million range.
A $37 million bond referendum for a baseball stadium in Wilmington recently failed when put to voters.
The average Class-A stadium seats roughly 5,000 people and can be used for other purposes, including youth leagues, concerts and high school and college tournaments.
The lake area now has summer collegiate league teams Lake Norman Copperheads and Mooresville All Americans, but both teams play in prep stadiums and don’t usually include professional players.
A Lake Norman team could play in an independent league without a Major League Baseball affiliation. But independent-league teams pay their players from their own revenues, while MLB-affiliated franchises get their paychecks from their parent organization.
What minor-league stadiums offer is versatility, community spirit and reasonable costs, Hickory Crawdads general manager Mark Seaman said.
“(Stadiums are) a community rallying point,” he said. “Our stadium is owned by the city. A new team, if it wasn’t owned by (its) city, would (have its revenue) depend on their debt they’d have to pay. But you certainly can generate revenue and generate profits.”
Seaman said a $20 million stadium proposal in the Bakersfield, Calif., area was “the lowest one I’ve seen recently.” Hickory, which opened its stadium and played its first season in 1993, constructed the 5,062-seat L.P. Frans Stadium for $4.5 million.
Despite today’s much higher price points, minor league stadiums are revenue generators, Seaman said.
“Minor-league baseball, in my opinion, is still the best way to spend a summer night,” he said. “If you’ve got a group of people looking to do something, having a stadium nearby gives you an option. And the more people in your area, the more people you can (attract).”
Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell said a stadium could serve as an athletic focal point for the region.
“What a stadium affords you is a pretty economical venue,” Russell said.
But don’t expect a minor-league owner to want to move to Huntersville, Mooresville, Cornelius or Davidson based on earning potential and a nice stadium plan.
Moon said only three or four Class-A teams have relocated in the past five years.
“(Owners) often feel a sense of loyalty to the community they’re working in. They’re an asset,” he said. “But funding a stadium and making a deal is definitely possible with the right buyer or the right situation.”
Recent history suggests that teams will play where they can get the best stadium. A 2009 Region Focus Magazine report indicated 109 minor-league teams opened new stadiums between 1991-2009.
Minor-league stadiums have also served as catalysts for businesses wanting to have greater visibility in a community, the report said, by having business owners locate their offices close to stadiums.
Broadway said three things keep the lake area from being the perfect destination for a team to compete with the likes of the Kannapolis Intimidators and the Hickory Crawdads: money, more immediate infrastructure needs like traffic and road improvement, and the question of sustaining large crowds at games.
“The fact the Knights are moving uptown makes it tougher as well,” he said. “Now (the northern) part of Mecklenburg County can go to a game closer than before. So you’d have to compete with (the Knights, a Class-AAA team) for spectators. That’s a tough challenge.”
Though, not impossible.
“Who knows what could happen in the next 10-15 years?” Broadway said. “We’ve grown a lot in terms of business and people in just the past six. It could be a great option then, but right now it’s probably not yet feasible.”
“Within 10-20 years? Absolutely. Our demographics could support it. We have the business base,” Russell said. “This area loves its sports.”