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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Greed and Over-Reaching - The Tennessee Smokies' Future?

 In 1999, minor league baseball failed in Knoxville, Tennessee. The team fled to Sevierville (about 30 minutes from downtown Knoxville) where it has a very nice modern stadium, good parking, and extremely easy access to and from the stadium. Benefiting from loyal Knoxvillians who make the drive out, a large tourist crowd from the Gatlinburg-Sevierville area, and a previously untapped market East of Smokies Stadium out to Kingsport and Johnson City and even into Far Southwestern Virginia,1 the team has flourished. 

Naturally, this means that Boyd Sports LLC has decided it must stab Sevierville in the back and put the Smokies back in Knoxville.

Things to Consider

(1) Boyd Sports may be moving this way because of a failing business model:  Boyd is one team short of a monopoly over professional baseball in Eastern Tennessee (lacking only one team of five). It's worked hard to get there and make this work - only to have MLB pull the rug out from under them with the Rookie League teams. It's not final yet, but it appears that the MLB is set on killing baseball in smaller cities in Eastern Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, Southern West Virginia, and even North Carolina by destroying the Appalachian League. This will take three teams (and their potential profits) away from Boyd. The reason Boyd Sports may be pushing desperately for this plan is a hope of recouping profits it will no longer make elsewhere.

(2) Randy Boyd is the President of UT. Almost certainly, part of the pitch will be that UT baseball can use the field too. Pay no attention to the fact that their current stadium is on campus, has more seats than it needs2, and just went through a major renovation. Shared stadiums work well for lower level teams and are usually on campus. A reversal of that will probably lead to fewer students actually going to games and maybe lower numbers period.

(3) It's doubtful that anyone will replace the Smokies in Sevierville. There was talk of putting a rookie league team there, but there's almost a 100% chance that the Appalachian League will be killed by MLB. Besides, it's too big a stadium for anything less than an Advanced A or AA team. Perhaps the best hope would be to draw in a team performing poorly where it is located currently. For instance the Hagerstown Suns have been limping along trying to sell to somebody ANYBODY for most of a decade now. However, if the Appalachian League is killed off, a new owner would likely be more interested in Greeneville (better stadium) or Johnson City (bigger crowds) as more appropriate venues for a Single-A team than an overly large, expensive to maintain stadium which will maybe draw half the crowds it did with the Smokies because people won't be coming out from Knoxville anymore. 

Maybe an independent league could be interested, but I think Sevierville is too far out of zone for the American Association or the Frontier League. The only real hope would be the Atlantic League. Sevierville is out of its regular zone, but so are the Skeeters (Texas) and to a lesser degree the Rockers (West-Central NC). So there might be some hope if a good enough ownership group and  pitch could be made.

(4) Boyd Sports will abandon maybe half its current fanbase with the move in the hopes of drawing the same number from making it easier for city dwellers to get there. After all, people on vacation in Gatlinburg-Sevierville generally aren't looking to drive into a city. What's more, as you get East of Sevierville it makes more sense to drive to Asheville to watch the Tourists instead of Knoxville. It's a shorter drive, it's a cheaper ticket with no charge for parking, and Asheville is a tourist destination with other things to do.

(5) Boyd Sports isn't solely concentrating on the number of fans in the stands. Obviously, I haven't seen their projections, but this picture tends to indicate that they plan to have hotels or apartments, stores, and restaurants as part of the stadium:

Picture Put Out by Boyd Sports

So, it seems that a large portion of their profits are intended to come from rental income. As usual, I'm sure this is being sold as "downtown revitalization." This is the big puff of modern stadium sellers. I've been to a number of these stadiums and they seem to be very hit and miss with my impression being that the numbers lean rather heavily toward the miss side.

Think about it. Why would you want to pay premium rates to rent a hotel room or an apartment when half the rooms face away from the field and most of the rest give you a poor view of it. And if you're trying to work or sleep the blaring from the PA system and the fireworks are not conducive. As for businesses, they'll pay premium rents and hope to make good money prior to and maybe after games. Their problem is that the stadium experience is designed to draw people into the stadium, keep them in the stadium, and to suck their money out of them while inside. Outside merchants usually catch crumbs.

Worse, for everyone, stadiums go dark from 01 September until mid-April and are dead half the time during the Summer. There may be events in that time, but during the summer they have to protect the field for the players and in the Winter an outdoor stadium gets too cold.

As I said, I've seen these stadiums and when I looked into the windows I saw an awful lot of empty rooms and business locations. Before Knoxville puts a lot of money into this it should talk to other cities. Plain old stadiums with all the bells and whistles inside for the fans seem a better plan (see Dayton, Nashville, Charlotte, Durham, Greenville, Birmingham etc.).

(6) It's going to happen. Owners have a ball club for three general reasons: (1) love of the game, (2) personal aggrandizement, and (3) profit. Mayors want baseball parks for three general reasons of their own: (1) as a prestige adornment for their city, (2) to "rebuild" troublesome areas in their city, and (3) political gain. Both ownership and the Knoxville government will most likely approach this with rose tinted glasses assuming everything will go swimmingly and make the city a better and richer place for all. And, with the possible exception of Gwinnet, there's always a honeymoon phase of about five years when a new team comes to town before the cracks start getting noticed. And there's always the possibility that they'll get it to work. Maybe.

As a practical matter, Boyd Sports has already bought the land for the new stadium, so something is going to happen. As well, the local fans know the owner is looking to betray them and the numbers are dropping. They'll probably continue to do so, although the numbers have been more resilient than I would have expected looking at attendance drops in Hagerstown or Richmond or other places. I think this is because a good portion of the fans are coming from Knoxville or are tourists in Gatlinburg-Sevierville just looking for a good night's entertainment. I don't know that we'll see the purposeful discouraging of attendance that sometimes happens when a team is moving, although I do expect the downward trend to continue. I know personally that I'll probably look more toward Asheville when next season opens than I have in the past. If the owner is going to yank the team, why should I support his pocketbook?


1  This would be me, but not only me. Everyone here is used to going to Gatlinburg/Dollywood for vacations. Driving a couple hours for a baseball game or including it as part of a weekend vacation is pretty normal.

2  4,283 seats. To put that in perspective, only the eleven highest attended college baseball programs of 2019 would need a bigger stadium. UT isn't even in the top 25. The 25th, NC State, averaged 2,596 people per game.

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