New Orleans’ Minor League Baseball team packing up, moving to Wichita, Kansas
It appears you can add baseball to “Ain’t Dere No More,” New Orleans musician Benny Grunch’s song that waxes nostalgic about long gone local landmarks, icons and institutions. The city that gave rise to Shoeless Joe Jackson, which hosted Yankees’ spring training in the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and is the home of Mel Ott, Mike Miley, and Will Clark will soon be without a professional team.
On Thursday word broke that New Orleans’ Triple-A ball club, the Baby Cakes, filed paperwork to relocate to Wichita, Kansas, after the 2019 or 2020 season.
That city is tearing down its 84-year-old downtown stadium and constructing a new $80 million ballpark and entertainment district which is expected to include retail, dining, and nightlife amenities that city leaders expect to be a draw beyond the action on the diamond.
With two top tier professional sports franchises in New Orleans and a crowd of nationally significant collegiate baseball programs within a short drive, Minor League Baseball has faced steep competition for the local sports entertainment dollar. The opportunity to be the main show in town looks like it’s too good to pass up for a team that has seen several strikes piled up against its time in New Orleans.
When the team, then the Zephyrs, arrived in 1993 after relocating from Denver, which was awarded the Major League expansion Colorado Rockies, the New Orleans Saints were the only major sports entertainment competition in town. But the landscape was changing rapidly.
It’s first challenge came from the rise of college baseball in south Louisiana. LSU won its first College World Series title in 1991 and was on its way to establishing a dynasty, adding national championships in 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, and 2009. At the same time Tulane was building a baseball powerhouse Uptown, making two College World Series and 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, and the University of Louisiana was smoking in Lafayette, making one CWS and 12 Tournament appearances since 1993. It often felt as if there was, arguably, more talent on local college teams than there was on the local Triple-A ball club.
Those college games mattered as they counted for something sustentative compared to semi-pro baseball’s main role in developing players for another league. The minor league team’s best players could be called up to the majors at any moment, instantly leaving it with less talent and direction as it tried to fill seats for more than 70 home ball games each season.
Additionally, the minor league club’s inability to remain aligned with one Major League team – much less five - may have proven to be detrimental. Since 1993, New Orleans’ team has been affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, and Miami Marlins. The team was, arguably, most successful when it was tied to the Astros, whose games have been broadcast locally on radio and television and relatively close location – roughly five hours away by car – allowed fans to closely follow the big club and it players, like slugger Lance Berkman, compared to the other four, regionally distant clubs.
The second challenge came from the rise of the Saints and the addition of a second top-tier sports franchise. In 2000, the Saints won their first playoff game since their founding in 1967 and began their longest sustained stretch of success and profitability, which continues to today. The team has had a wait list for season tickets for 13 years, and is a favorite to land in this year’s Super Bowl. The city is Saints crazy, and it doesn’t look to be cured any time soon. Then the NBA returned to the Crescent City in 2002, when the Charlotte Hornets moved to the Big Easy. The Hornets, since rebranded as the Pelicans, who have recently been a franchise on the rise, added a major competitor not only for the fans’ sports entertainment dollar. While the top-level teams have been winning, New Orleans’ baseball team has had losing seasons for 10 of the past 11 years, including a 69-70 campaign in 2018.
That hasn’t helped the baseball team with its third challenge, the continued fallout from Hurricane Katrina. The Superdome and New Orleans Arena, rightly, received the bulk of attention and funding to rebuild after the storm. Both buildings received major repair and/or improvements that have helped keep them modern assets that garner major events, media attention, and make money for the city, state, and the teams. The NFL’s Saints, valued by Forbes at $2 billion, and the NBA’s Pelicans, $1 billion, recent successes have helped them get the lion share of fans’ interest and made it difficult for the baseball club, one level below top-tier Major League Baseball, to draw supporters and their money or state funds on which taxpayers expect to see a return on investment. Because the state’s financial pie is only so big, not everyone is getting the same or proportional size slice to modernize facilities. That means the $21 million, 11,000-seat ballpark in Metairie, which opened in 1997 and is one of the oldest stadiums in Minor League Baseball, hasn’t been able to keep up with modern conveniences in other semi-pro parks built since then, and is rather anemic in the extras that bring not just hardcore baseball fans to the park.
Additionally, what was once considered an asset – the stadium’s location – may now be part of its downfall. When the club was planning its permanent home after playing at the University of New Orleans’ Privateer Park for its first few years in town, it chose to build in Metairie in neighboring Jefferson Parish. The club pushed the location’s suburban appeal as a family-friendly destination, but after the storm the parish’s demographics changed rapidly and have continued to shift. Since the 2010 Census, Jefferson has had negative domestic migration, more people moving out than moving in, and has only been sustained by birth rate and international immigration. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 439,036 people were living in Jefferson Parish in July 2017, down from the 455,466 people counted during the 2000 Census.
According to Minor League statistics, New Orleans finished 21st out of 30 Triple-A teams in attendance in 2017.
With other options and fewer people going to minor league games, the ball club’s bottom line has suffered in gate receipts and corporate sponsorships. That’s what caused the team’s sale in 2016 and 2017 rebranding to an identity based on Mardi Gras themes.
While the name change initially increased the team’s merchandise sales – Baby Cakes’ owner and president Lou Schwechheimer told The Advocate that Zephyrs merchandise sales had been in the bottom three in Triple-A baseball for a decade before finishing in the top 20 in sales of nearly 200 minor league teams after the name change, the reception to the new name among locals went over about as well as Dennis Quaid’s “New Orleans accent” in the motion picture The Big Easy. Swag may have moved, but it didn’t translate to people going to ball games. In fact, it may have driven people, who couldn’t take the name serious, away from the team.
Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni said the stadium will continue to be used for events, including high school and college baseball, which is good. He said it will also be considered for concerts and high school and college football games – although the stadium doesn’t provide the best fan experience or sightlines for either compared to other local venues.
There are whispers that Schwechheimer, a longtime Triple-A baseball owner and executive, is exploring buying a team in the Double-A Southern League to bring to New Orleans, but that would likely be contingent on a shared public/private funded multi-million dollar renovation of the current stadium to proceed. That begs the question of why the state would spend millions to attract a lesser product than to retain what it currently has.
If a new Southern League club is the answer, it would likely make for increased regional games and rivalries and fewer travel-related expenses for the club. That could be beneficial. But New Orleanians are a proud bunch and may not like the appearance of being downgraded.
Included in those whispers is the idea of keeping the current branding for the new team.
If this team goes, let the name go with it.
If New Orleans gets a new team, go with something New Orleans centric and cool, like the Corsairs, French pirates, as homage to Jean Lafitte. If creating an experience is key, incorporate a pirate ship in the outfield with a deck that can be rented out for parties. Create a pregame “Pirates of the Caribbean”-like stage show, and fire off cannons when the team scores and wins. If there is a need to go with a Carnival theme, Monarchs would be a great choice, as it could also be a historic nod of the cap to Kansas City’s former Negro League club. Or, pick up the rights to the New Orleans Voodoo’s name and logos, one of the best team names created in any sport.