The Baseball Biz

The Baseball Biz

The Tennessee Smokies believe a revamped minor-league system should have little impact on team operations or a proposed Knoxville stadium.

by scott barker • March 31, 2021

(Photo by Pixabay/Pexels)

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down minor-league baseball. During the hiatus, however, the pipeline to “the Show” went through a complete overhaul.

New facilities standards for minor-league parks mostly involve behind-the-scenes operations and shouldn't increase the cost of a new stadium in Knoxville, a Smokies official says.
Major League Baseball assumed direct control over minor-league baseball, sending the National Association of Professional Baseball to the showers. MLB reconfigured leagues and altered the business relationships among the different levels of competition. 

The changes instituted by MLB — which include new facilities standards — hover in the background of the debate over whether Knoxville and Knox County will move forward with a proposal to build a new ballpark for the Tennessee Smokies at the edge of the Old City.

According to the CEO of Boyd Sports, which owns the Smokies, the changes aren’t as dramatic as they might appear.

“The relationship with Major League Baseball is the same,” Doug Kirchhofer said in a recent interview. “It doesn't matter whether you’re the Nashville Sounds or the Tennessee Smokies or the Chattanooga Lookouts, the agreement that you have now with Major League Baseball is the same. There's a consistency, which really adds to the stability.”

The biggest change visible to the public is a restructuring of the minor-league system, which resulted in the loss of 40 teams. Now, each of the 30 major-league teams will have an affiliate in AAA, AA, High-A and Low-A. The Smokies, the Chicago Cubs’ AA affiliate, made the cut. 

Major League Baseball ended its agreement with the National Association of Professional Baseball, which has been an umbrella organization for minor-league clubs. Under the new arrangement, Major League Baseball has entered into individual 10-year player development license agreements with each minor-league organization. 

Kirchhofer said the new arrangement provides the same stability as the old agreement, while providing more clarity about what Major League Baseball expects from minor-league clubs.

“In general, we feel like we have every expectation that we're going to be a Cubs affiliate for the long haul and be part of the player development system for the long haul,” he said.

Kirchhofer said Major League Baseball encourages the construction of new minor-league stadiums. Boyd Sports, owned by University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd, has proposed a 7,000-seat, publicly built ballpark that would cost up to $65 million. The stadium would be in the middle of a $142 million private, mixed-use development Boyd has planned.

The new arrangement with Major League Baseball comes with facilities standards that all minor-league teams must meet. Most of the new standards involve enhancements for players. Player development — getting prospects ready for the big leagues — is the primary reason for minor-league ball’s existence.

“A lot of it has to do with the changing nature of the player development process,” Kirchhofer said.

Coaching staffs are expanding, which means more space will be needed. Clubs also need space for video and data analytics, as modern training methods and performance evaluation have become increasingly reliant on technology.

Nutrition is also a point of emphasis. Gone are the days that players would grab a pre-game snack to eat in front of their locker. Nutritionists and strength-and-conditioning coaches will be part of the expanded staff.

“Our major-league teams are taking a much more active role in the nutrition and the diet of the players,” Kirchhofer said. “And so having food prep areas, dining areas, is an important part of what they're looking for in clubhouse facilities.”

Kirchhofer said the standards would require a little extra square footage in the behind-the-scenes areas of the stadium, but it shouldn’t add appreciably to the cost of the facility. (Smokies Park in Sevier County, the team’s current home, will need some minor upgrades to comply.)

Major League Baseball would have to sign off on the ballpark’s design.

“They will review the design and just make sure that it complies with the standards,” Kirchhofer said.

Populous, an international design firm that specializes in sports facilities, has been working with Boyd Sports on the Knoxville facility. The company has designed numerous ballparks, including new Yankee Stadium in New York and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

“They're very much on top of what the new facility standards are and how they changed over the years, so we wouldn't anticipate any problems with approval of the design when it gets to that point,” Kirchhofer said.

The business model for minor-league teams is markedly different from their major-league parent organizations. There are no lucrative television rights to sell, for example — Major League Baseball stands to make about $3.75 billion from a new seven-year extension of its deal with TBS. Of course, there aren’t multi-million dollar salaries for players, either.

Major League clubs pay the salaries of minor-league players, coaches and team support staff, though, and player salaries will go up under the new agreement. They also pay for on-field equipment such as gloves, bats and balls. The minor-league teams pay the salaries of front office and stadium operations staff, plus team travel to away games.

Ticket and concessions sales revenues stay with the local team, as does local advertising revenue. Stadium naming rights remain a local revenue source.

Major League Baseball will take over national advertising efforts previously run by the National Association of Professional Baseball. 

“There will be some kind of sharing arrangement built just like there has been under the old system,” Kirchhofer said.

Major League Baseball isn’t concerned about attendance or local promotions, he said. “They're concerned about the conditions in the clubhouse and the conditions for their young developing players,” Kirchhofer said.

Knoxville and Knox County have not made a final decision on whether to build the stadium, though it has the support of Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. The governments have formed a sports authority to own and operate the ballpark if it’s built. Negotiations and deliberations, including several public meetings on the project, should last deep into the summer.