Thursday, July 19, 2007

Greer Stadium: Reflections on the State of the Facility and the Future of Minor League Baseball in Nashville

[Original photography by Danny Murphy]

Bastille Day, July 14, was for some a day to celebrate French liberation. Opting out of a gracious invitation to the 35th Annual Bastille Day Party at the Belmont Boulevard home of hostess extraordinaire Jocelyne Bezzi-Batani, instead I took up another gracious invitation to head out to Greer Stadium with some friends to check out the Triple A minor league Nashville Sounds for the first time this year.

The team was wearing uniforms that said “Brewers” across the chest, a nod in the direction of the parent Milwaukee club’s nickname. As for the baseball itself, the first-place Sounds, behind pitcher Adam Pettyjohn (pictured, left) defeated the Memphis Redbirds and their starter Mike Smith (pictured, right), 5-2. Despite losing two big stars this year, Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, to earlier call-ups to Milwaukee, the Sounds have not broken stride, now standing at 59-38 and holding the lead in the Pacific Coast League’s American North Division.

Otherwise, it was, as far as anyone could perceive, just another typical summer Saturday night at the old ballpark. The attendance was impressive, with 9,327 fans on hand: Lots of regular folks dressed in Target casual wear, plenty of kids and family groups and grizzled ball fans, the usual pro scout or two hovering behind home plate with radar gun in hand checking the speed of the pitchers’ fastballs, and the Sounds’ characteristic string of inning-by-inning kiddie events, promotions and community hoopla that typify the minor-league baseball experience. (I like the race where the kids put on scuba-diving flippers, but they didn’t do that one, to my chagrin.) The postgame fireworks display to cap off the evening was simply spectacular.

At one point, I headed to the concession stand. As I turned the corner to enter the main concourse, my companion looked around at the run-down stadium walls, the chaotic randomness of the concession stands (with their long lines full of hot, sweaty regular Joes) and muttered, to no one in particular, “We need a new ballpark.”

That’s certainly been the refrain of various Nashvillians the past few years. It’s undoubtedly been the refrain of the Sounds, who spent the past year or so floating a plan for the building of a new downtown stadium, until sketchy organizational logistics on the team’s part, and lack of support from the city fathers, killed the deal shortly after the beginning of the 2007 season.

With a new stadium still in limbo, the Sounds soldier on at Greer, nearly 30 years old, with a capacity of 10,139, and clearly lacking the gloss and nouveau riche upscale appeal found in some other minor league baseball parks.

A tour through the Sounds’ 2007 media guide offers selected photos of other Pacific Coast League ballparks, places like PGE Park in Portland (cap. 19,810) or Salt Lake City’s Franklin Covey Field (cap. 15,500), which, if you didn’t know any better, might both be perceived as major league stadiums. Just three hours or so to the west, the Memphis team plays in the newer AutoZone Park, which seats 14,200 and serves as a model of how mid-size cities can partner with their minor league franchises to develop modern, amenities-conscious sports venues that “class up” the baseball experience for their fans. But to get projects such as these done right, it takes vision, planning and—if the sports franchise in question isn’t going to foot the entire bill—willingness from the local citizenry (and, by extension, the politicians) to help find the necessary money.

Let’s assume that the Sounds don’t churlishly and immediately skip town over their recent stadium disappointment. They still have a solid fan base, and, for the time being, remain an important local sports franchise (certainly the closest thing that Nashvillians have to the major leagues). they REALLY need a new stadium? Let’s discuss amongst ourselves.

Proposition #1: Greer Stadium is not the worst place in the world to watch a baseball game. No, it’s not. In fact, it has a kind of charm about it that says, “We are here to play baseball, and that’s all.” Where hardcore baseball fans are concerned, this is an unassailable positive argument. Yes, it’s showing some age, but Greer remains a fine place to watch a baseball game, presuming that’s why you go there.

Proposition #2: Free parking is an overestimated perk. In fact, it’s one of the wonderful things about Greer Stadium. Where is there left in the world where you can park for free at a major sporting event? Other venues gouge their patrons on parking, yet the Sounds have never done it, and their devoted fans love them for it. You can be sure that if a downtown ballpark is eventually built, you can expect to pay an extra $5-10 for every game you attend. Once paid parking is in place, it never goes away—and it only increases in price over time.

Proposition #3: Nashvillians will gladly pay increased ticket prices in a new stadium. Will they? Currently, at Greer, you can pay $6 for a grandstand seat—affording you an excellent view—or if you want to splurge for a reserved seat, you spend $10 and get a slightly better view. In Memphis, there are seven levels of pricing, ranging from $6 to $20. The $6 ticket allows you only to sit on a hill in left field (the so-called “Bluff seating”—no chairs allowed!). To get a Greer-quality top seat in Memphis, you have to pay anywhere from $11.50-$18, but in fact the lower end of that range only buys you what you can still get for $6 at Greer. Memphis also has $20 club boxes, thus making their top ticket exactly twice as much as Greer’s. If you want a new stadium in Nashville, get ready to pay a lot more for tickets.

Proposition #4: It makes good business sense to build a beautiful new stadium. Well, it certainly does for those who will reap the benefits of parking fees, higher ticket prices, more costly food and drink, and more expensive souvenirs. Surely the builders of such a venue will make out well. Will the Sounds be giving raises to all the minimum-wage employees they hire every year? Let’s hope so. Presumably a new stadium will tap into corporate dollars in the way of business junkets and the like. And luxury boxes cater to groups and special events that can reap consistent new dollars that the team may not be getting currently. Perhaps more importantly, there is a PR value to a new stadium that supposedly will provide a ripple effect of new marketing possibilities and an expanded fan base. It’s like saying, “Look, we’ve got class! This is a quality experience. Sure, it’s about baseball, but it’s more about our civic pride and what a desirable place Nashville is in general. Here, we can have it all.” There is probably some truth in all of this. What is unclear is, at what cost?

Proposition #5: The people who currently make up the Sounds' most devoted fan base will continue to want to come once the team has moved and is ensconced in a state-of-the-art downtown facility. The people who attend the games at Greer—I first set foot there in 1990 on a visit to Music City—always seem to be, by and large, a blue-collar and/or countrified crowd. For middle- and lower-income families, it’s an exceedingly affordable night on the town, and in this superficial, money-grubbing modern world we live in, they’re certainly entitled to continue to enjoy that experience. Furthermore, it remains to be seen if the same folks will follow the team to a downtown venue where they will pay for parking and endure increased ticket and concession prices. For the Sounds, this aspect of a new stadium plan offers calculated risk. Do you lose your core constituency?

Proposition #6: Greer Stadium is a long-in-the-tooth old ballyard with no practical future, and refurbishing it is pointless. Funny, no one really speaks of refurbishing Greer, when possibly that would carry a cheaper price tag than building a brand-new facility. For those who aren’t really interested in going downtown to see baseball, the location of Greer remains excellent. So maybe a few hundred gallons of paint and some key structural enhancements and the addition of luxury boxes are worthwhile ideas. Yet it seems like Sounds management is more interested in a bigger-picture concept, where a new ballpark built from scratch can be tied into serious corporate dollars and the idea of drawing new demographic forces—read: tourists and wealthier locals—in as patrons. Thirty years doesn’t seem that old for a ballpark. Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston are each nearly 100 years old. The New York Yankees are finally replacing Yankee Stadium in two years after an 80-plus-years run. Greer may look a tad bedraggled, but you can’t necessarily blame that all on its age. Maybe it just needs a facelift. Something to ponder.

Proposition #7: A new stadium will enhance the baseball experience for all Nashvillians. Two years ago, I paid a visit to RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., to watch the Washington Nationals play. RFK, built in 1962, had not seen baseball on the major league level since 1971. At 43 years old, it looked remarkably fit (and right-field box seats were $40 apiece). But the concession lines were still as long as I remembered them as a kid, or as I remembered concession lines at Wrigley Field or old Comiskey Park in Chicago. New stadiums don’t necessarily curtail concession or bathroom lines. If there’s a large crowd and people are hungry and thirsty, that’s what happens. Still, what Greer Stadium lacks is broader resources, and more room, to make patronizing, and moving about, the concession and restroom areas worthwhile. Food selections are limited, for sure, and when they run out of stuff at one place, you can’t get it at another (and you don’t learn that till after standing in line for 10 minutes). Without question, a newly built stadium lends the aura of a re-energized experience in general, and it can be designed with more comfort in mind for patrons. (Wi-Fi might be cool.) It’s not that a new stadium wouldn’t be nice. It’s more about if it’s really necessary and if Nashville wants to foot its share of the bill to get an upgraded experience.

Proposition #8: Municipalities should pony up for new stadiums. Frankly, I’ve never understood this rationale. Sports teams readily turn young male athletes into millionaires, yet they don’t have the money (supposedly) to build their own stadiums. I would guess that if you took a healthy fraction of Michael Vick’s salary, you could be well on your way to building a football stadium. Why should a city float bonds to build a new stadium when team payrolls run upwards of one-fifth of a billion dollars? Okay, the Sounds are slightly different. They are a minor-league affiliate of a major-league team, owned independently, and they’re on their own where their facilities are concerned. Fair enough: In the Sounds’ situation, it behooves the city to listen to their needs and desires and then try to creatively address the issues. A real partnership, with the mutual goal of maintaining Sounds baseball for the pleasure and enjoyment of its fans—and the reasonable financial growth of the franchise—sounds good to me. If Nashville wants to have minor league baseball, then the city should play a role in its development.

Proposition #9: The Sounds need a new stadium to keep pace with the other teams in their league. This may seem true in theory, but in practice it’s not necessarily so. In fact, there are five other teams in the PCL—Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Round Rock and Tacoma—whose ballyards seat fewer patrons than Greer. The largest stadium in the league, Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium (cap. 24,000), is a venerable old place (built in 1948) that every year hosts the College World Series. Of course, size doesn’t really matter, either. The original plans for the Sounds new stadium called for 11,000 seats. And, in fact, Rosenblatt only fills its seats when the CWS is there; the hometown Omaha Royals draw typical minor league attendance—parking is free there also, by the way—and there’ve been rumblings about building a new stadium for the Royals and leaving Rosenblatt strictly to the CWS. There are certainly newer stadiums in the PCL—Sacramento’s Raley Field (2000), Memphis’ AutoZone Park (2000), Albuquerque’s Isotopes Park (2003)—and the latter two are considered models of modern-day minor league ball-park design and construction. Isotopes Park, for example, folds in the elements of the American Southwest quite nicely, and yes, things always look better when they’re new. But there are older ballparks than Greer in the PCL: Rosenblatt, PGE Park in Portland (originally built in 1926; reconstructed in 2001), Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium (1960). The idea that Greer Stadium represents the bottom of the barrel in minor league baseball doesn’t hold water. What the upgraded parks offer in ambience, they often don’t in economics or fan-friendliness. Some places charge seriously for parking, some charge nothing at all. Prices for concessions vary widely, but generally the newer parks are charging $6 for things you can get elsewhere for $2.50. Then there’s this from the online Ballpark Digest, which offers rundowns and evaluations of most every major and minor league park in the country: “Virtually every new ballpark built since 2000 runs the danger of feeling like a food court that happens to abut a baseball field: the new economics of minor-league baseball require the bills be paid somehow.” Sort of like going to the movies, where the popcorn costs more than the flick. Which is precisely what the cynics fear will happen in Nashville, which currently has an older—but not decrepit—stadium, where people get a great view of the game (presumably the main draw), and do okay with free parking and reasonably priced concessions. Plus, while Greer isn’t downtown, per se, its location is close enough to be justifiably labeled as “near downtown.” (Many minor league stadiums can’t boast even that.)

Proposition #10: Nashville doesn’t need minor league baseball. Well, probably not. Yet baseball has been here since 1978, and more than 12 million people have passed through the Greer Stadium portals. The top attendance was 1990 (605,122). It dropped to 269,682 in 2000, but since then has climbed steadily back up to 419,412 in 2005. The baseball legacy in Nashville is strong, and great ballplayers have enhanced Greer with their presence over the years. Nashville would certainly be diminished if the Sounds were to leave. So, if enough people want baseball, then it behooves the powers-that-be to find a way to make it work.

Final Analysis

For myself, I’m the kind of baseball fan that just loves to be at the ballpark. With its old-fashioned charm and excellent seating, Greer Stadium looks great to me, and the parking situation and reasonably priced concessions fit my budget. But I’m a realist too. It’s not the idea of a new ballpark that scares me. It’s the idea of what a new ballpark brings: higher prices, paid parking, the headache of downtown congestion, and a sense that the game itself will be short-shrifted for a new focus on corporate marketing and preppie-family dollars, ultimately leaving the longtime moderate-income fan in the wake of so-called progress.

No one will argue with the values of beautiful new architecture and spacious concourses and green family areas for the kiddies and well-stocked concession stands and sparkling new restrooms, or even luxury style boxes for the fatcats. Yet a balance has to be struck in the planning for a new facility, including promises not to price out the typical minor-league fans who have always supported the team.

If there’s a way to grab those tourist and new-demographic dollars without penalizing the locals, then a new Sounds Stadium could be a worthy thing, enhancing civic self-esteem and boosting the baseball experience for everyone.

This baseball fan is all for it. But I need to see a more detailed plan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great points, Martin. And don't forget Sulphur Dell, a beloved Nashville stadium that certainly had its attendance cycles but the ebb and flow is what helps us refine the idea(s). The main ideas here being 1) great baseball, 2) least parking and other hassles possible, 3) fun park food that doesn't cost an arm and ankle and 4) a truly devoted, diverse fan base. Greer nearly delivers on all of them.