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A step closer to minor league baseball

How would you like to have a minor league baseball team in Champaign, Illinois? More to the point, at what lengths should the City go to make that happen? That was on the City of Champaign City Council meeting agenda on August 28, and it was discussed for a good two hours. Rest assured, there were varying opinions on the topic by all the of the council members. At the end of the meeting, the council voted to extend the project and devote city resources to a site feasibility study by a vote of 5–3.

A baseball fan, Champaign Mayor Don Gerard has made no secret of his desire to attract a minor league team to the area for a while now. That’s why he enlisted the help of local businessman Tony Johnston to look into the matter. Johnston did two things. First, he set up an exploratory committee of voluntary members of the community. Second, he engaged the help of Illinois Business Consulting (IBC), an extension arm of the University of Illinois Business College, to do an in-depth analysis and feasibility study of what it would take to draw a minor league team to town. Though the work of IBC was pro-bono, Johnston rated their work as “excellent.” He added, “I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome of their study. They stayed on-point and did everything that I expected. The result was overwhelmingly positive. I can do nothing except grade them as excellent.” IBC member John Busch presented their findings to the City Council.

Highlights of the IBC Study

While the media attention is on a minor league baseball team, Johnston insisted that the study was focused on feasibility of community to support the stadium facility itself. That said, the recommendation of the study was ambitious. In essence, the key recommendation was to attract a single-A affiliated minor league team (as opposed to a non-affiliated independent team). To do that, these were some of the suggested actions:

  • $20M facility financed with 30-year bonds
  • 5,000–6,000 general admission capacity
  • 10–15 luxury suites

To arrive at these conclusions, IBC did their homework. They researched local demographics, communicated with baseball personnel at all levels from minor league organizations from towns comparable to Champaign metro area, and spelled out methods of revenue generation. These methods include, but aren’t limited to, ticket sales, concession sales, corporate support, and stadium naming rights.

The IBC went through an extensive process to arrive at their conclusions. For those, interested, I encourage you to read through their study.

The Big Issues

As I said, the City Council narrowly voted to look into a stadium site feasibility study. Up until this point, there has been no public money and virtually no public resources devoted to bringing a minor league baseball team to Champaign. So what exactly does this vote do now? Well, as Mayor Gerard made very clear at the meeting, it does not authorize public funding of a stadium. Rather, what this proposal simply does is authorize the Champaign City Manager and other City staff to use public resources to conduct a study to determine which sites might be feasible for a possible stadium, as suggested by the report by Illinois Business Consulting. According to Johnston, “site selection is critical, but there are so many great places in Champaign to consider a stadium, each with their own set of positive attributes. I think we are in a good place to pick.  Each potential location could be retro-fitted to make it meet the requirements.”

To say that some City Council members were reticent about planting a minor league stadium in their city might be an understatement. Some of the major issues brought up:


Though the direct issue at the table was not public funding of a stadium, a few (including Vic McIntosh) were concerned that even just supporting further study would continue them down a path that they would not be able to find their way back out of. The $20 million figure is a high one, and finding the means to fund it will be near impossible without tapping public funds.

I asked Mayor Don Gerard about the Council’s concern regarding public funding. This was his response:

This puzzles me a bit, as there are city council members saying, ‘Not one dime of taxpayer money’ before we even begin. Champaign has stayed out of debt and has AAA-rated bonds in a time when many cities are struggling to keep the lights on. This is an economic development possibility that would create jobs and immense opportunities for local businesses, such as beer and soda distributors, food vendors, apparel and souvenir vendors, etc. Tony Johnston, the IBC, and others have done so much of the work and the City Manager and City Staff believe it is worth investigating. All I want is to give the idea a fair shot. If those who know how to make money think they can make it work it will progress.

No doubt, the good Mayor is willing to fight to see this happen.

Competition with Illini Sports

With the rabid Illini fan loyalty throughout the school year in this area, would there be enough support for a minor league team during the summer months? Sports loyalty is a hard thing to quantify to be sure, but a loyal fan base is key to success. To be fair, IBC did make clear in their report that they couldn’t totally rely on U of I support, especially on a corporate level.

Demographic numbers

Some Council members had doubts that the demographic numbers for the Champaign metro area used in the IBC study were optimistic, at best. Indeed, the population figure used (over 200,000) seems a bit high, but included surrounding counties.

Did I mention money? Yeah, that was brought up a lot.

My take

Personally, as a baseball fan and as a resident of the C-U community, I have an interest in this issue. I love the game of baseball, so sometimes I struggle to distinguish with what I want to happen and what should happen.

I was a bit surprised, perhaps pleasantly so, that Johnston and Illinois Business Consulting were suggesting that the City of Champaign do their best to attract a single-A affiliated minor league team. That’s not what I expected, thinking they were heading towards the independent Frontier League route. Taking this harder road would be a big step — and certainly a more expensive step. It would require more financial planning and would definitely mean a bigger risk. Tony Johnston agrees that this raises the bar as far as the quality of product that the City of Champaign needs to deliver, but the rewards are greater. He adds, “Affiliated franchises are much more difficult to attain, but provide a much better long-term product than independent franchises. Plus, the city and stadium ownership must now deliver a product that meets the strict requirements of Minor League Baseball. This means that the undertaking is much more strict and rigorous than the un-restricted world of independent baseball.”

Should the City of Champaign bring a minor league baseball team to town? The baseball fan in me certainly says yes. However, I’m not the one holding the wallet. If the city decides to eventually go down this road though, I agree with IBC’s initial recommendation of attracting a single-A affiliated minor league team. A stadium built for an independent league team and geared for smaller attendance will not make a dent in Champaign’s economy, nor will it make a big impact on our quality of life. As IBC mentioned in their report to the council, there are plenty of opportunities to acquire an affiliated team and the stadium built to attract such a team would be heads above anything else. Anything less would be a money sinkhole.

The Champaign City Council has some big decisions to make in the future. But for now, they’re just looking and there’s no harm in that.

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