Take me out to the ballgame?
The idea of a minor league baseball franchise sounds good, but the devil is in the details.
Baseball and summer go together like love and marriage. But neither starting a baseball franchise nor walking down the aisle should be done without careful thought.
That's what city council members in Champaign decided this week by a narrow 5-3 vote. They didn't abandon the idea completely, although there was plenty of skepticism. Instead, they directed their administrative staff to conduct an in-depth examination of all the details, including economic development possibilities, surrounding Mayor Don Gerard's idea to bring minor league baseball to town.
"It's an interesting idea. A lot of people think it's a long-shot but that it's too early to give up on it," said city planning director Bruce Knight. "It is a long-shot, but I've seen long-shots come through before."
The ingredients for success are crystal clear — a stadium, a team and enough fans to generate the ticket and concession revenues sufficient to pay for it. Putting them all together is a different story altogether.
How expensive would a stadium be? Knight estimated that a stadium with a seating capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 would cost roughly $20 million and suggested that it would have to be privately financed.
"(The city council) is not interested in owning a municipal stadium," Knight said.
The next challenge would be to attract a team, either one affiliated with a Major League Baseball franchise or an independent like the Frontier League. The Frontier League, which already has a team in Bloomington-Normal, has expressed interest in having a team in Champaign County.
Teams, however, come and go. Even if Champaign County got a team, there's no guarantee that it would stay.
The Chicago Cubs recently announced that they plan to move their minor league franchise in Peoria to Kane County so it would be closer to Chicago and more of their fans will be able to watch the Cubs' prospects. With a beautiful stadium located in downtown Peoria, there's no reason that city could not come up with another Major League-affiliated team, but there are no guarantees.
Finally, are there enough fans to support a team in Champaign County? A team from the Central Illinois Collegiate League, the Colts, played at Illinois Field years ago but attendance was sparse. A CICL team, the Dans, currently plays in a nice municipal stadium in Danville, drawing far more fans than the Colts ever did.
The question of a stadium raises all kinds of possibilities. Rather than build a new stadium, would it be possible to form a partnership with the UI to renovate the facility where the Fighting Illini play? Or would it be impossible because of schedule conflicts?
Knight conceded that a partnership arrangement is a "possibility."
"I don't think we should rule it out," he said.
Obviously, this is an incredibly complicated situation. One hardly has to scratch the surface to see some of the big issues that come to the fore.
One thing is certain. Baseball is a game, but studying whether Champaign County is a suitable locale for a stadium and minor league franchise is serious business.
Frankly, it seems to be more than a long-shot, closer to an impossibility. But it can't hurt to study the matter further to sort out all the issues.