Will MLB Make NASCAR’s Mistake in Cutting Off Its Minor League Roots?

A crowd of 2,618 fans were on hand to watch the Bristol Pirates take on the Burlington Royals in Appalachian League action at Boyce Cox Field.

Source Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images via AP

Why you should care

The car racing sport could hold valuable lessons for Major League Baseball — in what not to do.

NASCAR, the governing body of stock car racing in the U.S., dumped North Wilkesboro Speedway into history’s dustbin in 1996 when it took away the North Carolina track’s two lucrative Cup races. But apart from the track, it also left behind bitter fans, its grassroots, as it chased the dollar bonanza offered by bigger markets.

More than two decades later, experts are cautioning that Major League Baseball might be poised to make the same mistake. MLB is studying a reorganization plan that includes stripping 42 mostly small towns and cities of their minor league affiliate teams following the 2020 season. This includes taking away affiliations from nine of the 10 teams that make up the 108-year-old Appalachian League mostly based in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and southern West Virginia.

Aren’t the minors also a feeder system that draws fans to the game?

Mike Mains, Parks and Recreation, Elizabethton, Tenn.

Hall of Famers and All-Stars like Nolan Ryan, Joe Mauer, Jacob de Grom and Jose Altuve started their professional baseball careers in the “Appy League” with fans able to get within arm’s length of the teenage phenoms. League insiders suggest MLB’s threat of cutting teams is a negotiating tactic to raise the ticket tax it collects from minor league teams, ostensibly to pay players better. MLB is also demanding the renovation of facilities.

But reporting in North Wilkesboro, N.C., northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, I encountered a familiar refrain. Baseball is brushing aside its base, same as racing, and the blue-collar fan is bristling at the lack of respect.

First Union 400

North Wilkesboro Speedway in happier times, hosting the NASCAR First Union 400 in 1990.

Source Getty

“The minors are a feeder system of players for teams, but aren’t the minors also a feeder system that draws fans to the game?” asks Mike Mains, director of Parks and Recreation in Elizabethton, Tenn., which has had minor league teams since 1937. “I told somebody recently this feels like what happened with NASCAR and it losing fans.”

NASCAR abandoned its track in Rockingham, N.C., in 2004, moving those races to Los Angeles and Dallas. It took away a race each from Darlington (S.C.) and Atlanta, citing low attendance. Fans in the south began to grumble the sport seemed “too corporate.”

“It messed them up because they made it all about the money,” says Allen Call, who owns Harold’s restaurant two miles from the North Wilkesboro track. “You look at how their crowds have dropped off. I bet they wish they hadn’t done it.”

In 2014, the LA-area track reduced its seating capacity from 92,000 to 68,000. Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee has a listed seating capacity of 162,000, but there were unofficial estimates the crowd for the April 2019 race was 45,000. Crowds have dropped at many other venues across the circuit, while TV viewership has fallen and sponsors are dwindling. The Cup series will not have a title sponsor this coming year for the first time in decades, instead using four “premier partners.”

“There was a perception that…NASCAR was abandoning its roots, and they were and are angry about it,” says Dave Caldwell, who has covered racing since 2000 for The New York Times. “The old-timers felt as if they’d been priced out — kicked aside, that NASCAR didn’t care about them.”

Some ballparks in the 42 cities that might lose Major League affiliated teams have antiquated locker rooms, old seats in the grandstands and poor lighting. The grandstands directly behind home plate at Boyce Cox Field, home of the Appalachian League Bristol Pirates, were declared “unsafe” one month into the 2019 season and torn down.

But even without MLB’s threats, cities and operators of these teams are pouring millions into upgrading facilities. Boyd Sports, which operates the Johnson City Cardinals, the Greeneville Reds, and the Elizabethton Twins of the Appy League, has spent more than $1 million on improvements in Johnson City, says Jeremy Boler, a vice president for Boyd Sports. Boler says the city itself spent $680,000 on new lights. Boler says Boyd Sports has plans for a new video scoreboard and an expanded party deck, though they are on hold for now.

The city of Elizabethton built a $1.6 million state-of-the-art clubhouse for its rookie league team — it’s also used by the local high school. Kingsport, Tenn., spent $95,000 on a feasibility study for a new $15 million ballpark for its rookie team, the K-Mets. Yet now, after taxpayers stepped up, MLB wants to leave.

“It would be devastating,” says Mark Davis of Kingsport, a long-time season ticket holder who has started a petition on change.org. “The baseball team brings the community together, the players do book readings for kids and participate in things around the community.”

To be sure, the Appy League has limitations. The Johnson City Cardinals drew an average of 2,519 fans in 2019 over 32 dates, and the Pulaski Yankees averaged 2,821, which out-paced some Class A and Class AA teams in bigger markets. But others, like Bristol (Va.), Kingsport, Elizabethton, Danville, Bluefield and Princeton, drew fewer than 1,000 fans on average per game, according to Ballpark Digest.

Johnson City Burlington Baseball

The Johnson City Cardinals celebrate winning the 2019 Appalachian League Championship — not enough to save them from MLB’s reorganization.

Source Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images via AP

Still, if it cuts ties with its rookie affiliates, MLB would have these teams play out of their spring training homes in Florida and Texas, which often come with high fences and security between fans and players because big leaguers train there before the season. At minor league ballparks, rookie players sign autographs for fans, the tie that bonds kids to the game. “This will have a ripple effect nationwide,” Boler says of the proposed cuts. “Baseball tries to drive things through the grass roots, but that will go away in many places.”

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has appealed to MLB to rethink its proposal to overhaul the minors, which not only includes downsizing in the Appalachian League, but erasing the New York-Penn League and the Northwest League. Four members of Congress in January introduced a resolution against the MLB move.

Nascar memorabilia used to line the walls of Harold’s, which Call’s father opened in 1965. When Call had the restaurant repainted, he took down the pictures. He still hasn’t put them back up. “NASCAR ain’t NASCAR no more,” says a customer, Danny Reeves. Will baseball be baseball in 10 years without its “grassroots” leagues? Or will it be dead to thousands of kids?

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