Downtown baseball a wonderful fantasy

Frank CagleFrank Talk

It is a pleasant fantasy. Live downtown, stroll past the Old City to a new baseball stadium, grab a beer and a hot dog and watch what used to be America’s pastime. Talk seems to be escalating about the possibility of moving the Tennessee Smokies from a tourist-rich interstate exit in Sevierville to downtown Knoxville.

A question about that pleasant fantasy of having baseball handy to a thriving downtown: Do you plan to stroll down there and support the team 70 times a summer? That’s how many home games there are scheduled. And if everybody who lives downtown went to 70 games it would still be half the current attendance. Which, in Sevierville, was 308,000 fans through the gates in 2018, or an average of 4,668. Fan support and the facility led Baseball America to designate the Smokies the best AA ball club in America in 2018.

So it seems obvious that a stadium downtown will require support from more than the neighborhood. It will require attracting fans from all parts of the county and outlying areas as well. I hope we’ve reached a point that a good marketing effort can bring fans from West, North and South to an area east of downtown and not very far from where Bill Meyer Stadium used to be located off Magnolia Avenue. Remember that the team fled to Sevierville rather than renovate in that location. And the cost of a new stadium on State Street (now occupied by apartments) was considered prohibitively expensive.

Back then the idea was that baseball might jump start development downtown. Now, ironically, it’s thought that a thriving downtown would make a new stadium successful. I hope so. But can you see 300,000 people a year coming downtown to watch baseball?

The Power Poll, which is a poll of community leaders, people who influence public opinion and those who might be termed “insiders,” found an overwhelming number who believe that a deal will be struck to bring baseball to the Old City. The other two questions city taxpayers might find worrisome. They are concerned whether those polled would support a stadium if it required public financing. Public financing means a subsidy from the taxpayers.

Given the giddy atmosphere in some quarters over the idea, I’m sure a consultant can be found who will assure the public that the project is feasible. One idea is to include a residential and a mixed-use development as part of the project. A stadium, the added components, on seven acres? Will it require a parking deck? How does that affect attendance? By adding these components 85 percent of those polled supported the project. A stand-alone stadium with public financing got 60 percent approval.

Will Smokies owner Randy Boyd eat the cost of getting out of the contract with Sevierville? Or will that cost be part of the financing? Who knows? And if the team moves, what happens if Sevierville finds another team for the site?

Before you get your panties in a twist let me point out that I supported a baseball stadium next door to the State Street Garage and argued for it from my desk at the old News Sentinel building, one block south of the site at the time. I felt it was something that might help downtown development. I see less reason to support it now, given the successful development downtown. But I’d still like to see a stadium built.

But for the life of me I do not see how the numbers work, how enough fans could be attracted to support 70 home games a year. I suggest that an investigation into the hard realities of such a project be done, because fantasyland could wind up costing the city, costing the team and costing baseball.

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