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Losing Out: The Local Impact of Minor League Baseball’s Impending Contraction

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian Hutcheson
December 21, 2019

Although its status as the national pastime is less assured today, baseball, as represented through Major League Baseball (MLB), maintains a steady residency among the United States’ Big Four professional sports leagues. Unlike the other members of this cohort, MLB has a massive minor league system. In a recent blow to Minor League Baseball’s (MiLB) enormity, MLB announced its designs to realign the minor leagues, including possibly eliminating as many as 42 teams.

For the communities that could lose affiliated baseball clubs, MiLB contraction would leave a noticeable impression. While forecasting the economic consequences of contraction is problematic, predicting the negative impact on the local identity of communities and the quality of life for residents is simpler. This is observable through an examination of one such community and the team it stands to lose: Clinton, Iowa and the Clinton LumberKings.

Home Base

One of American baseball’s unique assets is its distinguished history and association with pivotal moments in the nation’s development. Professional baseball in Clinton is no exception and was born from the Works Progress Administration-aided construction of Riverview Stadium in 1935. Founded a century earlier, Clinton rose to prominence in the 19th century as a center of the lumber industry. By the time Clinton’s team first took the field in 1937, the economic profile of the area had changed from timber to manufacturing.

As the economic foundation provided by manufacturing eroded and civic leaders endeavored to chart a path for Clinton’s future, other facets of the community have remained more steadfast. A model of constancy, Clinton’s baseball team is the lone remaining charter club of the Midwest League and plays in the same riverside stadium where it all began on opening day in 1937.

Minor Economies

The local economic impact of professional sports is perennially debated. In her 2013 article, “The Economic Impact of Stadiums and Teams: The Case of Minor League Baseball,” for the Journal of Sports Economics, Nola Agha resumes this debate focusing on minor league baseball and discovers that AAA and A+ clubs and AA and rookie stadiums are the only types positively correlated with local per capita income increases.

As a Class-A club, the LumberKings and their stadium are in a group which Agha finds does not correlate with income growth. In a 2019 letter released by the LumberKings, the team estimates it has a $6.56 million annual economic impact. This comprises less than half of one percent of Clinton County’s 2015 GDP, but also represents nearly three quarters of the total tax revenue the county received from domestic tourism in 2018. While MiLB contraction would leave the city worse off economically, it would not likely be a decisive determinant of the area’s economic vitality.

Quality Starts

Many local governments have realized that the investment a community makes in the well-being of its people is critical to its prosperity. In his 2012 dissertation, “The Influence of Small-Scale Sport Event Impacts on Personal and Community Quality of Life and Support for Sport Event Tourism,” Kostas Karadakis examines how youth soccer spectators feel these events influenced their perceived quality of life. He finds that hosting small-scale sporting events has positive impacts that enhance feelings of community and personal quality of life.

The contribution of minor league baseball towards improved quality of life in Clinton was evidenced in a conversation with Erin Cole, President of the Clinton Regional Development Corporation. Cole emphasized the working-class character of Clinton and its isolation from the attractions of major metro areas. LumberKings baseball offers residents an affordable and accessible attraction that connects them to their community. Replacing the effect this amenity has on individual and collective well-being would present an ongoing challenge for the area. 

Team Identity

Hosting a professional sports team has many benefits for a community, not the least of which is the relative status it affords an area, and which inevitably influences its collective identity. Emily Jo Duda, in her 2011 master’s thesis, “Sports and the City: The Rhetorical Construction of Civic Identity through American Football Teams,” demonstrates the powerful ways in which NFL franchises combine various socio-cultural, visual and economic elements to construct ideas that ultimately enhance local civic identities.

Minor league baseball has been a part of the Clinton community more or less continuously for over 80 years. LumberKings General Manager Ted Tornow described the sense of loss that would follow the team’s removal and the hole it would leave in the community. The void in local civic identity exposed by MiLB contraction is perhaps the gravest threat it poses, and one that would be impossible to compensate for with economic development or additional community amenities.

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Overshadowed in the national consciousness by their big-league counterparts, minor league sports clubs are major contributors to the economies, civic identities and quality of life in their communities. Although contraction and expansion are natural to the life cycle of any business model, exposing the local impact of calculations often made from a distance provides a more complete picture of the impression these decisions leave on our communities.


Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Management & Budget Analyst for the City of Oklahoma City and a member of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter: ihutch01

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