For baseball fans in Colorado Springs, the next several years may feel a lot like the bottom of the ninth — a collective clinging to rally caps and hope, but with a pervasive sense that the game might soon be coming to an untimely end.
The Colorado Springs Sky Sox have called the city home for nearly 30 years, but the go-to summer pastime might be endangered as public speculation of the team’s departure began to spread earlier this year. The Elmore Sports Group, which owns the Sky Sox, said that even if the team were to leave Colorado Springs, it wouldn’t be for years. A statement issued this month by the organization indicated, however, that all options were on the table.
“The Sky Sox organization and the Elmore Sports Group enjoys a wonderful relationship with the Colorado Springs community and our fans and has for over [28 years],” according to the statement. “We have been asked by the city of San Antonio to explore the concept of bringing our Triple-A franchise into a new downtown ballpark development. As business owners and caretakers of our Sky Sox franchise, we need to give this proposal serious consideration. In order to fully explore these possibilities, we have agreed to meet and work with San Antonio city officials to test the viability of a new downtown stadium and explore a possible move of Triple-A baseball to San Antonio.”
San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor is optimistic her city will land a Triple-A franchise to replace the Missions, the city’s Double-A San Diego Padres affiliate, which is also owned by the Elmore Sports Group. A Triple-A team would play in a yet-to-be-built facility, expected to be completed by 2019.
“I’m so excited to announce that the Elmore Group has committed to bring a Triple-A franchise to San Antonio to play in a new downtown stadium for the 2019 season,” Taylor said this month.
‘We had to listen’
“There’s no foregone conclusion the Sky Sox are going anywhere,” Tony Ensor, the team’s general manager, told the Business Journal. “There’s no agreement and it’s not a done deal. We’re in the very early stages of this. … It’s a long process with lot of hurdles that need to be overcome. But due to challenges, when we became aware of a Triple-A affiliate opportunity to come out of San Antonio, we had to listen.”
Those challenges include a small and dated Security Service Field, as well as contending with one of the smallest markets at the Triple-A level. Despite breaking club attendance records in 2014, the team ranks near last every year in overall numbers. In 2015, the Sky Sox averaged 4,619 attendees per game for slightly more than 300,000 for the season. Only the Memphis Redbirds had a lower turnout in the Pacific Coast League. The league-leading Sacramento River Cats saw more than 672,000 at the team’s games, with an average turnout of 9,338, which is higher than the total capacity of Security Service Field.
San Antonio’s market, nearly three times the size of Colorado Springs, would provide a much larger draw for the team.
Ensor added that weather is also a factor that carries more weight at the Triple-A level.
“Last year, we basically lost all of May. We postponed or were rained out of seven games last year. … Here, the early part of the season presents challenges, not just financially, but from a player-development standpoint.”
Minor league teams noticeably affect local economies, according to Aju Fenn, professor of economics at Colorado College.
“The bottom line is, unlike most major league ballparks, minor league teams make not just an impact, but a statistically significant impact,” Fenn said, referring to a 2013 study published by Nola Agha in the Journal of Sports Economics.
“[I]n contrast to decades of major league results, there are no significant negative effects,” the report finds of minor league programs. “All of the significant results are positive. In addition, the a priori expectations based on a thorough conceptual analysis were that all of the results would be negative.
“What is unique about the minor league context is that entire leagues of teams at the [Triple-A] and A+ levels are, for the first time, reflecting positive changes,” the report states.
Colorado Springs offers unique challenges to the entertainment sector because there are so many opportunities in the region, he said.
“Colorado Springs is a tough market attracting that disposable-income demographic because there’s so much you can do in this area,” Fenn said. “Plus, you have to compete with a major league team an hour away. Then there’s hiking, biking, skiing — lots of competition for discretionary spending.”
One reason the Sky Sox have been as successful is more about entertainment value, he said, and less about the quality of the team, which could bode well if a lower-tier team replaces the Sox should they leave.
“It’s not about who’s winning. It’s more about the experience,” he said. “It’s about a beer at the ballpark and maybe, once in a while, seeing someone from the majors. But most really want to see the entertainment between the innings.”
Fenn also pointed to the far-east location of Security Service Field as a challenge to drawing a broader, regional fan base. The area isn’t pedestrian friendly, he said, which doesn’t help surrounding businesses.
“If you look at [Progressive] Field in Cleveland, it’s an example of how to integrate a stadium among businesses,” Fenn said. “Much more so than if you build a stadium and surround it by a moat of parking. There are stadiums on the edge of towns, but not the type of stadiums you walk to down a street lined with bars, shops and restaurants.”
Ed Ragain, in many ways, would benefit from a Sky Sox departure. The owner of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, Ragain would inherit a local professional sports monopoly and acres of parking should the Sox leave without replacement.
Ragain, though, a former pitcher with major league aspirations, said he would be sad to see his team’s Eastside neighbor depart.
“I’d like to see them stay. They’re an asset to this city,” Ragain said. “When you look at Triple-A clubs and the scale of the cities they’re in, we’re certainly a small-scale city. It’s a great thing for Colorado Springs to be at this scale and have them as an asset. I hope there’s baseball here forever — the higher the level the better.”
Unlike the Sky Sox, Ragain said a downtown Colorado Springs stadium is part of his team’s long-term strategy.
“This would work in our current location, but not with our current infrastructure,” Ragain said. “We need larger locker rooms and expanded seating.”
Ragain said the city-owned home of the Switchbacks seats fewer than 5,000, and the United Soccer League is asking the team to increase its capacity to a minimum of 7,500 (and as much as 10,000) by 2020. The team had an average turnout of about 3,000 its inaugural year, Ragain said.
Ragain admits there were tensions between the clubs to start last season, much of it revolving around scheduling conflicts and parking.
“When I toured this stadium, the first person I met with was Tony Ensor with the idea of figuring out how this neighbor thing worked. What does the city own? What do you own? What can we use, like bathrooms and lockers? It was quickly determined they really weren’t interested in us using any of their facilities,” Ragain said.
But he added that two high-level organizations housed side-by-side is worth the logistical headaches.
“It brings a sense of energy and synergy to the location. You’ll find that all over the country — multiple stadiums in a single location,” he said. “Shared parking and infrastructure and scheduling conflicts — sometimes you have to work those out, but they’re not killer issues.”
As for economic impact, in 2013, locally based Summit Economics prepared a study for the city of Colorado Springs entitled “Market & Economic Impacts of Relocating Sky Sox Stadium to Downtown Colorado Springs.”
According to that study, “about 161 jobs are supported by the spending of spectators and event participants at Security Service Field.”
“Spending outside the stadium estimates were not available, so Summit surveyed 192 retail businesses located near 10 [Triple-A] downtown baseball stadiums to determine the percentage change in retail sales on game days,” the study states. “This survey showed that, on average, total retail sales increased by about 16 percent on game day.”
“I think it’s huge,” Ragain said of the teams’ combined economic impact. “People come early, eat at restaurants and stay late.”
Help a neighbor out
The team’s economic effect is actually pretty miniscule, according to Fred Veitch, vice president of the Nor’Wood Development Group. Nor’wood developed the First & Main Town Center commercial park just south of Security Service Field.
“I would not think it would have much of an impact,” Veitch said. “The reason is that there are so many things going on on the Eastside. We’d be losing one attraction, so by itself, it wouldn’t have much of an impact.”
Bob Stetler agreed with Veitch. Stetler has owned the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue franchise at Barnes Road and Powers Boulevard for eight years.
“We might get a few customers on game day, but nothing crazy,” Stetler said.
Paul and Malorie Korney, however, said they would feel the pinch. The Korneys own Cleats Bar & Grill on Barnes Road. Patrons can see the scoreboard of Security Service Field from the patio.
“We see about a 20 or 30 percent boost on game days,” Paul Korney said. “Spread over 70 games a year …”
Replacing the Sky Sox with a lower tier team would still affect his bottom line because of the shorter seasons played by Rookie-level, Single-A and Double-A teams, he said.
He advertises Cleats at Sky Sox games and cosponsors events with the team. Cleats promotions, such as a free beer with a Sky Sox ticket stub, also help bring in customers.
“The stadium was a factor in our decision to take this location,” he said. “It wasn’t the overriding factor, but it was certainly one of them.”
Korney said his biggest worry, if the Sky Sox leave, would be a vacant stadium across the street.
“If nothing came in, I’d be concerned. … But I think the town would do something good with it — maybe college games that would bring in out-of-towners. Hopefully we could build a partnership with whoever is over there.”
While the Sky Sox have not directly studied the team’s economic impact on surrounding businesses, Ensor said he “understands the importance of professional sports in communities.”
“That’s why we’re being very thoughtful in this process. We want to be open and transparent,” he said. “We understand the impacts of sports teams economically and from a quality-of-life standpoint. We’ll take that into consideration.”
Ensor said he appreciates the community’s consternation.
“I totally understand why people are nervous, but I also understand the realities of where we are,” he said. “I’m not looking at hypotheticals and speculation, but rather the realities. We’re focused on 2016, then 2017, then beyond. We won’t change our operation. We’ve always tried to provide the best, affordable family entertainment and give the best experience out at the ballpark. That’s what we did last year, what we’ll do this year, and what we’ll do next season. That’s our focus -— giving the fans in Colorado Springs the best experience they can have.”