Don Logan received the ultimate gift at the start of his 35th season with the Las Vegas 51s: a brand new ballpark. Of course, the new stadium being built in a suburb of the city doesn’t officially belong to the longtime team president, but Logan can be forgiven if he feels a particular attachment to it. After all, he has spent more than two decades trying to bring one to Vegas.
“It’s a relief, to be honest,” Logan said.
Logan could finally exhale after years of starts and stops when shovels finally hit the dirt last February during a ceremonial groundbreaking for Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin, an affluent planned community on the northwestern outskirts of Las Vegas developed by the Howard Hughes Corporation — the same entity that purchased a stake in the 51s in 2013. The real estate development company took over control of the franchise last May and quickly moved forward with the rumored plan of building a state-of-the-art ballpark in Summerlin, marking the end of an era for Logan and the beginning of a new one for the city, team, Pacific Coast League and even minor league baseball as a whole.
The new ballpark, which is being funded by an $80 million naming rights deal from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and built on an 8-acre lot owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation, secures the team’s future in a city critical to the Pacific Coast League’s footprint because of the ease of travel through McCarran International Airport. Although the new ballpark has the potential to be one of the finest in the sport, and will represent everything that longtime home Cashman Field is not, it will also test minor league baseball’s “affordable, family friendly entertainment” business model in a market with no shortage of entertainment options.
“It is an enormous win,” Pacific Coast League President Branch Rickey III said. “Great credit goes to the county and LVCVA for the way that financing package has been put together and making the project feasible, and Howard Hughes Corporation for holding back the land in a very ritzy, glitzy development to put a minor league ballpark in a premium spot. So, we’re optimistic.”
That’s putting it mildly. The new ballpark will be a significant upgrade from Cashman Field, the team’s aging ballpark on the wrong side of town that offers few amenities for fans or players. Cashman Field’s lone batting cage is outdoors, which can be quite uncomfortable for players in the middle of the summer heat. Same goes for the metal bleachers for fans, which get toasty by gametime in July.
Las Vegas Ballpark will be flush with the bells and whistles featured at the newest ballparks around the country that Logan has spent years scouting. These range from three indoor batting tunnels and modern clubhouses for players, to 22 club-level suites and a pool beyond the outfield wall for fans.
“You’ve got to have the right kind of facilities,” Logan said. “In a city like this, that is progressive and out front, particularly in the entertainment industry, our fans are used to the best of the best. People are traveling and see other ballparks around the country, and they come back home and say it would be great to have one of those here.”
Bright Lights, New Ballpark
Logan’s quest for a new minor league ballpark began in the mid-1990s, when he tried to lure spring training to Las Vegas. It continued with the team and league’s unsuccessful courting of mayor Oscar Goodman, who believed a new ballpark should only be built for a major league club. Rickey recalls Goodman singling him out during a press conference and proclaiming, “With all due respect Mr. Rickey, Las Vegas is not a minor league city. It is a major league city.”
In 2003, a tax on rental cars in the state was put in place to help fund new ballparks in Reno and Las Vegas. Reno got its bought ballpark. Las Vegas ended up using the money for a performing arts center. The team has had flirtations with nearby Henderson, most recently in 2011 with developer Chris Milam, but that never panned out.
Now that the 51s finally got their wish and are building one of the flashiest — and most expensive — ballparks in the minors, will fans come? Is affordable, family-friendly entertainment at the ballpark a draw in “Sin City?”
Logan says that’s a no-doubter and expects the team to be a hit with the 2 million people living in greater Las Vegas and for the team to easily break the franchise attendance record of 387,815 set in 1987. “The competition [in the city] is not going away. The heat is not going away. We’ll have to work hard, but I’m sure we’ll get over 400,000 [fans] and push 500,000.”
Las Vegas is certainly a city like no other, making it a minor league market without peer as well. A seemingly endless list of entertainment options grew deeper with the recent arrival of major league sports to the city. The NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights debuted last fall, and have been a hit on the ice and off. The NFL will be coming to town when the Raiders arrive from Oakland in 2019, and rumors of the NBA and MLS expanding to Vegas continue as well. Mix in the traditional Las Vegas nightlife and one is left to wonder: Can minor league baseball compete?
If the answer is based simply off the past, then there would certainly be reason for concern. The 51s have fared marginally against the entertainment competition in Las Vegas, and their attendance has only declined as Cashman Field aged without many upgrades and as businesses left it alone in downtown.
“This part of town has really deteriorated. It’s not a place where people would feel as safe as you would like,” Logan said. “There is nothing at night for you to come down to, just the facility itself. There are six thousand metal benches. Those benches sit out in the sun all day and are 115 degrees when people sit on them. There are not enough restroom facilities; not enough point of sale concession areas. The player development amenities — locker rooms, batting cages, training rooms — are way below what is normal now.”
That won’t be the case in Summerlin, where the team will unveil a new nickname and logo when they debut next season. Rickey, the PCL president, believes the ballpark will draw despite the competition.
“The Las Vegas franchise faces more entertainment competition in its own market than perhaps all of the Triple-A franchises combined in the other 29 markets,” Rickey said. “If you add up all that’s going on in Las Vegas, and the scope and dimension and the aura and star power and celebrities and what they’re up against to be successful, why it’s mind-boggling . . .
“But we feel that affordable, family entertainment — I like the word recreation — we think that is a particularly appealing enterprise that should be extremely successful in Las Vegas if placed in the right place under the right pricing under the right appealing facilities. The thing that constantly makes successful baseball venues is safety, if it is seen as a wholesome environment.”
Guess Who’s Coming to Town
The new ballpark will likely appeal to another demographic important to the 51s: major league teams. That certainly has not been the case in recent years. Las Vegas lost its eight-year affiliation with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, when the big league team tired of Cashman Field and the lack of progress on building a new ballpark. The Blue Jays came to town in 2009 after Syracuse ended their affiliation after 30 years in favor of the Mets. Toronto stuck around for four years before bolting for Buffalo, just over the border from the Rogers Centre. The Mets, after losing favor in Syracuse, landed in Las Vegas as a last resort.
This season marks the finale for the Mets in Las Vegas, who are returning to Syracuse after purchasing the franchise late last year. Las Vegas now finds itself in the suddenly appealing position of an affiliation free agent likely to be sought after when the affiliation shuffle kicks back into gear after this season.
According to Mike McCann’s handy affiliation tracker, 12 Triple-A teams have player-development contracts expiring after this season. However, just four teams are likely to be available: Nationals (currently in Syracuse), Brewers (Colorado Springs), Astros (Fresno) and Athletics (Nashville). The Dodgers won’t be coming back to Las Vegas after purchasing a share of the Oklahoma City franchise in 2014.
Whichever teams ends up in Vegas, Logan said, is going to be thrilled with what they find. “I think we nailed it, particularly on the player development side. It’s going to be the best facility in Triple-A baseball — in all phases.”