Minor League baseball has dim future in New Orleans area

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Shrine on Airline

It is a topic of conversation which has arisen, simmered and stewed over the past few months. In the midst of the beast of the summer heat in the New Orleans area, the smoke alarm is now sounding.

By the beginning of September, we most likely will have seen our last minor league baseball game in New Orleans for quite awhile.

That, in itself, is a shame.

Minor League Baseball has a history in the New Orleans area. It has enjoyed a level of success here. It has a place here, despite the presence of two Major League franchises in the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans.

How did we arrive at this point in time?

One argument frequently put forth is that the addition of the Pelicans here led to the demise of the team formally known as the Zephyrs.

While the entertainment dollar is most certainly stretched considering by the NBA presence here, it is not and should not be a death knell for the baseball team.

Comparing the New Orleans market to other minor league markets, there are four other minor league teams who reside in markets with two major league franchises.

Charlotte has an NFL team in the Panthers and an NBA team in the Hornets.

Buffalo has the NFL Bills and the NHL Sabres.

Indianapolis features the NFL Colts and the NBA Pacers.

Nashville has the NFL Titans and the NHL Predators.

In Charlotte, the Knights of the International League are averaging 8.257 fans per opening for 41 games. That ranks second in the league behind Lehigh Valley, a one-horse professional sports town. BB&T Ballpark in uptown Charlotte is in just its sixth year and is a beautiful facility with the Charlotte skyline beyond the outfield fences.

Prior to BB&T Ballpark opening, the Knights played in Fort Mill, South Carolina and were consistently among the worst attended franchises in Triple-A baseball. The Knights are a Chicago White Sox affiliate. Charlotte is the No. 23 television market in the country.

In Buffalo, the Bisons average 6,768 fans per opening for 39 games. That ranks sixth out of the 14 teams in the International League and Buffalo has always been a good minor league city, despite smallish crowds early in the season when the weather is still an issue. Sahlen Field is still one of the nicest minor league ballparks in the country despite being 32-years-old.

Sahlen Field is nicely located in downtown Buffalo. The Bisons are affiliated with the nearby Toronto Blue Jays. Buffalo is the No. 52 television market in the country.

In Indianapolis, the Indians average 7,652 fans per opening for 38 games. That ranks fourth in the International League. Victory Field remains a jewel in downtown Indianapolis despite being 24-years old. The Indians are affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Indianapolis is the No. 28 television market in the country.

In Nashville, the Sounds are averaging 8,367 fans per opening for 40 games. That ranks third in the Pacific Coast League. First Tennessee Park is still a new facility in downtown Nashville, having opened in 2015. It is an outstanding ballpark. The Sounds are a Texas Rangers affiliate. Nashville is the No. 27 television market in the country.

As of Wednesday evening, New Orleans is dead last in Triple-A attendance once again, averaging a paltry 2,826 fans for 43 games, a total of 121,518 fans for the entire season, a dismal number. The actual number is likely less, if not far less. New Orleans is the No. 50 television market in the country.

Of course, what would you expect with a lame duck team? Many who were loyal to the product have already abandoned the cause, jumping ship to other entertainment vehicles in an entertainment-rich community.

The “Shrine on Airline” has aged quickly since opening in 1997.

Of course, there is an old saying that you get what you pay for.

The former Zephyr Field, was nice when it opened but it was nowhere near being one of the best ballparks in Triple-A baseball at that time. It has aged poorly.

In defense of current owner Lou Schwechheimer, the state and LSED (Louisiana Stadium and Expedition District), which governs the ballpark, have done nothing, to this point, to provide financing for critical, necessary improvements to the facility. The lure of a beautiful new ballpark in Wichita in a market devoid of professional competition was too large to pass up.

Other baseball events and even prep football were tried to create interest here.

Of course, the promise of the owner having a home in New Orleans never happened. Neither did the promise of “absolutely” when answering the question of whether he would keep the Zephyrs in the New Orleans market in 2016.

Then, there is the affiliation of the Miami Marlins.

There is no worse affiliation in minor league baseball at any level than to be affiliated with the Marlins since 2009.

Miami remains dead last in Major League attendance this season. The Marlins are again no factor in the National League East. They have no name players, having discarded any stars they had in recent years in Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto.

Then, there is the carnage of the Marlins minor league system.

Miami has consistently given New Orleans a lousy product. Ironically, the current version of the New Orleans minor league team is a winning team with a 46-39 record with some interesting players, some of whom have been summoned by Miami to help the Marlins. Talk about too little, too late!

In 10 previous seasons, the New Orleans Triple-A team had one winning season and no playoff appearances.

While the standard line on minor league baseball is that it is not about winning or the players names, it is about promotions, does anyone feel the New Orleans team has not tried and delivered interesting promotions?

Winning, at any level, sells tickets. It creates interest. It creates more acute awareness through ramped up media coverage.

Being bad consistently, over an extended period of time, certainly hurts attendance. So does a bad affiliation, obviously.

The glamour days were from 1997-2004 when the Zephyrs were affiliated with the Houston Astros, the closest big league market to New Orleans and one, at the time, which had its big league games on local television and radio in the New Orleans market.

Of course, the Astros were a good team with a good minor league system as well, providing New Orleans with a pair of league championships, multiple playoff appearances and a team which won the inaugural Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas in 1998 where Lance Berkman, a future Houston star, earned Most Valuable Player honors by blasting three home runs in the fourth and deciding game of the series with Buffalo.

Then, there is the whole name game fiasco.

While current management was quick to point out that Zephyrs was not tied to New Orleans, that it came from Denver when the team relocated here in 1993, does anyone seriously buy into the ridiculous name the team now bears?

There is no such thing as a Baby Cake.

There is a King Cake which has a baby in it. I have always found it to be insulting to the intelligence of locals.

I have always believed that the name was a poor decision.

How long did the marketing “bump” last?

I heard all the glowing rants about how the change resulted in a dramatic rise in the sale of merchandise. I saw the social media post of how it was the most popular logo.

If those things are true, how do you explain the total apathy which has existed for the last few years, the visual of a virtually empty stadium on a nearly nightly basis? If true, why do I constantly hear nothing but criticism of the name on our radio shows and when I make appearances or even when I travel to other cities?

By the way, those who are not sophisticated fans who pay daily attention to the team here always related the name Zephyrs to the famous Zephyr at Pontchartrain Beach, where so many New Orleans area residents grew up.

In fact, when Jazzland and later Six Flags occupied New Orleans East, homage was paid to the tradition through the Mega Zeph. Finally, the famous façade of the original Zephyr appeared for years at Kenner’s City Park, adjacent to City Hall.

Talk about throwing away tradition!

When your stadium is not good, your team is not good, your name is not good and your ownership is absentee, what else could we have expected?

In the final analysis, the hope of landing a Southern League team, which would make all the sense in the world, is slim. Yes, there is the possibility of it occurring in the future but no team or owner will want to relocate here without assurances of stadium improvements and dramatic ones at that. You cannot create a new Double-A affiliate. An existing franchise would have to relocate here.

With all due respect to Schwechheimer and Donald Beaver before him, local ownership is critical in such a parochial market where people embrace their own as much, if not more than any other market in the United States. Ties that bind matter. Political allies matter. Business friends matter.

It has never been the same since Rob Couhig and his local partners divested their interest in the team at the turn of the century. Walter Leger has been great, a wonderful supporter throughout, but his involvement and influence are not what they used to be and that is sorely missed.

Gayle Benson is the captain driving the sports ship and so many other business ships in the New Orleans area. If she suddenly became interested, as her late husband was in 1992 when he tried to put a Southern League team here, the chances of landing a team would increase incrementally. That is what you call local. That is what you call ties that bind. That is what you call politically aligned. That is what you call business friendly.

The cost to operate a Southern League team versus that of a Pacific Coast League team is dramatically different. I remember traveling to three Canadian cities with the Zephyrs while the New Orleans team currently flies to places like Portland, Tacoma, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Fresno, Las Vegas, Reno, Des Moines, Omaha and Albuquerque. Flying is not cheap. The Southern League is a bus league and a league with teams in cities that New Orleans fans can easily visit and vice versa.

Having a fan friendly, family friendly, affordable professional product in a stadium built for baseball is a plus for any market. The extraction of the Cakes from the local scene will be a loss, a subtraction of attractions for the local landscape for a faction of people who deserve satisfaction. If done correctly, a Southern League team in New Orleans would gain traction, though such a transaction does not appear imminent or anywhere on the horizon, at this point.

New Orleans minor league baseball history dates to 1887 and the original Pelicans. They were here through 1959. Then, there was an absence of 18 years until the Pelicans returned to play in the Superdome in 1977 but that lasted one year. Professional baseball did not return for 16 years until John Dikeou moved his Zephyrs here from Denver in 1993 with Couhig and his partners.

The Zephyr is gone. Mega Zeph is gone. The Zephyrs are gone. Here is the hope that the call of “Play Ball” will emanate from Metairie in the near future before it is gone forever in our lifetimes, as history would suggest. When it comes to professional baseball in New Orleans, we will all be able to, borrowing from my home run call back in the day, “catch some Z’s.” That is the sad reality we are facing. It is hard to fathom my friend and former broadcast partner Ron Swoboda not calling games next year.

As for the confluence of circumstances that brought us to this point in time and for those who played a role in this happening, let them eat cake, baby!

**Ken Trahan served as the initial radio play-by-place of the New Orleans Zephyrs from 1993-2000 and as the television play-by-play voice of the Zephyrs from 1994-2000.

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Ken Trahan

Ken Trahan

Chief Executive Officer

Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…

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