City caps its annual subsidy to minor league baseball team’s ownership at $300,000 per year
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Sports fans are familiar with a salary cap, where teams must keep their player payroll under a total for the year in order to even the playing field between large market and small market teams. In order to sign a new stadium lease with the ownership group of the Visalia Rawhide, the city of Visalia has imposed a subsidy cap, to limit its annual contribution to the minor league baseball team’s operation and its maintenance of the stadium.
At its Dec. 17 meeting, the Visalia City Council approved a two-year lease for Recreation Park Stadium with an option for a third year with Top of the Third, Inc., the ownership group for the Visalia Rawhide. The deal includes a $300,000 cap on the city’s annual contribution through Dec. 31, 2020.
Deputy City Manager Mario Cifuentes said the city’s annual subsidy to the operation of the baseball club has increased from $150,000 to $232,000 over the last five years. That’s in addition to up-front cash from the city’s capital improvement fund of $224,300 per year for stadium improvements. In 2016-17, the city spent nearly half a million dollars ($476,000) to subsidize the operation and maintenance of minor league baseball at Recreation Park Stadium.
Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen, who along with Mayor Bob Link sat on the city’s Baseball Subcommittee, said the new lease simplifies the funding streams between the two entities, a major goal of negotiations with Top of the Third. Under the terms of the new agreement, the city will immediately pay off an outstanding balance of $31,811 to the team for bullpen deck improvements and sets a cap of $100,000 per year to subsidize operating and maintenance costs for the stadium and $200,000 per year for other expenses. Top of the Third agrees to cover all operating and maintenance costs associated with use of the property with the exception of HVAC, elevator, roofing maintenance and all other items considered major maintenance and will retain all revenue derived from the use of property, including the leasing of office space facing Giddings avenue.
“This contract does everything the council wanted it to do,” Nelsen said before motioning to approve the lease.
The motion passed 4-1, with Councilmember Greg Collins casting the lone dissenting vote.
Collins has criticized the team for the better part of a decade for its reluctance to raise its ticket prices to help close the gap of the subsidy. He also pointed out that the city had invested $12 million into the stadium and the team during Top of the Third’s 17-year ownership of the Visalia team. Team management has made statements that the stadium is slightly below Minor League Baseball standards, has never had a business plan and has never been a part of the City’s General Plan discussions. Top of the Third also says it has invested more than $1 million in cash, trade, sweat-equity and community outreach since 2009 and provides the city with $2 million in economic impact per year, as well as intangibles such as quality of life for its community members and national recognition.
“My gravest concern with all of the money in the last 10-12 years is that they might take the team to another city and leave this city high and dry,” Collins said.
The two-year deal ends two years of negotiations during which the City Council approved one-year extensions of its last lease which originally expired on Dec. 31, 2016. In his report to the City Council, Cifuentes stated the negotiation deadlock ended when Top of the Third backed off their previous position of wanting a 10-year lease agreement after the announcement that the team was for sale in October.
Rawhide General Manager Jennifer Reynolds said the Seidler-O’Malley family, decided to sell their only Minor League Baseball (MiLB) franchise to focus their energies on the family’s major league investment in the San Diego Padres. She said the family has committed to retaining ownership and operations of the team until it finds a buyer. Reynolds said there is no timeline in place but the front office team expects the Advanced A ballclub to sell sometime next year. After the sale of the team, should that occur, the City could negotiate with the new owner on a new lease or long term extension of this agreement.
“We will have the final say on who the new team is,” Mayor Link said.
Top of the Third’s 17 years of ownership has brought unprecedented stability to minor league baseball in Visalia and invested more than $1 million into the city-owned ballpark. That tenure includes the second longest MLB affiliation as the ballclub will enter its 13th season with the Arizona Diamondbacks after recently signing a two-year extension. The Rawhide has also enjoyed on the field success under Top of the Third. Since 2002, Visalia has sent 122 players to the majors, the most of any Class A franchise in that time, including All-Stars like Evan Longoria, Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, Adam Eaton, Paul Goldscmidt and Mark Scherzer. They have also won the California League Northern Division four times in 2006, 2014, 2016 and 2018. Since rebranding as the Visalia Rawhide 10 years ago, the team broke a 62-year-old attendance record in 2009 and again in eight of the last 10 seasons.
Top of the Third, which has owned the club since 2002, is just the eighth group to operate the Visalia minor league team since its inception in 1946 beginning with the Chicago Cubs and including the New York Mets, Don Drysdale and the City of Visalia.
The Visalia Rawhide play Class A Advanced in the California League and are the only professional sports team in Tulare and Kings counties. On April 4, 2019, the Rawhide will open their 73rd year of play and 13th as an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rawhide will defend their 2018 Northern Division Championship and continue providing competitive baseball and affordable family entertainment. To be a part of the 2019 Visalia Rawhide season, please contact the Visalia Rawhide Ticket Office at 559.732.4433, visit us online at rawhidebaseball.com, or follow us on Facebook (TheRawhide), Instagram (@VisaliaRawhide), and Twitter (@VisaliaRawhide).