Betting on Their Own Team: Sugar Land's Minor-League Gamble Pays Off

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Houston is a rambling, gambling town and this year Best of Houston celebrates those in the community who are taking a chance.

At baseball's major league level, the stadium boom of the 1990s was built on promises of economic stimulation and community pride, with cities investing hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to fund new workplaces for their local teams. The "if you build it, they will come" mantra from the 1989 classic Field of Dreams lit the way for more than 20 cities to approve funds to break ground on new stadiums between 1990 and 2008.

Whether all those communities saw an economic return on their investment is a matter of debate, but Sugar Land heard the mantra in 2008 when voters approved the investment of tens of millions of dollars to build a minor-league baseball stadium. Civic leaders tossed around phrases like "spur economic activity" and "potential ancillary development" while asking for several different taxing mechanisms.

Sugar Land's vision entailed fewer taxpayer dollars than those of their big-league metropolitan counterparts, but theirs came with far more risk and far fewer promises. Questions abounded, including: Which minor-league team could the city of Sugar Land attract? How thirsty is Sugar Land for minor-league baseball? Would the Houston Astros throw up roadblocks, viewing Sugar Land's efforts as competition?

Ultimately, Sugar Land chose a franchise in the independent Atlantic League that would be run by a group of experienced baseball businesspeople called Opening Day Partners. The decision was still a big gamble, but it made sense on many levels.

The Atlantic League was (and still is) seen as the most prestigious of the several independent leagues that aren't affiliated with Major League Baseball, with most of its players having played at least AA minor-league ball and many having played in the majors.

Also, being concentrated exclusively on the East Coast, the Atlantic League saw Sugar Land as the ideal spot to begin the westward expansion it had been eyeing for some time.

Finally, while an independent league would seem to hold less cachet with no direct affiliation to MLB, the Skeeters were able to brand themselves as a feeder for all 30 big-league teams, where player development can still occur under a primary umbrella of trying to win baseball games.

"Whereas the primary emphasis in the affiliated minor leagues is on player development, here the primary emphasis is on winning the game," said Tal Smith, longtime Astros executive and special adviser to the Skeeters, at the time. "For older, more experienced players, and for aspiring managers, this is a superior option."

Smith's sentiment about veteran players has certainly manifested itself most recently with Skeeter alums Scott Kazmir and Jason Lane. Kazmir, now an Oakland Athletic, was named to the 2014 American League All-Star team, and Lane, a former Astro, was able to make the hard left turn from outfielder to pitcher as a Skeeter, and eventually he wound up in the big leagues at age 37 as a starter for the San Diego Padres.

Far more glitzy and noteworthy for Skeeter fans, though, have been the special cameo appearances by famous local faces that the team's independent status has afforded it. In 2012, seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens joined the squad for a brief period, and his debut brought national television coverage to the team. Then, in 2014, Sugar Land resident and former Houston Rocket Tracy McGrady pitched a handful of innings for the team, including an appearance in the Atlantic League All-Star Game.

But while it's the differences between the independent Atlantic League and traditional minor-league baseball that have proven to be a benefit to the Skeeters' on-field product, it's the similarities in marketing between the two levels of baseball that have allowed the team to thrive as a business.

If you can't find a night on the Skeeters' schedule that appeals to a personal interest of yours, chances are your only personal interest is in sitting on a chair and staring silently into space. There's College Night, Superhero Night, Star Wars Night, concerts and fireworks. Hell, the Skeeters even had a night in August where fans could bring tents and camp out on Constellation Field after the game was over, breakfast served hot and fresh in the morning.

The end result of all this -- the promotions, the community outreach, the stellar product on the field -- has been record-breaking attendance for an Atlantic League franchise, with the team shattering the league record in its first season, with more than 465,000 people coming through the Constellation Field turnstiles at an average clip of 5,300 fans per game.

"If you build it, they will come." The $37 million gamble has paid off.

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