Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

$200M going toward minor league stadium renovations. But will it bring fans?

The field at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, MD, which is set to get new grass put in as a part of funds from the state for ballpark renovations.

The field at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, which is set to get new grass and other renovations from a state fund set up for minor league ballpark improvements. (Submitted Photo)

Richard Bennett has worked as an usher for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs since the team’s stadium opened in 2008. In that time, he has seen firsthand both the number of fans and the quality of the Waldorf stadium decline.

Bennett saw the largest crowds from 2008 to 2010, but over the past couple of years, he said, attendance has been especially low.

“It’s always been a struggle to tell people we’re back,” Bennett said. “That’s why we haven’t seen as many fans since COVID hit.”

It’s not just the Blue Crabs, one of six minor league teams in Maryland, that are facing this challenge. Minor league ballparks nationwide were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the MiLB to cancel the 2020 season and delay the start of most teams’ seasons in 2021.  Now, they have opened back up, but many are struggling to reach pre-pandemic attendance.

In Maryland, the General Assembly in its 2022 legislative session allocated money to fund renovations to minor league ballparks, largely going toward conforming to requirements issued by Major League Baseball for stadium standards. The updated requirements aim to modernize the stadiums, upgrade player development facilities, improve the fan experience and more.

The legislation, HB897, leaves it fairly open what the funds — a $200 million pot that stadiums, along with some other sports facilities, can apply to utilize — can be used for, but the Maryland Stadium Authority is working to establish guidelines for how to spend the money. (The MSA also sponsored the bill.)

So far, no funds have been distributed.

“The improvements that are going to be funded are going to upgrade both the players’ experience and the fans’ experience at the Baysox stadium,” said David Iannucci, president and CEO of the Prince George’s Economic Development Corporation. The Bowie Baysox’s stadium, Prince George’s Stadium, draws in 230,000 fans annually, Iannucci said, but he noted that the stadium is working to attract more attendees from within the county.

However, some fans don’t believe that the renovations will have much of an effect on the turnout for minor league games.

“It really comes down to marketing, because you can still see good baseball here,” said Paul Krumsiek, a fan who has been going to Blue Crabs games at its ballpark, Regency Furniture Stadium, since 2010.

While marketing is a big part of what drives people to games, there are other factors that are less controllable. John Maroon, president of Maroon PR, who has worked in communications in the sports industry for over 30 years, said he believes that low attendance is also a product of a generational shift in entertainment wants. 

“It’s tougher now more than ever to get people to use their smaller entertainment budget on your event,” Maroon said. “With minor league baseball, it’s harder than it’s ever been.”

Maroon also cited the nature of the sport as a reason that it is harder to attract fans, because while football teams have one game per week, baseball could have as many as five games in the same span. Minor league teams need to come up with more ways to keep attendance up, he said, citing the Savannah Bananas, who have a large presence on the social media platform ikTok.

“To keep attendance really going, teams need to make the experience more than just a ballgame,” Maroon said.

But advocates for the state’s minor league teams argue they are valuable parts of their communities even when they’re not drawing in as many fans as they once did. The stadiums themselves serve as venues for events ranging from high school graduations to fireworks displays on the Fourth of July.

​​“It’s not just a baseball stadium, it’s kind of a civic gathering place,” Iannucci said.

Minor league teams fall within what Tom Kelso, chairman for the MSA, called an “ecosystem” of baseball in the state that includes youth, high school, amateur and club teams, along with the minor and major leagues. Maintaining minor league stadiums allows the teams to better support teams that are lower in the system, while attending minor league games can encourage fans to also support the Baltimore Orioles.

The field at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, MD, which is set to get new grass put in as a part of funds from the state for ballpark renovations.

Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf is one of six minor ballparks in Maryland that will be able to tap a $200 million pot of state money for renovations. (Submitted Photo)

“These minor league teams provide benefits to their communities and promote synergies between the Orioles and their Maryland-based affiliates. According to the Major League Baseball Research Data Portal, since 2005, there have been 14.3 million visitors to Maryland communities through Orioles minor league operations,” Kelso and MSA Executive Director Michael J. Frenz wrote in their testimony supporting HB897. “The minor league ballparks, and other sports and facilities across the state create jobs and generate visitor spending with the resulting tax revenues reinvested to fund essential citizen services and improve Marylander’s quality of life.”

Once stadiums start receiving funds from HB897, they plan to put them toward facilities for the players and the fans alike. At Regency Furniture Stadium, the money will be used to renovate both the fan side of the ballpark as well to upgrade facilities for the players, according to Blue Crabs general manager Courtney Knichel. For the team, the locker rooms will be renovated, as well as the batting cages and weight room. In addition, the field will be get new grass.

Some attendees, such as CJ Crosby, whose son plays on the team, agree that the ballpark could use some improvements.

“This field is one of the worst fields I’ve ever seen,” Crosby said during a Blue Crabs game in July against the Long Island Ducks — his first visit to the ballpark.

For the fan side of the stadium, which has received no state funding for renovations since its opening nearly 15 years ago, Knichel said the paint will be redone, as well as new floors and a new deck, among other changes.

“There won’t be a huge amount of cool, new projects that we’ll be doing,” Knichel said.

Prince George’s Stadium is about 25 years old. The renovations to the stadium will depend largely on the MLB’s assessment of the facility, the results of which will be provided to the stadium and the team through the MSA in September, said Steven Carter, deputy director of facility operations for the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.

He anticipates some of the renovations will have to do with making the stadium more of a “year-round” facility that could be used by Prince George’s County youth in the offseason by adding new indoor training facilities.

Regardless of whether the improvements themselves draw in new fans for the Baysox, Carter hopes the upgrades will generate newfound “excitement around the game of baseball” in the region.