I’ve used this space on numerous occasions to talk about changing landscapes in Fort Bend County with regards to development, politics and other issues.
This week, it’s a bit of the same song but a different verse in talking about a potential seismic shift for the area sports scene’s biggest player.
According to a mid-October report from Baseball America, Major League Baseball has floated a proposal that, if adopted, would reduce affiliated Minor League Baseball from 160 teams to 120 beginning in the 2021 season due to some existing minor league outposts not meeting MLB standards for maintenance and operation of facilities.
The contract between MLB and MiLB, as it stands now, expires at the end of the 2020 season. Ultimately, the report said MLB wants sweeping changes to leagues and affiliations, especially at the lower levels. Among the cities and teams specifically mentioned in the report as those the league is interested in having become affiliated squads were our very own Sugar Land Skeeters, an unaffiliated franchise that competes in the Atlantic League.
“We were flattered by the inclusion. We believe our mention was due to the excellent facilities at Constellation Field, our local and involved ownership, the strong relationship between the team and the city of Sugar Land, and our robust community support,” team president Christopher Hill said last week in a letter addressed to fans.
I think he’s right. I’ve attended many games and am impressed by the franchise’s ability to create attractions that extend beyond baseball to bring in those who might not even be baseball fans. There has certainly been no shortage of interest in the Skeeters in Fort Bend County and Greater Houston for that matter. Upon first taking the field in 2012, the team led the Atlantic League in both total and average game attendance in each of its first three seasons and hasn’t fallen below third place in either category since then.
““That’s what minor league baseball is all about – having fun, doing the quirky stuff, and fans are loving it. It’s all about listening to your fans,” Skeeters community engagement director Kyle Dawson said in an August interview with The Star.
So, Sugar Land and the Skeeters appear to be a good fit for MiLB. But would MiLB be a good fit for Sugar Land? Hill and the Skeeters have declined to publically comment on the matter with negotiations still in flux, but I think the possibility of affiliation is one fans, residents and the organization should be excited about. It would do wonders for the franchise.
Sugar Land – and Constellation Field – are already jewels of Fort Bend County and the Houston region. The Skeeters are a known commodity in independent ball, having been to the Atlantic League Championship Series each of the last three seasons, while Constellation Field has been a coveted spots for numerous events and gatherings such as concerts and fundraisers. But, much like any independently-owned business – which is essentially what the Skeeters are – there are often partnerships needed to grow and expand your reach.
Becoming an affiliated minor league franchise would ease the burden on Skeeters’ ownership, which currently is responsible for hiring and paying the players as well as facility upkeep and additional duties. If they were to become affiliated, whichever franchise they join would take over paying the players, freeing up ownership to spend more on marketing, promotions and more that would put butts in seats – thus aiding the symbiotic relationship the MLB says it wants in a minor league team.
Now, for the players in the organization. In theory, having an MLB franchise attached to the Skeeters automatically provides a much-improved pipeline to the big leagues compared to players in independent leagues. The Skeeters already provide a better path to the big leagues than many other independent franchises – they are consistently among Atlantic League leaders in contracts purchased by MLB franchises and had 15 this season – it would no doubt give even more legitimacy to their sterling track record that includes helping former MLB pitcher Scott Kazmir (2012) and former Astros outfielder Jason Lane (2012-13) return to the big leagues.
Among the contracts purchased this year were those of former Astros starting pitcher Felipe Paulino and former Philadelphia Phillies utility man Cody Asche.
Ultimately, this may wind up just being me screaming into the wind depending on how negotiations between MLB and MiLB pan out in the coming months. But on its surface, affiliated baseball and the Skeeters both provide the other ample benefits if the partnership has the opportunity to materialize.
The sky is the limit for an already successful Skeeters franchise, and an MLB affiliation would help them realize even more untapped potential, making them an even larger player in this region.