25 March 2022
Durham, N.C. — Major League Baseball is requiring minor league teams to meet higher standards for their facilities, and the result could lead to a heavy price tag for Durham residents to keep the Durham Bulls.
Durham city council members met Thursday to discuss the cost of upgrades to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which the Bulls estimate will cost the city roughly $10.4 million.
MLB wants all upgrades at the DBAP finished by May 2025 or Durham could lose the Bulls. Because roughly 40 MiLB teams have lost their MLB affiliations since 2019, it’s not an idle threat.
“I just want to be clear, the Bulls ain’t going nowhere,” Mayor Pro-Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton said at the meeting. “When people come to those Bulls games, it drives so much other economic activity.”
The Bulls are also offering to pay $1 million toward the required upgrades and another $1 million to additional upgrades. MLB is not offering to pay anything.
“Since it’s a city facility, the majority of the burden falls on the city,” said John Paces-Wiles of Durham’s general services department. “This is happening all over the country as well, so we’re not alone in this.”
The increased standards at MiLB facilities come as a result of MLB gaining more control over its minor league teams.
In February 2021, MLB completed a multi-year process to end its Professional Baseball Agreement with MiLB and re-organize its minor leagues in a 120-team regional alignment. As part of the new agreement, MLB is raising the minimum standards for MiLB ballparks to enhance the players’ experience.
That means the DBAP must have multiple batting cages, women’s locker rooms, larger clubhouses for both teams, office renovations and more storage. Compounding the issue is the DBAP’s age and design. The ballpark was built in 1995 when the team was playing at the Single-A level. The new stricter standards for Triple-A stadiums also add costs.
“It’s not only construction costs. This is also being driven by standards that Major League Baseball has prescribed in order for (Durham) to keep our franchise, which is one of the jewels in our crown,” said Middleton.
Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson wanted more research into the impact of paying for the ballpark renovations versus losing the Bulls. “I right now do not feel like I could make a convincing argument to this community that spending another $10 million on these renovations in order to continue to spend significant amounts of money every year to maintain the ballpark to pay for the debt and the operations, that that’s a good use of public money,” she said.
The Bulls maintain the team is caught in the middle between demands from MLB and the need for more money from the city, but construction costs increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a higher estimated price tag. The original project budget was $5.2M in 2020.
“We look forward to working with city officials to complete the mandatory facility improvements as dictated by MLB that are required of all 120 Minor League baseball stadiums, which include such upgrades as enhanced training facilities, and other player and baseball-centric renovations. We are grateful for the opportunity to be part of this incredible community and look forward to many, many more years of great Bulls baseball in Durham,” Durham Bulls general manager Mike Birling said in a statement.
The Bulls are owned by Capitol Broadcasting Company, parent of WRAL-TV and WRALSportsfan.com.