DBAP to get an upgrade in off-season
Posted September 5, 2013
Updated September 6, 2013
With a restructured lease between the Durham Bulls and the City of Durham completed, all that stands in the way of a Durham Bulls Athletic Park facelift is the success of the product. Once the Bulls wrap up play in the 2013 Governor’s Cup playoffs – their sixth trip to the postseason in the last seven years – ground will be broken on more than $9 million worth of repairs, upgrades and renovations to the 18-year-old stadium.
Eighteen years ago, the Bulls were a thriving Single-A affiliate in a city on the precipice of a cultural resurgence, and naturally, the DBAP reflected that. Since then, the team has been promoted to Triple-A, the city has flourished in the areas around the ballpark and cultural ideals have demanded more than just baseball when attending a baseball game. Soon, the DBAP will reflect that growth as well.
“When this place was built, it was built for a Class-A Atlanta Braves team. Now all of a sudden you have Triple-A and you have 10,000 people, the infrastructure from a concessions standpoint can’t keep up,” said Mike Birling, general manager for the Bulls. “I think the great thing is, because of what has happened to downtown Durham, we have a great partnership with the city. It was always, ‘how can we help each other?’”
The solution came in the form of a lease restructuring three years in the making that will take the financial burden of day-to-day baseball operations away from the City of Durham.
In May, the city and the Bulls agreed on a lease that will keep the baseball team in the DBAP through the 2033 season and have the team assume all operating costs. In exchange, Durham will remain on the hook for $12 million in deferred and owed money and will collect a 3-percent share of any gross revenues that exceed $10.75 million annually for team-played home games and 1.25 percent for special events. The new deal is expected to save the City of Durham roughly $10 million over the life of the contract while estimates show that the Bulls generate approximately $7 million for the city annually.
“We started talking about, if we are going to keep spending all this money on things the fans aren’t going to see, we are going on our 18th season at the ballpark, let’s see if we can work out a situation where we can work out a longer lease,” Birling said. “The city didn’t want to be in the business of maintaining a ballpark. We said, ‘OK, we will take that all over but let’s focus on trying to find a way that this stadium can be built up for the next 18 to 20 years to where people come in here and still say this is a new ballpark.’”
The renovation plans for this offseason are targeted to cost $9 million - $6 million to be paid by the city and $3 million by the Bulls. Any costs that exceed the budgeted $9 million will be covered by the baseball team. The Bulls are currently owned by the parent company of WRAL, Capitol Broadcasting Company.
Among the listed items on the renovation plans: an expanded club level gathering room with monitors, seating and a kitchen; added concessions on concourses; added picnic-style seating areas; improved field lighting and an added ticket gate along the left field line. The stated goals are to make the ballpark a viable place to host events in the offseason and have fans be able to enjoy the ballpark’s amenities while missing as little game action as possible.
“One of the big parts of minor league baseball is turning their ballparks into 365-days-a-year venues. You need the space where you can hold anything from fantasy football drafts to Christmas parties,” Birling said. “We also want this to be a food experience. That’s what we are doing with these is adding concessions where you can still see the field.”
The Bulls fell just short of drawing 500,000 fans during the 2013 regular season, totaling 498,735 for 70 home games. That breaks down to an average of 7,125 per game for a stadium that seats 10,000. And while DBAP is the smallest stadium capacity-wise in the International League, it continues to out-draw nearly all of them. Unfortunately, this leaves the current concessions over-populated on a routine basis.
“That’s where almost all our complaints come from – our lines at the concessions. ‘You can’t see the game, I missed two innings,’” Birling said. “The biggest key is to try and fix that so the fans, when they think of our game experience, they love the on-field stuff, they love the facility, and now, the food lives up to those standards.”
New stadium, new field
Separate from the offseason structural renovation projects at DBAP will be a long overdue field restructuring. New sod, drainage, underground plumbing and even new scoreboards will be part of a separately budgeted project funded by the franchise that will coincide time-wise with the structural facelift.
“Normally, a Major League team will replace the sod every few years. Minor League teams usually do it every 8 to 10 years,” Birling said. “We are going all the way down - all the irrigation, all the pipes. This is 18 years old, we have plastic pipes that have broken. We have to go in and take everything out and start over.”
The project will include doubling the size of the scoreboard on the Blue Monster in left field and making it completely LED. The rotating advertisement fixtures along the right field wall will also be converted to LED, making for easier customizations that will better cater to non-baseball events.
In case you missed the announcement, the Durham Bulls and Durham Bulls Athletic Park will host the 2014 Triple-A All-Star Game. The nationally televised event is a five-day festival of showcases, galas, the home run derby and more all leading up to the game itself. So naturally, the Bulls don’t want to be caught at the prom in a thrift-store suit.
For that reason, everything is scheduled to be completed by April 3 – opening day for the 2014 season.
If we didn’t have the All-Star Game, we would have probably done this in phases. But with the All-Star Game, and really wanting to show off how incredible Durham and the Triangle is, we wanted to get this all done,” Birling said. “We know it’s a daunting task, we will probably have crews working seven days a week from the onset. This is our one chance to show off to the national audience and we are going to do everything we can to get it done.”
The process will be a timing puzzle of sorts for the crews. First, the field sub-surface must go down to support the cranes and heavy machinery that will be operated to construct the light towers, scoreboard and perform the structural renovations. The replacement infield and sod will then be the icing on the cake.
“Everybody just has to have their parts done at the right time,” Birling said. “For the most part, I think we have a good schedule so that by January and March we will be fine.”
The team is expected to take financial hits from rescheduled events such as the annual beer festival and numerous races, but said that they have planned for that. A second loss will come from the closing of the team store in front of the stadium. Birling said that most merchandising revenue for this offseason will come in the form of Internet sales.
Of course none of the construction can begin until the Bulls are done with their season. They have an early lead on Indianapolis in their first-round series of the playoffs as the best-of-five gets ready to shift to Indiana. Should they prevail, they would be guaranteed to be playing at home next week as well.