As the calendar turned to 2020, there was fervent anticipation for the 23rd season of professional baseball in Jackson. In a year celebrating the tenth anniversary since the renaming of the franchise, the Jackson Generals had sights set on winning a third straight Southern League title and their fourth in the last five seasons.
Along with the history at stake on the field, Jackson was set to host the 2020 Southern League All-Star Game for the first time since 2011, and present fans with a packed promotional schedule featuring 12 Saturday night ballgames during the regular season.
While the prospect of such a season is now altered, many hope that baseball’s eventual return can help unite a community that is attempting to recover from a global event beyond anyone’s control.
Yet in recent weeks, the local newspaper that no longer receives advertising dollars from the team has targeted the Generals and its ownership group with what are widely perceived to be false and distorted claims surrounding the team’s contractual relationship with the City of Jackson.
“Their core premise is that the City is financially supporting its professional baseball team and the City’s decision 22 years ago to build a very nice professional baseball ballpark. That premise is accurate. Otherwise it’s extortion journalism,” said Jackson Generals Co-Owner David Freeman. “The City is spending six figures annually to support its stadium and professional baseball. The funding mechanism and the disclosure process that the City used to accomplish those objectives are fair topics if discussed in a balanced and truthful forum.”
The City’s support of baseball has certainly evolved since the opening of the park in April of 1998. Following ten combined seasons of professional baseball under Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners affiliations, Freeman and Reese Smith purchased the club in 2008 to prevent a pending relocation of the franchise to South Carolina. In hindsight, the team was not nearly as successful as represented and the attendance figures were inflated.
“It was bleeding mid-six figures annually for the first three years,” Freeman acknowledged. “I spoke with Mayor Gist and asked if the City would consider covering some marketing and stadium-related expenses in exchange for a long-term commitment from the team. We provided the City with our audited financial statements. The Mayor made us an offer. It was dollars and a TIF. He also asked us to change our name to “Jackson” to promote the City. From his perspective, the City needed a tenant for its ballpark, which is probably a $40-50 million asset in today’s market. It’s a beautiful park. The Mayor also commissioned an economic impact study and was advised that the team generated a $6,000,000 (in 2011 dollars) economic impact within the City annually. We accepted his offer. From our perspective, we didn’t want to be anywhere but in the State of Tennessee. The Mayor’s offer got us to almost break-even cash flow.”
So on the simplest of wavelengths, the City is spending public dollars on it’s own asset (the stadium) as well as its private sector tenant (the Generals) in order to keep fan-affordable professional sports entertainment in town. Similarly, Memphis and Nashville support NBA, NFL and NHL stadiums and franchises. Ever purchased a six-dollar ticket and two-dollar hot dog at a Major League Baseball game? Well you can in Jackson thanks to the current arrangement with the City.
“We spend roughly $2,500,000 annually to put on events in the City’s ballpark. About three-quarters of that money is spent locally. The City subsidizes about 20% of that total expense in exchange for a $6,000,000 annual economic impact, quality of life considerations, and the branding of the “Jackson” Generals,” Freeman explained. The team also spends six-figures a year to maintain and improve the City’s asset. I’ll repeat those figures, we spend six-figures annually to maintain and improve the City’s asset, we spend seven-figures annually in the local economy, and we generate in excess of a $6 million economic impact locally. And, yes, we get six-figures of direct financial support from the City. Minor League Baseball is family friendly, affordable entertainment and it’s a quality of life opportunity that is unique for a city of 70,000 residents.”
On top of the millions of dollars the Generals inject annually back into the city, there is also the matter of the TIF fund, as mentioned by Freeman, which was created in 2011 in conjunction with the Generals 10-year lease agreement.
“In 2008, when we bought the team, local developer Gary Taylor (the father of city councilman Paul Taylor) asked me if we planned to leave. I told him “no.” He challenged me hard because, he said, if I was telling him the truth, he was going to invest millions in developing the area around the Ballpark. I gave him my word. I’ve kept my word. So has he,” Freeman outlined.
“In 2011, the mayor and I discussed a TIF surrounding the Ballpark and committed to use the TIF funding to build a hotel and conference center at the stadium. The City liked the concept, because they knew that the TIF was worthless without the presence and long-term commitment of the team. Today, that TIF is worth about $400,000 annually. Think about that. Because of the team and its commitment to maintaining a vibrant stadium, and because of Gary Taylor’s development, the real estate taxes surrounding the stadium have increased by $400,000 annually over the past nine years. That’s economic impact.”
Since the creation of the TIF in 2011, construction of the hotel and convention center has been awaiting approval from the Jackson Industrial Development Board. Recently, Freeman proposed allowing the City to repurpose that money.
“I think that discussion has morphed into two distinct issues. We’ve offered to give the TIF back to the City. We’re waiting on the City to respond but, in fairness, Mayor Conger has greater priorities on his plate at the moment,” Freeman said. “Mayor Conger is a smart guy and he is surrounded by smart people. As for the hotel and conference center, I’m thankful that we don’t own a hotel in today’s environment. That window has closed for a while and we will reassess in the future, perhaps without the TIF funding.”
The question of what that future looks like is arguably the most pressing amongst long-time season ticket holders, and dedicated fans, who phone the Generals front office daily for updates. With the threat of a lost season due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the looming specter of a MLB contraction in 2021, what are the chances of baseball returning to The Hub City beyond this year?
“Reese and I have over $15-20 million of hard cash invested in the City of Jackson. That fact seems to get lost sometimes. We will be forced to make an additional high-six-figure investment due to the Coronavirus and the loss of the 2020 season,” Freeman pointed out. “We’ve never expected or required a profit on that investment. Over the years, we have been approached to relocate the team to Pensacola, Mobile, Huntsville, New Orleans, Macon, Biloxi, and Baton Rouge. We have said “no” every time. We’ve passed despite more financially lucrative opportunities. We want to be in Tennessee.”
“Regarding the MLB contraction plan, it is something that is out of our control. We are a member of the Southern League and are using that platform to lobby hard, but it’s going to be a difficult road. The Mayor has encouraged us to fight for survival and we appreciate those words of encouragement.”
News broke on Monday that Major League Baseball owners have approved a proposed structure to the 2020 season, which will be presented to the players’ union this week. Regardless, there seems to be unanimity among all baseball executives and owners that minor league baseball will not be played in 2020. Without the massive national and regional television revenues at stake in Major League Baseball markets, minor league baseball is not economically feasible without fans.
With the majority of sporting events and large public gatherings still on hold at the recommendation of the CDC, the Generals have also received many questions about the status of the Snoop Dogg concert, which is still scheduled for Monday, July 20th. Snoop Dogg follows in line with a number of high-profile musical acts to visit the Ballpark over the last two years which including, Jake Owen, Nelly, Willie Nelson, and Alison Krauss.
“Our staff deserves the credit. They are working hard to host as many events as possible,” Freeman said. “Sometimes it’s big-name concerts. Sometimes it’s hosting church services and school graduations. Our guidance to staff has been to continue booking events beyond baseball at the Ballpark because they create additional economic impact at local restaurants and hotels. We treat the Ballpark and the Team as community assets.”
The Generals’ front office is committed to continuing it’s showcasing of the Ballpark as the premier entertainment destination in town, and hopes to serve as a community unifier in the coming weeks and months.
“Here’s a final thought,” Freeman concluded. “Some harp that we have the second lowest attendance in the Southern League. But here’s a different perspective: the Jackson Generals have the highest average attendance in the Southern League based on per capita population. In other words, as a percentage of its population base, more West Tennesseans support their professional baseball team than any other club in the Southern League. We appreciate that and hope to keep building our community during a difficult time and transition.”