Baseball's shift from city to suburbs

Setting the financial details aside, the proposal to move the Las Vegas 51s from their dilapidated downtown digs to a sparkling new stadium in Summerlin is just about perfect.

Perfect in the sense that the plan symbolizes the demise of baseball as a game that binds all Americans. Perfect in the sense that youth baseball, long one of baseball’s most important customers, is thriving in the suburbs but disappearing from the urban landscape, where summer stickball and wiffle ball games were played to radio broadcasts of day games from professional ballparks.

Should the incoming 51s ownership succeed in getting their $65 million stadium-village complex built next to Red Rock Resort, off Charleston Boulevard and the Las Vegas Beltway, I think the team would draw fewer fans from other parts of town, but attract more fans overall — and not just because the new ballpark is nicer than Cashman Field.

More than ever, baseball is an upper-middle-class and upper-class sport.

There are a number of reasons for this, foremost the gradual shift in our parenting culture, which now forbids kids from playing outside unsupervised. The neighborhood baseball game, which taught me and so many millions of others how to play, is all but dead as a result.

That has put Little League enrollment on a steep decline. Fewer leagues are financially viable. With fewer kids playing, there’s less money for field fees and equipment. Increasing numbers of families can’t afford the sport.

For families who can afford it, there’s more value in the growing number of club teams. These fulfill two obligations. First, the regular, year-round practice schedule gives their kids a structured, supervised activity. Second, their kids become much better at the sport than if they’re coached by an unpaid dad (such as yours truly) for the mere three to four months of a Little League season.

If you don’t play — or you quit playing at a young age — you’re less likely to become a fan. And if you don’t become a fan, you don’t pester your parents to take you to watch a minor-league baseball game.

If the 51s move happens, I think the families who populate the entire western valley, from Mountain’s Edge to Centennial Hills, will go to a lot more AAA baseball games than they do today. And I think people who live near downtown, in the eastern valley and in Henderson (despite its youth baseball prowess) will go to a lot less games. As one of my colleagues observed, can you imagine driving west, for a half-hour or more, at the end of evening rush hour, with the setting sun shining in your face, to catch a summer night game?

No doubt the group buying the 51s, led by former pawnshop owner Steve Mack and the Howard Hughes Corp., developer of the master-planned Summerlin community, has run the numbers and the seen the demographics. Within a month, Summerlin Baseball LLC will close on its $20 million purchase of the 51s from Stevens Baseball Group, a Detroit family trust that includes Derek Stevens, owner of downtown’s The D hotel-casino.

As reported last week by the Review-Journal’s Alan Snel, Howard Hughes Corp. plans to donate 16 to 20 acres, valued by the company at about $40 million, for a stadium with 8,000 to 9,000 seats. The group wants local governments to pay for the stadium.

That’s going to be a difficult sell. Cashman Center, which has a theater and almost 100,000 square feet of meeting and convention space in addition to the ballpark, is 30 years old and unworthy of renovations. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority operates the site, which falls within Las Vegas city limits. But the site for the new ballpark is in unincorporated Clark County, just south of the city line.

The visitors authority could save a few million dollars in operating costs if the site were razed, and the city would benefit if a private developer bought the land and redeveloped it. The entity with the most incentive to contribute money is Clark County, which stands to gain a good chunk of sales and property tax revenue if the stadium, its surrounding village and the planned Shops at Summerlin outdoor shopping mall is completed nearby. That would create the impetus for Howard Hughes to complete the western city center the company has long envisioned for the space bordered by the beltway, Charleston, Sahara Avenue and Town Center Drive.

The problem for the 51s, here, is that local governments are broke. Both the city and the county have perennial budget deficits; they want a sales tax increase to meet the funding demands of the Metropolitan Police Department and avoid cuts elsewhere. And Nevada already has one cautionary tale in public financing for a Pacific Coast League stadium: the unmitigated mess surrounding Aces Ballpark in downtown Reno. That deal makes Christopher Milam’s recent Henderson stadium scam look pretty good by comparison.

I can’t imagine the various boosters of downtown Las Vegas would be pleased to see the 51s bolt for Summerlin. Their goal remains attracting more people downtown, not less. But downtown seems more interested in nightclubs, coffee shops, high culture and high-tech startups. Families and baseball? Not so much.

That’s for the suburbs. That’s where the future of baseball is.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall,” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.