Study: Johnson City 39th best baseball city in America, 4th best among small cities

Jonathan Roberts • Oct 27, 2019 at 9:30 AM

Johnson City is a baseball town.

A new report from WalletHub confirms it, suggesting it’s actually one of the best in the nation — 39th best, to be exact.

“Johnson City's ranking did come as a surprise,” said WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez, attributing the ranking to the affordability of Johnson City Cardinals tickets and the Cardinals’ championship pedigree — 10 total, with five since 2010 and the 2019 title.

The study compared 361 American cities, with 31 different categories for Major League and Minor League Baseball, as well as NCAA baseball.

The study found Johnson City was the fourth-best small city (out of 206) and 39th overall — topping metropolises like Tampa, Florida (74), New Orleans, Louisiana (77), Memphis (80) and Dallas (211). MLB categories carried the most weight with 70 total points available, followed by NCAA baseball’s 20 total points and 10 for Minor League teams.

“It’s surprising (to be ranked so high) because there’s so much baseball across the country,” said Johnson City Cardinals General Manager Zac Clark. “It was a thrill and I couldn’t believe (we were ranked so high), but we weren’t all that surprised because this is what we want to accomplish. I didn’t really expect anything like this, but at the same time this what we’ve been trying to accomplish, so that was pretty cool.”

The results are doubly important today than they would’ve been last month, however, as Johnson City and 41 other minor league cities face the possibility of losing their teams.

First reported by Baseball America, Major League Baseball is proposing a drastic change to the MiLB, which would “completely eliminate the four, non-complex Rookie-level and short-season classifications from the minor leagues” taking the total number of minor league teams from 160 to 120.

There would still be Triple-A, Double-A, high Class A and low Class A, but there would be a complete rework of classifications and leagues aiming to make leagues more compact geographically. The proposal’s main goal is to improve facility standards across the minor league ballparks.

“Hopefully things get worked out, and the drastic measures the (MLB) are talking about won’t be necessary,” MiLB’s Senior Communications Director, Jeff Lantz, said. “It’s good that we have plenty of time to get working on this stuff to negotiate a deal where we can save as many of the 160 as we can — in our eyes, they’re all equally important.”
Fortunately for the city, TVA Credit Union Ballpark is already one of the rookie leagues’ best stadiums, awarded best rookie-league ballpark in 2017 and 2018. Unfortunately, there’s nothing Johnson City can do about geography.
Although there isn’t any rumored distance limit, the Cardinals are 590 miles from their parent club in St. Louis. There are five other MLB cities within 500 miles, but the closest, Atlanta and Cincinnati, are still more than 200 miles away. Three other cities (Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Baltimore) are between 300 and 500 miles, with three more cities (Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia) between 500 and 590 miles away.
There’s also the possibility a higher-level MiLB team could come to town, though it seems unlikely based on the proposal’s cost estimate.

Under the proposal, Triple-A teams are valued at $20 million, with Double-A, high Class A and low Class A priced at $15, $10 and $8 million, respectively. Rookie-level teams are valued at $6 million.

Any team hoping to move up would have to pay the difference in value for their franchise versus the level they’re trying to get, and any team asked to move down would receive the difference. So, for example, if Boyd Sports LLC, which owns the Johnson City Cardinals, wanted to move the team to high-A, they’d have to pay about $4 million.

Boyd Sports Vice President Jeremy Boler said that seeing Johnson City and Elizabethton (the 86th best small town) ranked where they were was “great for all of our local communities,” but declined to comment on the MLB proposal. 

“As for as the MLB negotiations go I do not have any comment other than we are proceeding as business as usual,” Boler said in an email to the Press. “It’s a long road between now and when the negotiations are over, and we have the best in the business representing us and we have full confidence in (Minor League Baseball President and CEO) Pat O’Conner.”

Lantz said he has not yet seen all of the proposed switches of clubs and leagues, but noted that because the talks are still preliminary, things can, and likely will, still change. Both sides are expected to return to negotiations in November, and a deal must be completed by the beginning of the 2021 season.

Regardless, Lantz said studies like this show just how much community support there is for MiLB teams, pointing to the Cardinals’ four straight years of record attendance as proof of that, adding that having minor league teams in small communities “is good for the future of baseball.”

“Whether the town is big or small, everyone is just as viable because everybody is contributing to the future of baseball,” Lantz said.

Though Clark declined to comment on the proposal as well, he’s confident baseball — no matter the level — will continue to succeed in Johnson City. 

“We just know that if we keep doing and give this community something it can support and be proud of, then baseball will work here for a really long time,” Clark said, promising that the 2020 season will be bigger and better than 2019. “This community is not going to back down from a fight and neither are our guys.

“That constant support — knowing the community has our back and we’ve got theirs — that’s what makes our job fun,” he added.