It was announced earlier this week that the Mets will be purchasing the Syracuse Chiefs and moving their Triple-A team out of Vegas after the 2018 season. In buying the Chiefs, the Mets are creating some exciting new opportunities but also taking on some notable problems as they enter a new era.
The Syracuse Chiefs have a long history in the state of New York—longer, in fact, than the Mets. The Chiefs were founded in 1934 after the Jersey City Skeeters, a team that predated the founding of Major League Baseball, fled to Syracuse at the height of the great depression. Renamed the Chiefs, they’ve been in Syracuse ever since.
This is actually the second time that the Chiefs will serve as the Mets’ Triple-A team, as they were affiliated with the club in 1962 when the Mets were first founded and still building their farm system. Over the years the Chiefs have also been affiliated with the Red Sox, Reds, Pirates, Phillies, Tigers, Twins/Senators, Yankees, Blue Jays, and most recently the Nationals. Some of the most famous players to come up through the Chiefs include Stephen Strasburg, Thurman Munson, Fred McGriff, and even former Met Carlos Delgado. It’s also notable as the team where Bobby Cox cut his teeth as a manager before taking over the Braves in 1978.
The team briefly changed their name to the SkyChiefs from 1997-2006 after some controversy arose over the team’s name origin and past use of Indian Chiefs as a logo. The name was changed back after the 2006 season and hasn’t proven a problem since, though most Native American imagery has been replaced by railroad logos. When Syracuse.com ran a poll about whether the Chiefs should permanently change their name this year, fans were fairly evenly split, with 44% saying yes and 52% saying no.
The team has not been very good for a long time. The Chiefs have made the playoffs only once since 1995, finishing 10th or worse in the league on several occasions. The losing certainly hasn’t helped the franchise draw in fans in recent years.
Syracuse plays their home games at NBT Bank Stadium, which was built in 1997. Though that doesn’t sound like long ago, it’s actually one of the older stadiums in Triple-A baseball, and it’s consistently ranked near the bottom in many fan polls and minor league stadium ranking lists. The only silver lining for the Mets is that Cashman Field, home of the Las Vegas 51s, is usually the bottom.
Perhaps connected to their aging stadium’s lack of appeal, the Chiefs have struggled to draw fans since 2010, when they were given a bump by Stephen Strasburg. This past season, they drew the second lowest number of fans in the International League, averaging just 4,636 per night. Not surprisingly, the team has struggled financially and lost nearly a million dollars in 2013 before getting closer to the black the past couple of seasons.
The Chiefs are locked into a stadium deal in Syracuse through 2026, so the Mets wouldn’t have the option to move the franchise without paying severe financial penalties before that date. That presents a problem for the Mets, as the team’s location in Syracuse is both a boon and a bane to the franchise. While it means the Mets’ team is now far closer to New York City, it’s unclear if Syracuse has the type of market to sustain a modern day Triple-A team.
Syracuse is among the smaller cities to have a Triple-A club, and it is shrinking. Syracuse hit a population high of 220,000+ in the 1950 census and has shrunk in every census since. Today, its estimated population is just 143,378. When you consider the fact that other Triple-A teams are located in far larger cities like Las Vegas, Columbus, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, and Nashville, all of which host franchises in other major sports leagues like the NBA and NHL, you begin to see why Syracuse could present a problem for the Mets: it simply has a smaller fan base from which to draw.
That is not to say the problem is insurmountable, though. The Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs play in Allentown, an equally small market, and managed to draw 8,541 fans a night last season. The Iron Pigs, however, play in Coca Cola Park, one of the more lauded stadiums in the minors. If the Mets hope to emulate their success in the long term, and not through a short term gimmick like Tim Tebow, it’s likely they will need to invest serious money in refurbishing NBT Bank Stadium. The Iron Pigs have shown that if you deliver a superior fan experience, you can overcome even the smallest of markets.
One cannot understate the benefits of the Mets moving their Triple-A team out of Las Vegas. The travel time difference alone will be a huge boost to the team going forward. That’s not to mention the benefit of the team having its players in a park that doesn’t experience such extreme heat that it’s hard to judge whether a player’s batting line is for real or just a desert mirage.
What the future holds is unclear at the moment. What is clear is that the Mets will have a number of decisions to make, assuming Chiefs shareholders approve the sale, as expected. How much money will they sink into the team? Will it affect the major league budget? And will Syracuse come out to support a New York team?