After years of speculation that the team may relocate, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians — soon to be rebranded as the Cleveland Guardians — announced on August 5, 2021, that it would be joining with the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and the state of Ohio to renovate the city’s Progressive Field baseball stadium in a deal that would cost $435 million as proposed.
City, county, and state officials were supportive of the plan and its assistance in securing the future of the baseball team in Ohio, with Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson noting that the deal “is an investment in Cleveland’s future.”
In July, Governor Mike DeWine had sought state help to guarantee funding that would complete the deal, saying at the time that “I’m going to do everything I can to see that the state puts money in this, and makes a difference, and helps — helps — to make it happen.”
Over the life of the deal, the city would pay $117 million, the county would pay $138 million, the state of Ohio would pay $30 million, and the team itself would pay $150 million to fund the improvements.
According to officials, the plan does not include any new taxes or tax increases, and would be funded entirely by revenue sources that currently already go to the team and stadium. At the time of the announcement, no information had been released about whether the deal includes contracts with construction businesses.
The deal also comes with a 15-year lease extension on the stadium, keeping the team in Cleveland until at least 2036.
“We know the reality of the business, and the reality is that Cleveland is a small market,” Governor DeWine noted during the virtual conference announcing the deal.
“Our goal is to make sure that a world-class city like Cleveland continues to have professional sports, professional baseball. It’s very, very important. So I felt the longer this lease was, frankly, for the fans, the better it would be,” DeWine continued.
The renovation is likely to spend at least $202.5 million on near-future renovations and “ballpark improvements” at the stadium, with the remaining money in the deal intended to be spent throughout the life of the lease extension. Team owner Paul Dolan noted that the improvements were likely to take place in the next five years — “if not sooner.”
Cleveland wants to ‘future-proof’ Progressive Field
In the announcement, Dolan noted that the plan is being put forth with the intention of making “a better experience for the fans” that’s competitive with the offerings available at other Major League Baseball stadiums.
As per the team and government officials, the construction will be focused on making games more enjoyable for the fanbase: reducing any aspects that block vision of the city skyline and field itself, opening connections between the upper and lower decks, providing more open spaces for fans to socialize, and utilizing spaces that are currently not taken advantage of.
Tentatively, construction will focus on overhauls of the upper and lower decks to deal both with the issues of fan movement between decks and in-game visibility. It’s also expected that the areas near the stadium’s Gateway Plaza and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse will be renovated along with the fan area behind the dugout.
The team wants to focus on the upper deck especially, as no substantial renovation has been done to the structure since the park’s 1994 opening. The team wants to prioritize opening up the views, with an official noting that “In a lot of the areas, it could be fully open from the back to front.”
The team also wants construction to put emphasis on building a more inclusive fan experience, while de-emphasizing aspects of the park such as its “white-linen” Terrace Club. Instead, the team wants to focus on maintaining accessibility around the upper and lower decks and providing more opportunities for the general patron. “Nothing that tells us that there’s a need for more premium spaces,” the team official added. “[And] we know today we don’t make it easy to go between levels. We don’t necessarily give fans a good reason to. Fans want that.”
The team also noted that it wants the renovations to stay relevant over the course of the lease, with officials stating that they want the designs chosen for the renovation to be “future-proof.”
Other Major League Baseball teams may see major construction or renovations as cities hope to keep teams
The issue of “renovate or relocate” has been a major one for cities with professional sports teams in recent years, as some smaller-market teams have left for greener pastures in big-market cities — leaving other cities concerned that their teams may do the same if desires for new or renovated stadiums aren’t satiated.
At the time of the deal’s announcement, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish noted how this drove the agreement about Progressive Field. “Despite our size, we are a Major League community and we want to keep it that way,” Budish said. “We had three choices: renovate the stadium, build a new one, or risk losing the team. To their credit, the Indians never threatened to sell or move, but we understand the realities of the business of professional sports, and we couldn’t take the risk of losing the team.”
Not all of these small markets have been successful in keeping their teams recently, either, meaning cities may be more open to paying for significant new construction. Both the former San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams National Football League franchises fled their markets to play in Los Angeles’ new SoFi Stadium — a project with construction issues of its own — in 2017 and 2016, respectively.
Other Major League Baseball franchises are similarly considering the prospect of relocation — or at least using the idea of relocation as leverage for new facilities. The Oakland Athletics have been in negotiations with the city of Oakland on and off in previous years on the idea of building a new stadium — a project which could end up costing $12 billion.