Now, 14 years later, the Sugar Land Skeeters will welcome fans back to Constellation Field in late May for the team’s 10th overall season and its first as the Houston Astros’ Triple-A affiliate.
“It really just shows you the benefit of being bold and strategic and seeing a vision and investing in it to make it happen,” said Jennifer May, Sugar Land assistant city manager. “And so not only have we had 10 years of incredible baseball, but to cross that finish line to Triple-A is an incredible, incredible opportunity.”
The Skeeters-Astros relationship is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Sugar Land City Council approved a lease extension with the Astros that will keep the Skeeters at Constellation Field through the 2045 season.
This presence will better the fan experience at games, drive tourism and the local economy, and bring new development to the area surrounding Constellation Field, officials said.
“Having a Triple-A franchise is a big deal in a community, and having never had one here, people may not understand what that really means,” said Christopher Hill, former Sugar Land Skeeters president. “It means Sugar Land has a national footprint in the sports world and is now a significant portion of the baseball industry.”
Swinging for the fences
From 2012-19 the Sugar Land Skeeters played in the Atlantic League, an independent baseball league unaffiliated with Major League Baseball. Then, during the 2020 season, the Atlantic League was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Skeeters formed its own four-team league called the Constellation Energy League.
Although the Astros’ plans to acquire the Skeeters were announced in November, the agreement was finalized April 20. The Astros now have majority ownership of the team, and the Zlotnik family—which has owned the Skeeters since 2014—maintain minority ownership, according to a release from the team.
While Constellation Field had long been desired to be home to a MiLB team, Hill said several things had to fall into place this year for the Skeeters to become the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate.
“There were always lots of reasons why the relationship couldn’t happen,” Hill said in a February interview. “Then, the planets all aligned, and it makes perfect sense for the Astros; it’s fantastic for us, and it’s great for the city of Sugar Land.”
One reason the Skeeters were attractive to the Astros organization is proximity, Hill said. The Astros’ Minute Maid Park—located in downtown Houston—is 23 miles away, or about 40 minutes, from Constellation Field. Hill, who became the organization’s president in 2019, is no longer with the Sugar Land Skeeters as of April 23.
The city of Sugar Land constructed Constellation Field in 2012 using funds set aside for economic development. Now, the city maintains ownership of the building, while the Astros have majority ownership of the team.
In 2012, the stadium was built up to MiLB standards, and it was always intended to host a MiLB team, said Elizabeth Huff, director of economic development for the city of Sugar Land. The stadium cost $36 million—$30 million from Sugar Land economic development funds and $6 million in private equity.
Constellation Field was one of five venues identified by a 2007 citizen-led Visioning Task Force. The task force set out to describe entertainment destinations Sugar Land should create to drive tourism and increase sales tax revenue, Huff said.
Of the other sites identified, the Smart Financial Centre and Crown Festival Park have been built and are operational. However, a hotel and conference center and a cultural arts center on the land in front of the Smart Financial Centre have yet to be constructed.
“At the end of the day, economic development is about bringing other people to your community to spend their dollars so that you don’t have to spend yours,” Huff said. “Whenever we can bring these types of amenities to the community, it’s going to bring sales tax as well ... so that we can offset the burden on our citizens.”
Huff said when people come into the city for a baseball game, the money they spend on concessions and merchandise at the stadium, along with staying in the city’s hotels and dining at restaurants, all generates sales tax revenue for the city. Now that the Skeeters are a part of the Astros organization, Hill said baseball enthusiasts will travel to watch them play.
According to city documents, the direct and indirect community economic benefit of an independent baseball team is $7.7 million annually. This is expected to increase with the Skeeters’ Triple-A status.
Triple-A teams often host major league players who •are undergoing rehabilitation after an injury, so the Skeeters’ affiliation with the Astros may give fans an opportunity to see big-name players such as Astros’ stars Jos•é• Altuve, Carlos Correa or Alex Bregman.
Skeeters General Manager Tyler Stamm said although there will be additional costs, they expect to see an eventual increase in revenue per game.
“Overall, we do expect to see a boost [in revenues], and just in general, there will be more interest in our team,” Stamm said. “The fact that we might have a José Altuve, God forbid, if he gets hurt—we don’t want that, but injuries happen—he could end up here, and then we’re packed on a Tuesday, and that would never happen in the Atlantic League.”
Additionally, the buzz surrounding the Astros moving into the area has generated renewed interest in some of the land surrounding the stadium, which would grow the city’s property tax base. Huff said one thing missing from the area is places for fans to eat and spend time before and after games.
Jerry Ulke, the vice president and general manager for Imperial by Johnson Development Corp., which owns much of the land bordering the ballpark, said he has already seen an uptick in prospective buyers looking to build additional entertainment businesses, such as restaurants and retail, near the stadium.
“We’re looking at increased excitement from both homeowners and potential businesses,” Ulke said. “We’re looking at other uses [for the land] that would enhance the Astros coming out and to make more of a destination area along the Hwy. 6 frontage down towards the ball field.”
Ulke said Imperial residents, many of whom live within walking distance of Constellation Field, are looking forward to enjoying games and community events at the stadium as well as firework shows from their front porches. And, although some residents have expressed concerns about increased traffic in the area, Ulke said there are plenty of access roads to the stadium to prevent major backups.
Imperial resident Jack Molho said the Skeeters have been good neighbors. He, too, expressed hope the Astros’ presence in Sugar Land spurs development in what he called an iconic area of Sugar Land.
“Hopefully, this interest will expand through the entire city and help pivot the economy as we continue to get through the pandemic,” Molho said in an email.
Take me out to the ball game
Ahead of the Skeeters’ home opener May 20, millions of dollars of renovations are underway at Constellation Field.
While Stamm said the Astros organization is financing the renovations up front, the city of Sugar Land has committed $10 million to renovate the stadium over a three-year period with the Astros planning to invest several million more in the coming years.
Improvements ahead of the 2021 season focused primarily on the player experience and bringing the stadium up to MiLB standards, Stamm said. The playing surface was replaced; new bullpens were added; and the dugouts were reconstructed. Additionally, several amenities, including a full-service kitchen, air-conditioned batting cages, clubhouses and a weight room were added or upgraded.
In the years to come, Stamm said renovations will focus on the fan experience and could include upgrades to the playground, picnic area and suites.
“Triple-A in the minor league business is really focused around the fans and affordability and good products,” Astros owner Jim Crane said during the city of Sugar Land State of the City address in March. “There’s a lot of fun things to do there at the ballpark already; we’ll just continue to enhance that.”
Craig Eichhorn, a Skeeters supporter since the team’s inception, said he has experienced the family-friendly atmosphere firsthand. Eichhorn and his wife buy ticket packages each year and regularly enjoy games with their children and grandchildren.
“You get to know the players more,” Eichhorn said. “And you just feel like you’re part of the team.”
While the Skeeters plan to have fans in the stands throughout the entire season from May through September, Hill said some interactions with players may be limited this season due to the pandemic.
Hill said despite challenges, the team will follow guidance from MiLB as well as other health care professionals. While Constellation Field seats approximately 7,600 fans when sold out, the stadium is planning to open with slightly more than 50% capacity, Skeeters officials said.
“The hope is as more people are having vaccines that by the time we get to the end of the summer, we have a more relaxed posture on the social distancing, but we’ll see,” Hill said. “We will adhere to the rules; we adhere to the science; and we will do what’s allowed and what is as safe as possible.”
While individual ticket prices were not announced as of press time, Stamm said the cost of admission will be determined by seat location. This is a change from last year, when all general admission seats were similarly priced. This enables fans to choose seats at a cheaper rate than previous years or choose to pay more to sit closer to home plate, Stamm said.
“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Eichhorn said. “You’re getting to see major league or almost major league talent at a minor league price with a family-friendly atmosphere.”