What’s in a name? Plenty, says Daytona Tortugas Co-Owner Rick French, where the team’s home stadium of Jackie Robinson Ballpark is concerned.
That’s what led the Reds’ High-A affiliate to create a groundbreaking partnership with the Chinese Softball Association which will see the Beijing Shougang Eagles of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) women’s softball league play their entire 2019 home slate at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, which overlaps with part of the current minor league baseball season. The occasional double-header aside, the Eagles’ home games will coincide with Tortugas road games. According to team president Ryan Keur, the deal is the first of its kind between a MiLB and NPF team.
For French, the agreement was no-brainer. The ballpark is where Robinson played the first racially integrated game in professional baseball history, and French believes that, as the stadium’s primary tenant, the Tortugas have an obligation to uphold Robinson’s legacy as a boundary-breaker. In this case, that means providing stability for the Eagles, who did not have a full-time home after spending 2017 playing at multiple parks in Ohio before bouncing around Florida last year.
“We bear the name of somebody who transcends gender and race and spoke to diversity,” French says. “The idea of stabilizing women’s professional sports and potentially giving one of these squads a home at a ballpark where he broke the color barrier was something that spoke to me personally.”
The impetus for the deal came from a series of upgrades to “The Jack,” as Keur calls it, most notably the installation of an artificial playing surface. That opened the doorway to attracting new opportunities, and Keur says that the organization was anticipating a more packed schedule in 2019.
Integrating another professional sports team, though, exceeded the bounds of his imagination. Both Keur and French readily admit the agreement comes with challenges. As part of the deal, the Tortugas will handle all marketing, ticket sales and game-day production for the Eagles’ 25 home games as well as handle additional field maintenance.
“We recognize that within the ownership that it’s asking a lot of our staff,” French says, and Keur notes the team has already brought on additional part-time staff to help shoulder the load before the NPF begins in mid-May.
Ultimately, though, Keur says the organization is viewing this season through the lens of opportunity – not only for what it provides the Eagles but also through what the Tortugas’ staff can demonstrate with a fresh canvas to work with.
“I think this is a great way to showcase what we can do now at the Ballpark,” he says. “It gives us 25 new openings here at the Ballpark to entertain and engage our fans.”
Then there’s the revenue piece. Keur estimates the deal is worth $10 million in economic impact, with a healthy chunk coming from 5,000 sold hotel rooms over the course of the NPF’s three-month season. That number could climb in a big way, too. The Eagles essentially double as the Chinese national softball team and are in the process of attempting to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. If they succeed, they’ll return to Daytona Beach to train for the game for another three months as well as hold exhibition games. The Tortugas are optimistic that the team and city’s relationship with Chinese Softball Association can blossom further from there.
To French, though, the bigger-picture impacts transcend pure economics. He believes that too many women “have had to play in facilities that are not up to the standards of professional baseball.” The solution is much bigger than anything the Tortugas can conjure up on their own. But he is confident that the agreement is a step in the right direction – and, hopefully, a call to arms.
“We hope that it sends a message to other minor league clubs… that they should be getting behind as well as providing women’s sports and these players the same kind of opportunities that we provide,” he says. “What makes us proud is the ability to take a team of female professional athletes who have dreams like every other athlete and give them a great facility and a great infrastructure in which we can support those dreams.”