Smokies owner Randy Boyd willing to end baseball lease early to leave Sevier County

Tyler Whetstone
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd has always promised to honor the minor league baseball team's Sevier County stadium lease, even as he began purchasing tracts of property in Knoxville's Old City suitable for a new stadium.

Until now, one could assume honoring the contract meant staying in Kodak until the lease ran out after the 2024 baseball season. Staying put would save Boyd from having to pay a penalty for leaving early under the minor league team's contract.

But Boyd may have other things in mind.

This week, in an exclusive interview with Knox News, Boyd detailed his plans for a $142 million baseball mixed-use complex on his Old City property and mentioned the option of leaving Sevier County early.

Randy Boyd, owner of the Tennessee Smokies, presents possible plans for the team's new baseball stadium in Old City in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Boyd and company are finalizing their ballpark proposal on property he owns downtown.

An aggressive timeline – if everything goes according to plan – would put baseball in Knoxville by spring 2023, he said. That would mean leaving Sevier County two seasons before the Smokies' lease expires.

Allen Newton, executive director of the Sevier County Economic Development Council, told Knox News the team is responsible for the remaining bond payments on the stadium – about $3.5 million – plus $300,000 annual rent for each year of the lease, which expires March 2025.

Boyd, through Smokies CEO Doug Kirchhofer, said only it would be a "substantial fee" to end the lease. Boyd said paying the penalty has always been an option.

More:Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd makes first pitch for downtown Knoxville stadium

On Monday, Sevier County spokesman Perrin Anderson told Knox News neither county nor Sevierville officials have had recent discussions with Boyd or the Smokies regarding their future plans or the lease.

“We expect the Smokies to fulfill the terms of the lease,” he said in an emailed statement.

In a statement Monday, Boyd thanked the city and county for their relationship.

“Since 2000, the Tennessee Smokies have enjoyed many successful seasons at Smokies Stadium and a positive, productive relationship with Sevierville and Sevier County,” he said. “We appreciate that they have provided a ‘home’ for professional baseball in our region.”

In a 2015 email obtained by Knox News through a public records request in 2016, Boyd told Knoxville officials he intended to wait until his stadium lease with Sevierville and Sevier County was nearing its ends before moving the team to downtown Knoxville so his penalty for breaking the lease wouldn't be as steep.

"My current plan is to wait to the last year or two so my penalty is minimal," Boyd wrote to Christi Branscom, deputy to Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. "On the other hand, I might be able to negotiate a better longer-term win-win with Sevier/Sevierville."

Old City stadium proposal details

Boyd’s plans for a Knoxville stadium call for $52 to $65 million in public financing to build the stadium. The rest of the project is a 630,000-square-feet retail, restaurant and residential space surrounding the stadium at a cost of $142 million. That cost would be left to private fundraising, Boyd says, and would include the 7 acres of property he purchased for $6 million in 2016.

Renderings of a possible Tennessee Smokies Double A baseball park in Knoxville's Old City with downtown Knoxville in the background.

As Boyd has it drawn up, the park could host concerts and accommodate a soccer field in the outfield. It would include spaces for conferences and a public plaza for markets and watch parties.

This matches what city officials – like Chief Operating Officer David Brace – have previously said about a stadium that could host 200 to 300 events a year.

How we got here

The Smokies left Knoxville's Bill Meyer Stadium in 2001 for a new park at Exit 407 on Interstate 40, drawing local fans and Great Smoky Mountains tourists. The lease on that stadium runs through the 2024 season, expiring in 2025 before that year's baseball season. The team's affiliation agreement with the Chicago Cubs runs through 2022, Kirchhofer said.

Boyd, and his wife Jenny, purchased the team from Jimmy Haslam in 2013.

Boyd and Knoxville officials began to discuss moving the Smokies to downtown Knoxville as early as 2014, according to emails obtained in a 2016 Knox News public records request.

Under a proposal included in the records request, the Smokies would continue to pay the current lease amount through March 2025. Boyd said he'd honor the contract, either playing through the 2024 season or paying the penalty imposed under the deal.

Email Tyler Whetstone at tyler.whetstone@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. If you enjoy Tyler's coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing.