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There’s a Baseball Boom in the Minor Leagues These Days

Associated Press

With the volatile condition of the stock market, with automotives up and utilities down -- or is it the other way around? -- with brokers battling the August blahs, a new, unlikely investment continues to pay fancy dividends.

Minor league baseball.

Last week, the American Association Buffalo Bisons went over the one million mark in ticket sales and then shattered the Louisville Redbirds’ single-season minor-league record of 1,052,438 set in 1982. And Buffalo did it in a ballpark that seats only 19,500 compared with the 30,000-seat facility in which the Redbirds play.

How good is one million fans for a minor league franchise?

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Three major league teams -- Seattle, the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta -- haven’t made it to a million yet.

The Sox are just 132,000 away and almost certainly will make it. Seattle probably will, too. But for Atlanta to get there, it must average 13,600 for its remaining 23 home games instead of the 12,000 it has been attracting. If they miss, it would be the first time since 1985 that a major league franchise did not reach a million in a season.

The Bisons aren’t the only ones reaping a bonanza in the bushes. Minor league attendance reached 20,220,796 last year, an increase of 55 percent in the last decade and the first time since 1953 it had topped 20 million.

“And in 1953, we had 116 more clubs,” said Sal Artiaga, president of the National Association, which administrates the minor leagues. “We are on a pace to increase by 6 percent this season and we’re looking to exceed 21 million.”

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It once was possible to buy a team for petty cash. Now it’s a big bucks operation with some franchises valued as high as $5 million. The Durham Bulls, celebrated in “Bull Durham,” one of the summer’s top movies, cost businessman Miles Wolff $2,500 when he bought them in 1979. Now the Class A franchise carries a price tag of $1 million.

The minor league network is the largest professional sports operation in the world. “Major league baseball is in 22 markets,” Artiaga said. “We are coast to coast, border to border, in Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. We have added quality cities with teams playing in upgraded or new facilities.”

The roster of minor league investors reads like a gossip column: singer-actress Pia Zadora has a piece of the Portland, Ore., Beavers; actor Mark Harmon has an interest in the San Bernardino Spirit; and George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, is part owner of the Spokane Indians.

Buffalo’s boom was triggered by a brand new downtown ballpark. The catalyst for Pilot Field was civic leader Robert Rich, Jr., president of the largest privately owned frozen foods company in America.

“In 1969, Buffalo lost a a major league expansion bid by one vote because we didn’t have a suitable park,” Rich said. What the city had was War Memorial Stadium, a facility Rich refers to as “a rock pile.”

“Some old stadiums are charming, but there was nothing charming about War Memorial Stadium. It was in the heart of a ravaged area, a decrepid, old football stadium. It was a tough place to get to, or to want to get to.”

Nevertheless, the Bisons drew 500,000 there last year. When Pilot Field -- which can be expanded to 40,000 if the majors come calling -- was constructed, Rich said he did not anticipate the kind of record summer it created. “We collected data and we were told we could anticipate a 20 percent increase the first year with a reduction in the second year to 10 percent,” he said. “Twenty percent more meant 600,000. We passed that halfway through the season.”

The Eastern League’s Harrisburg, Pa. franchise used the same new stadium formula with similar success. That franchise sold for $45,000 in 1980 and is worth a reported $1.5 million today. “It’s a situation where the community recognizes baseball as an intricate part of the economy,” Artiaga said. “Every dollar spent at a minor league park turns over seven times.”

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There are seven new parks dotting the minors this season in places like South Bend, Ind., Birmingham, Ala., and Rockport, Ill. All are flourishing.

“A large degree of credit must go to our operators who are marketing in a positive manner, presenting good, wholesome family entertainment at affordable prices,” Artiaga said.

Artiaga calls Rich’s team “utopia, a premium franchise.” And Rich calls Buffalo a major league city waiting for the major leagues.

“If what has happened here this sunmmer hasn’t turned their heads, I don’t know what to do,” Rich said. “When baseball had expansion presentations in 1985, we laid out our plans for an expandable stadium and presented our philosophy. Our plan was like that of a minor league player. You have to put up the numbers to get to the majors. We said, ‘When you decide to expand, our numbers will speak for us.’ My feeling is they do.”

There is a certain romance about baseball in the bushes. Author Roger Kahn was so taken by it that a few years ago, he purchased the struggling Utica Blue Sox of the Class A New York-Penn League, spent the summer with the team and wrote a book about the players and their adventures. Now the club belongs to a group of 20 investors headed by ex-sports writer Bob Fowler and including, among others, Morganna, the kissing bandit.

“It’s 19 guys and Morganna,” Fowler said. “I’m the George Steinbrenner of Utica.”

This is Fowler’s fourth year there and even in his small market where tickets cost $2 or, if you want a better seat, $3, he is sharing in minor league baseball’s boom. Utica is averaging 1,900 fans per game and set a league record of 6,212 for one of its promotion nights, the 100th birthday party of the local Matt’s Brewery.

“It’s gone up every year,” Fowler said. “The first year, we lost a lot of money. The second year, we lost a little. The third year we broke even. This year we’ll have a small profit.”

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That is not easily achieved. “Problems occur,” he said. “Every day, 10 things happen that you didn’t expect. One day the cook didn’t show up because he had a date with his girlfriend.”

That night, the team’s managing general partner took over at the hot dog grill. Steinbrenner never did that.


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