For the Love of the Game--and Cheap Seats

Families--and investors--are flocking to minor-league teams

It has been a long, long time since something this good has happened in Brooklyn. Professional baseball is finally coming back 44 years after the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles. So what if the Brooklyn Cyclones aren't even close to major league status? Their spanking new ballpark is rising alongside the boardwalk in Coney Island, once America's premier amusement park but for decades a seedy ghost of its former self. The big day is June 25, when KeySpan Park, a $39 million, 6,500-seat gem, opens to a sell-out crowd. And if the action drags a bit, fans can take in views of the shimmering Atlantic Ocean, the famed parachute drop, and the Cyclone roller coaster just over the left-field wall.

Like the minor-league baseball renaissance all across the country, the idea behind the Cyclones, a New York Mets farm club, isn't as much about baseball as it is about marketing good old-fashioned summer entertainment at a great price: The most expensive ticket is $10. Every Friday night game will feature fireworks, and Sundays will be Kids Club Day, when, after the game, thousands of children will pour onto the infield to run the bases. And check out Russian Night, Irish Night, Italian Night, Jewish Night, and African-American Night. "We're going to have something fun going on every inning," says Jeffrey S. Wilpon, a Cyclones owner and a former minor-league player himself.

Increasingly, it's the kind of fun that big-time Hollywood types and other prominent businessmen--not to mention a virtual Who's Who of former ball players, big-name broadcasters, and other celebrities of various stripes--are working to turn into money-making, going concerns. With minor-league ball booming from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to Portland, Me., an eclectic bunch of owners from Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to a pair of Buffetts--investor Warren and singer Jimmy--are getting in on the act.

HAMMING IT UP. And what an act. The St. Paul Saints, owned, in part, by actor Bill Murray--self-described as the "president and director of fun"--has trained pigs wearing shades delivering fresh balls to umpires. At Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Tex., where Ryan's Express plays, fans can pay to swim in a pool to cool off while watching the game. "This is all about generating excitement so that people will come out of their houses," says former Sony Pictures Chairman Peter Guber, whose company Mandalay Sports Entertainment owns the Dayton Dragons and three other minor-league teams. After every Dayton homer, a dragon looming over the outfield spews flames through its mouth. "I could put up a movie theater in Dayton, but there would be 15 others just like it. I'm the only baseball team in town."

Such titans of the minors as Guber are getting a big boost from municipalities that are hurling money at builders to put up parks quicker than a Nolan Ryan fastball. New York City is spending about $120 million on minor-league parks, including a $70 million complex for the Staten Island Yankees. In Toledo, the county, together with the state government, is funding a $39 million stadium for the Mud Hens, a Detroit Tigers feeder. The rickety bleachers that once typified minor-league ball have been replaced by luxury boxes, "party decks," and even conference centers. Since 1990, 74 of the 160 teams affiliated with clubs in the majors have gotten new stadiums, with six more under construction. In some cities, teams help pay for ballparks. In most, however, including New York, taxpayers foot the bill and teams pay rent.

CORPORATE LINKS. The minors have also succeeded in pitching their squeaky-clean image to big corporations willing to spend additional millions for ballpark naming rights. In Jackson, Tenn., the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx play in Pringles Park, named after the potato chip maker. In Round Rock, Dell Computer Corp. paid $2.5 million in a 15-year-deal to call the Express park Dell Diamond. That's money well spent: The Express, which draws big crowds from Austin's suburbs, last year set a AA attendance record with 660,100 tickets sold.

Round Rock is hardly the only place where attendance is surging. Fans paid an average of $8 per ticket to boost attendance last year, to 37.6 million. That's double the number who took in a minor-league game back in 1985 and just shy of the record set in 1949. For around $45, a family of four can buy tickets, drinks, hot dogs, and programs. And for that price, fans are right on top of the action--easily within earshot when the umps and players start hurling choice insults at each other. Compare that with the big leagues, where an average ticket price is $19 and a day at the park will run a family of four about $120. "A minor-league game is just a more pastoral experience," says Robert A. Baade, a Lake Forest College economics professor who specializes in sports business. "The games also have that enduring Bull Durham kind of thing where everybody is playing their hearts out to make it to the big leagues."

In smaller cities, where the entertainment choices are few and far between, a popular minor-league team can become an integral part of a community's identity. In 1995, for instance, the city of Harrisburg, Pa., bought the AA Senators franchise for $6.7 million to ensure it didn't move to Springfield, Mass. The team has been profitable every year since, according to team officials, posting net profits of about $400,000 last year. Just as key, it has kept the folks of Harrisburg happy.

"JUST GREAT." The truth is, anybody with a few million dollars to spare can get into the business. The cost of entry is relatively low--about $15 million tops to own your own AAA team, the last stop before heading to the bigs. Major league teams pay the salaries and uniforms of the players on their affiliate teams. The local owners, though, collect revenues from tickets, concessions, and parking where it's not free. With the new stadiums and a growing competitiveness between cities and towns to lure teams, franchise values have shot up. A Class AA team that might have been worth $3 million 10 years ago goes for $7 million to $9 million today, some minor-league owners say.

But such mundane concerns as money aren't on the minds of most folks strolling along the Coney Island boardwalk during one sunny spring day recently. As construction workers put the finishing touches on the stadium, Tom Pedi, a 60-year-old retired security guard, gawks at the new ballpark in amazement. He remembers the Dodgers' fate all too well. "It's just great to have the game back here," says Pedi. "This will do a lot to heal the wounds." It has been a long wait, so let the fireworks, the parties, and the kids running everywhere begin. And, oh yeah. Let's play ball, too.

By Tom Lowry in Brooklyn and Ronald Grover in Los Angeles, with Lori Hawkins in Austin and David Polek in New York

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