Bush-league baseball means business

Superchicken -- a fat, crazy clucker with a person inside who pesters fans and players for pay -- is all the rage at minor-league ballparks in California. ``No matter what, if you have the chicken come to your park, you're guaranteed a packed house. But he costs $6,000 and our stadium only holds 3,000 people,'' says Rick Smith, general manager of the Class A Bakersfield Dodgers.

``We'd lose money and have to turn people away if we invited him.''

Smith's quandary is understandable, because in the lowlands of the minor leagues, promotions are everything. Good promotions produce profits. Poor promotions put a team in the red. That rule of thumb has been true for years.

But what isn't nearly as easy to understand is just why the business of operating and owning minor-league baseball teams has changed from being an excellent tax write-off to the point where prices for teams are soaring, attendance levels have risen, and cities are vying to build stadiums for them.

Suddenly, or at least within the last six or seven years, minor-league baseball has begun to enjoy a renaissance that has made it a real business venture again.

``Minor-league clubs are somewhat of a hot commodity these days,'' says Jerry Berthiaume, general manger of the New Britain (Conn.) Red Sox. ``I think now a lot more people understand that they can make money.''

For example, the Bakersfield Dodgers, who finished in last place last year and are lagging this year, are continuing to draw about 1,300 fans a night and make money -- despite missing out on the Superchicken promotion.

``During the last five years or so the value of minor-league clubs has skyrocketed,'' says Charles Eshbach, president of the eight-team AA Eastern League that includes New Britain.

``Minor-league baseball is just doing better. It's drawing numbers it hasn't drawn since the 1940s, which were some of the best years, attendance-wise, we ever had.''

Mr. Eschbach says that just before he was elected president of the Eastern League in 1981, an AA team in his league sold for $50,000. Now he says such a club would easily sell for more than $500,000.

Of course each team is an individual. The value of a team depends on things like the condition of its stadium, and its track record for drawing fans and signing up advertisers. So values vary.

Yet, there is still strong demand for minor-league clubs -- even for weak teams that have lost money for years. If a team is losing money in its present location, chances are there's a city somewhere that will build it a stadium if management will agree to relocate.

Places like Harrisburg and Scranton, Pa., or Greenville, S.C., have built stadiums in successful bids to attract minor-league teams. The `freed out' worry

This will be the last season in Waterbury, Conn., for the Class AA Waterbury Indians. The new stadium Scranton built will house the team next season. Waterbury general manager William Terlecky says ticket sales have averaged only about 200 a game. An annual attendance of 70,000 is needed to break even, but the team has drawn only 40,000 for the last several years.

``I've seen the best of community and corporate support, and I've seen the worst,'' Mr. Terlecky says. ``And this one's the worst.''

But he says other factors such as a cold stadium (it has a river running behind the left field fence) as well as mismanagement by previous owners contributed to a lack of support by business and fans -- ruining the environment for building a minor-league franchise in Waterbury. Still, Terlecky says, the previous owner was able to purchase the money-losing team several years ago for only $40,000 and sell it for $350,000 two years ago.

Terlecky complains that conditions are so bad that he can't even sell all the space on his 22 outfield billboards; the nearby New Britain team has 40 fence signs. He says advertising is so weak he won't send another team his club's game program (which is only 12 pages long), because he's too embarrassed even to show it.

And he blames prior management for ruining future business by creating demand for free admission. It ``created an atmosphere of a lot of free nights. And I've heard other general managers talk about cities that had been `freed out,' '' he says.

Then there's the other side of the coin.

The New Britain Red Sox were lured away from their longtime home in Bristol, Conn., three years ago, partly because New Britain agreed to float a $1.1 million bond issue to build grandstands and refurbish a local baseball park.

Though William J. McNamara, the mayor of New Britain, says ``we had almost zero support from the community at the time,'' he and a few baseball lovers managed to push through the bond issue. But attitudes have changed to support the club since then.

``It's been a real love-marriage with the Red Sox,'' Mr. McNamara says. ``The team has instilled a great deal of pride in the community. It gives us a connection to the big time.''

Two years ago the New Britain Red Sox finished in sixth place, but despite that had net income of about $50,000. Last year the team was a contender, finishing in second place, attracting about 90,000 fans during the season, and raking in $60,000 after expenses. Economic effects tallied

Still, cities seeking to be the home for a minor-league team are usually after more than a connection to professional sports and the aesthetic value of having local, cheap ($3.50 to $4 for an adult ticket, 50 cents to $1.50 for children) family entertainment. They're also after the money a team brings to town. Waterbury's Terlecky provides an example of how an AA minor-league team might contribute to a local economy.

Ballplayers: Each receiving and spending about $1,500 a month, or $7,500 during the five-month season. With 23 players, a coach, and a manager, that means a total impact of about $190,000 brought into the city annually.

Visiting teams: Spending $25,000 on motels each year; about $12 per day per player, or $30,000 per year, for food; and $15,000 for other goods and services. Total impact: $70,000.

Umpires: Having impact of $8,000 to $10,000.

Visitors (scouts and others): Having impact of about $5,000.

Affiliated major-league team: Subsidizing travel and food on an annual budget of $250,000, the bulk of which goes to players' salaries already accounted for above. Total impact, $60,000 to $70,000.

Since 1980, cities have built some 22 new minor-league parks, says the Dodgers' Mr. Smith. In 19 of the 22 instances, the teams have doubled their attendance.

With help like that from cities, sharp business people, not just ardent fans, are increasingly owning clubs and realizing the importance of a good atmosphere for the fan. Simple things like clean restrooms and good food continue to draw fans in tandem with standard gimmicks like bat night, helmet night, T-shirt night, baseball glove night, baseball card night, or even backpack night.

All this is a big turnaround from the 1950s and early '60s when minor-league attendance hit rock bottom, says Robert Sparks, a spokesman for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which represents all of the minor leagues' 164 teams.

``In the 1950s television was new and different,'' Mr. Sparks says. ``We've reached an age now where there's a glut of programming. People realize you can stay home and watch it, but you just can't beat an evening at the ballpark.''

There also used to be a sort of laissez faire attitude on the part of owners, Sparks says. Many had business techniques that amounted to ``opening the gates in April and closing them in September.''

Now, however, an increasing number of team owners have embraced new ideas on promotion that include more off-season marketing. That includes ``hustling your product'' by doing things like seeking renewals for season tickets and billboard advertising immediately after the season and before the World Series ends; publishing an off-season newsletter; keeping interest in baseball going while there's still snow on the ground. Enterprise lucrative

All such factors are, of course, reasons that minor-league attendance, along with the values of minor-league teams, has soared. But it may have been the quirk of a two-month-long major-league players' strike in 1981 that acted as catalyst.

Sparks says there has definitely been a long-range impact from the '81 strike. ``We didn't see big increases right away,'' he says. ``But we did get a lot of folks out to minor-league games who hadn't seen them before.''

Since then, owning a minor-league team has become a more realistic alternative for serious investors. Even the value of a Class A team, the lowest tier in the A, AA, and AAA minor-league system, has apparently jumped.

A Class AA club that is a contender and is in a good location -- such as the New Britain Red Sox -- is probably worth $850,000 to $1 million, says Mr. Berthiaume. On the other hand, a good AAA club like the Louisville Cardinals is probably worth $2 million or more, he says.

During the last 30 years, New Britain Red Sox owner Joseph Buzas has owned two or three teams every year, for a total of 61 teams. In 1982 he bought the Class A Peninsula Pilots for about $35,000; two years later he sold the team for $150,000. He also owns the AA Reading (Pa.) Phillies and the AAA Portland (Maine) Beavers.

``Owning a minor-league club wasn't a big deal about 30 years ago,'' Mr. Buzas says. ``I was the only one for years that owned a team outright. Now everybody wants to own one.

``Knowing how to operate a minor-league team is different than any other business in the world . . . You have to be on top of everything and do a lot of things yourself. I've sold hot dogs, taken the tarps off the field, and I've taken tickets, too.''

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