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Who’s on First in Hard Times?

The recession has been a tricky changeup for Alabama’s minor league baseball franchises. But a day at the ballpark is still a winner in the price-driven family entertainment game.

Birmingham Barons Rickwood Field

Birmingham Barons Rickwood Field

One of the great philosophers of the 20th century, the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, once said in his own special way, “There’s something kind of eeechh about a kid who doesn’t like baseball.”

That might not have been the most elegant way to put it, but Mr. Leghorn is not alone in his thinking. For more than a century, millions of people in the United States have felt the same way about the sport that has been proclaimed to be “America’s national pastime.”

This is a game that has been enjoyed through numerous generations, from the telegraph era to the Internet age. Some sports have faded in popularity over the years (boxing, horse racing), while others have risen (NASCAR, the NFL). Baseball, however, has remained largely the same, sauntering along at a leisurely pace.

But modern-day baseball is much more than just casual fun in the sun (or under the lights). It also is big business. Major league baseball reported gross revenues of $6.6 billion in 2009, and that success can trickle down to the minor leagues, where some teams pull in more than $10 million in revenue per season.

Alabama has minor league teams in each of the state’s four largest cities: the Birmingham Barons, the Huntsville Stars, the Mobile BayBears and the Montgomery Biscuits. Together, they provide ample opportunities for people in the state to enjoy those two magical words: “Play ball.”

Birmingham Barons

The Barons are the oldest team in Alabama, with a history that extends back nearly to the founding of the city. The Birmingham Coal Barons were formed in 1885, establishing an early link between baseball and business by taking their name from the industry that was the fledgling city’s economic engine.

The team played at Rickwood Field on the west side of Birmingham from 1910 until 1988, before moving to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, now named Regions Park. Discussions are underway to build a new baseball park in downtown Birmingham and bring the team back to the city.

“We have a letter-of-intent to move downtown,” Barons President and General Manager Jonathan Nelson says. “Hoover has been a great community for us and has been part of the Barons’ success, but I think it is exciting to move downtown.”

Since 2005, the Barons have been owned by former Time Inc. Chairman and CEO Don Logan and his two sons, Jeff and Stan. This is the Logan family’s first venture into professional baseball.

“They’re involved in a lot of different ways, not only on the business end,” Nelson says. “They believe in giving back to the community.”
Because of the Barons’ longevity, the team is well known in the Birmingham area. Still, Nelson says the organization is active in promoting itself through both traditional and social media.

“We throw it all against the wall and see what sticks,” Nelson says. “We’ve found in the last few years that social media, like Facebook, have been an effective way to communicate. We can update fans during the day of a game what the weather is like and what type of promotion we’re having.”

Nelson says attendance has been “very consistent” throughout the recent financial downturn. In fact, he says the Barons actually might be benefiting from tough economic times.

“Families are staying closer to home and are spending their entertainment dollars closer to where they live, and that’s been a positive result for us,” Nelson says. “It’s still affordable family entertainment.”

Huntsville Stars

The Stars have been out in Huntsville since 1985, when the franchise was relocated to the city from Nashville by owner Larry Schmittou. In 1994, Stars General Manager Don Mincher and a group of local investors purchased the team in order to keep it in Huntsville.

The team was bought by its current owner, New York City attorney Miles Prentice, in 2001. Prentice also owns the Midland (Texas) RockHounds, serves as a director for the Texas League and is chairman of the Board of Trustees for Minor League Baseball.

The Stars play in Joe David Municipal Stadium, an aging multi-purpose facility that lacks the charm of many newer baseball parks. There have been overtures to move the franchise elsewhere, but in April 2010 Prentice signed a five-year extension to keep the team in Huntsville, and he is working with city officials to remodel the stadium.

“The stadium is 27 years old, and we don’t have all the bells and whistles of the newer ballparks,” Stars General Manager Buck Rogers says. “A new facility would help us and would resonate with the fans, because it would be bright, airy and fresh and have some nice skyboxes.”

Rogers says attendance has been down the past two seasons because of the economy. He points out that the Huntsville area has a significant number of people associated with NASA, and the space agency currently is in an uncertain situation about future funding.

“They’re afraid the government will cut off some of that funding, so they’re holding off (spending money), and the trickle down has affected us,” Rogers says.

Despite the problems, Rogers says Prentice is committed to the Stars remaining in Huntsville.

“He’s dead set on keeping the ballclub in Huntsville,” Rogers says. “He’s had offers to move, but he has never uttered a word about moving. He’s 100 percent in favor of keeping the team in Huntsville.”

Mobile BayBears

The BayBears arrived in Mobile along with the opening of Hank Aaron Stadium in 1997, but the city has a history with baseball that dates to the 1908 Mobile Sea Gulls. That team changed its name to Bears in 1918 and played in the city through 1931, and then again from 1944 to 1961. The new BayBears name pays tribute to the old team.

The BayBears are operated by the HWS Group, which is headquartered in Westwood, Mass., with Mike Savit as the principal owner. HWS Group is the controlling interest owner of the BayBears, as well as three other minor league teams.

BayBears President and COO Bill Shanahan says the organization has seen a trend toward smaller ticket packages in recent years, because of the economy. But he says dark economic clouds have not affected attendance as much as real clouds do.

“Attendance for Mobile has so much to do with amount of rain we receive,” Shanahan says. “Last season alone, 38 of the 70 home dates were affected by inclement weather, with nine rainouts, which is our highest ever.”

Regardless of the weather, the BayBears have a high recognition factor in Mobile, partly because the team’s stadium is located just off I-65 near Highway 90 and can be easily seen by passing motorists.

“There are 90,000 cars that drive by the stadium each day,” Shanahan says. “Our video board marquee is a huge bonus for us, as it sits right by the interstate.”

But Shanahan says the BayBears do not simply wait for the fans to come to them.

“If there is a charitable organization, the BayBears are involved,” Shanahan says. “We provide many opportunities for fundraising, as well as numerous charitable events that happen right at the stadium.”

In addition, last year the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum were relocated to the stadium grounds. “This has opened up new avenues,” Shanahan says, noting that local schools are making field trips to the home, which was built by Hank’s father, Herbert Aaron.

Montgomery Biscuits

The Biscuits are the state’s newest club, arriving in Montgomery in 2004. The husband-and-wife ownership team of Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers purchased the Orlando Rays during the 2003 season and moved the franchise to Montgomery the following year. They also own the Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts.

While the Biscuits are new to Montgomery, the city is not new to baseball. Montgomery has fielded a variety of teams dating to 1916. The most recent before the Biscuits was the Montgomery Rebels, who competed from 1965 to 1980.

The Biscuits play in the state’s newest ballpark, Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium, which opened in 2004. The city’s historic train station was incorporated into the design of the 7,000-seat facility. There are 20 luxury suits, and six of them are built into the old terminal along the first-base line.

Despite any economic issues, ticket sales for the Biscuits continue to chug steadily along, according to General Manager Marla Terranova Vickers.

“Our current ticket sale trend is right on pace with last year,” Vickers says. “We went up three percent (in 2010). A lot of people were staying in town on weekends, and I think that had something to do with it.

“Minor league baseball being so affordable helps. No matter how bad the economy gets, people are still going to do things for entertainment, and coming to the ballpark for a few hours is still fun.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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