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Hoosier fields of dreams.

Fort Wayne joins Indianapolis, South Bend in chase for baseball bucks.

It's Friday, May 7, one of the first warm, clear nights of spring -- perfect for shorts, T-shirts and baseball. On West 16th Street in Indianapolis, fans are streaming into comfortable old Bush Stadium to watch the home-town Indians play the Buffalo Bisons. By 7:30, 15 minutes after the first pitch, most of the 6,111 fans are settled into seats watching fastballs and hearing the crack of the bat while vendors hawk popcorn, peanuts, beer and pop.

A glance at the stands leaves a striking impression. While major-league baseball is hampered by escalating costs that threaten to make its product too expensive for some families, that's not a problem for the Indians.

People of all ages are out at the ballpark tonight. High up along the third-base side, 38-year-old Tom Hannon and his sons, Taylor, 7, and Kendall, 5, are out for their first game of the year. In other parts of the park, teenagers and college-age adults catch the action. The crowd has its share of seniors and yuppies, too.

Throughout the country, similar crowds are attending games at another 170 or so sites scattered from Portland, Ore., to Tampa, Fla. Minor-league outposts include such places as Harrisburg, Pa., (the Senators of the Eastern League) and Peoria, Ill., (the Chiefs of the Midwest League).

Indeed, minor-league baseball continues its decade-long resurgence.

While many Indiana baseball fans were hoping that Indianapolis would be included in the major-league team expansion this year -- once a real possibility -- the state does have a new team.

Fort Wayne is now on the minor-league baseball map. Playing in a new ballpark, the community helped name the team -- Wizards -- and fans are turning the turnstiles.

Team officials got immediate community buy-in by holding the contest to name the club. There were more than 20,000 entries. The Wizards followed up by offering special group price nights and a "Wiz Kidz" program for children under 13. Wiz Kidz members get into any of the 11 Wednesday night home games free and receive a quarterly newsletter. Other evidence that the Wizards have become a part of the community is their slick inaugural year-book crammed with ads from Fort Wayne-area businesses.

Wizards players are in demand to appear at local schools and businesses and ticket sales are brisk. "We've sold out of season box seat tickets," says Nancy Murphy, 56, a secretary for the team who doubles as a landlord for two of the Wizards players who are staying at her home during the season. Attendance has been good, even during the iffy weather of early spring. "We had 2,500 on a very cold night May 12," she says.

Two other Indiana areas enjoy minor-league baseball. A couple hours west of Fort Wayne, South Bend's White Sox drew 213,000 people during 1992, the second-highest attendance in the Class A Midwest League. Southern Indiana fans were among the 680,000 people who attended Louisville Redbird games last year.

Louisville is one of the brightest minor-league success stories. Ten years ago, the Redbirds were the first club in minor-league history to draw 1 million fans. In comparison, the Indians, also a success, draw about 350,000 annually.

So what's behind the good news from this professional baseball industry? When minor-league executives talk, there are phrases that offer clues: Wholesome, family entertainment at reasonable prices and family entertainment that has appeal to Middle America.

Minor-league baseball teams identify their customers well, offer a low-priced entertainment product and often operate with much smaller, more flexible staffs than major-league clubs. The fact that the major-league teams which minor-league teams are affiliates of pick up the cost of minor-league player salaries also plays a big part in the success quotient.

Of the four minor-league teams in or near Indiana, the most expensive ticket is $7 -- about the price of a first-run movie -- with many promotions or children's prices that make it even cheaper. Erik Haag, assistant general manager for the South Bend White Sox, puts it simply: "You don't have to spend an arm and a leg."

"We're a healthy industry that's come light years in business practices," says Branch B. Rickey, president of the American Association of Professional Baseball Clubs Inc., an alliance of AAA classification minor-league teams. "Where we have success is in our appeal to Middle America."

Some teams, like Buffalo, are run with big-league precision. The Bisons drew more than 1 million fans in 1992, exceeding the attendance of a couple of

major-league teams. "We have a major-league operation in Buffalo," Rickey says. He notes, though, that "for every Buffalo, you have many, many more Class A rookie leagues." Successful operations often consist of full-time staffs of fewer than 10 people who are willing to be jacks-of-all trades and work extremely long hours. Secretaries become salespeople, business managers sometimes double as groundskeepers and everyone pitches in when the workload gets heavy. And all the perfect planning in the world can be washed away by a heavy rain.

"We're just like many other small businesses," says Mike Tatoian, general manager of the Wizards. "Our product is selling the experience of going to a minor-league baseball game."

Attendance and advertising are the primary focus of that effort. Getting fans in the stands and attracting the advertisers who want to reach those fans are the major ways to make money in minor-league baseball. Other revenue sources include parking, souvenirs, concessions and corporate sponsorships.

While the major-league teams pick up the salaries of the players, there are plenty of expenses remaining. "They (the major-league clubs) are responsible for everything that takes place on the field," explains Eric Margenau, president and owner of the Wizards. "We take care of everything off it."

What that means is the minor-league club normally pays for any costs associated with the stadium -- rent, utilities, maintenance -- and the salaries of the full-time front office staff and seasonal ballpark help (generally 100 to 150 people). Portions of the team's travel costs also are picked up by the minor-league organization.

Budgets for minor-league teams vary widely, depending on the ownership structure and the level of play. Tatoian estimates that the budget of the 14 teams in the Wizards' Class A Midwest League range from $400,000 to $2 million a year. The Wizards operate on about $1.5 million a year, according to a study by the Fort Wayne Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Done right, a minor-league team can be a very profitable boost to the local economy. Fort Wayne officials hope the Wizards will greatly benefit the tourism business -- attending a night baseball game gives a family a reason to extend a visit to the city to a one- or two-night stay instead of a single-day trip. The Fort Wayne study projects the Wizards will help hotels and restaurants, in addition to providing a small number of jobs and being a regular purchaser of services such as advertising and printing.

Having a minor-league team can turn a tidy profit for an owner, too. Margenau, who has a psychology practice in Manhattan, bought his first team in 1986 as a hobby, back when "you could buy a team on your Mastercard." Seven years later, he's turned out to be a shrewd judge of minor-league franchises, buying, improving and selling several of them. Today he makes his primary living off his United Baseball Inc. ventures, not his medical practice. Margenau purchased the South Bend White Sox for $455,000 and later sold the franchise for $3.7 million. He then bought the Kenosha Twins for about $1 million (below the $1.5 million franchise fee for a new Class A team) and when the Wisconsin city couldn't get a new stadium built, he talked with Fort Wayne officials and moved the team. "It's been great. Fort Wayne has just been going gangbuster."

But success in minor-league baseball doesn't come without some hard work. Haag estimates that a normal day during a South Bend home stand starts between 8 and 8:30 a.m. and sometimes doesn't end until 11:30 that night.

"Everyone asks about what we do in the winter," says Scott Doehrman, business manager for the Indians. The answer -- "We cut back to 40-hour work weeks."

Doehrman is typical of the bright young executives getting involved in the business side of minor-league baseball. An easygoing 28-year-old, He is a Ball State University graduate with an MBA who started his work with the Indians as an intern. "I can't think of anything I'd rather do," he says about his job.

Doehrman isn't the only youthful minor-league executive around, either. The Wizards hired Tatoian, 32, as the team's first general manager. Tatoian is no rookie; he's already been recognized as Midwest League executive of the year as the general manager at Quad Cities, Iowa, where he helped that franchise set attendance records.

In South Bend, the general manager is John Tull, 29. His assistant is Haag, 25, who is already entering his sixth year working in minor-league baseball.

For Haag, Doehrman and their counterparts, getting fans in the stands is a year-round endeavor. In Indianapolis, for example, the Indians' season ends in September. October and November are used to close the books and shut down odds and ends from the season. Then it's December, and the work for the next season begins anew.

"Starting in December, we get on sales. We try to get out before Christmas. In January, it really kicks in with advertising and promotions," Doehrman says.

Doehrman gets all of this accomplished with a full-time staff of seven. Once the season starts, two sales staff and six interns join the operation, along with the 100 to 130 ushers, ticket sellers, gate people, bat boys and other attendants. Concession sales are handled through a contract with ARA Services.

The hard work pays off, though -- more and more people are coming to minor-league games and liking what they see.

"When people get in and see the games, we keep hearing, 'how refreshing,'" Rickey says. "People see kids hustling to chase an American Dream. ... Then they go to the concession stand and get minor-league prices ... so they come away with a family experience at prices they think they ought to pay for an afternoon or evening of entertainment."

Indians' officials offer similar insights.

"It's always been billed as low-priced, family entertainment," Doehrman says. "We definitely do target the family market."

Adds Max Schumacher, president of the Indians: "We don't charge for parking. We try to keep the concessions low."

The Indians offer many kinds of family-drawing attractions, from a new mascot this year to the annual appearance of the famous Chicken character. Bush Stadium is one of the few ball parks in the country where people are allowed to bring in their own food. There are souvenir nights, fireworks on the Fourth of July and the Pepsi Knothole Gang, a program that lets youngsters attend as many games as they want for the $7 it costs to join. "It's one of our most successful programs," Doehrman acknowledges.

Hannon and his sons offer positive proof of that. While it's their first game this year, Hannon estimates he brought his sons to the ballpark about a dozen times last year. Both boys belong to the Knothole Gang. Hannon says he's probably "more generous" at the concession stand and souvenir shop because of the low admission cost.

Promotions, too, play a key role in keeping prices low. Clubs market corporate sponsor nights as low-cost advertising tools. For $4,500 or $6,500 (depending on the time of year), a business or businesses can sponsor an Indians' home game. Sponsors receive general admission tickets they can distribute to their employees or to the public and the Indians bend over backward to get the sponsor's name mentioned in everything from public-address announcements to listings in the souvenir program.

At South Bend, city officials built a stadium downtown and the team is firmly entrenched in its sixth year. "Since we came here, the community has taken a real love for the White Sox," Haag says. South Bend offers a unique attraction once wet weather passes. On summer nights, the White Sox open up grassy berms behind the fence in left and right fields to the fans, so people can buy general-admission tickets, then spread out a blanket and enjoy the game picnic-style. "That's an added thing you can do at the minor league that you can't do at a Comiskey Park or Wrigley Field," Haag says.

A clean, inexpensive entertainment business that attracts families -- little wonder that many cities are either building stadiums for minor-league teams or embarking on ambitious renovations of older parks. "The upgrades are going on all over the country," Rickey says. He points to Des Moines as a prime example. Following the 1991 season, the city leveled an old grandstand and spent $10 million on a new one. It was completed for opening day this year. Rickey says New Orleans may spend $22 million to $25 million for a new facility for its minor-league club. "Cities are tying into clean, wholesome entertainment," Rickey says. "Minor-league baseball is no longer associated with run-down facilities."

With all of its success, minor-league baseball does face some challenges. The turbulence buffeting major-league baseball will probably be felt, but no one's quite sure how. Escalating player salaries in the big leagues, an anticipated drop in television revenues and possible anti-trust legislation are all uncertainties that may cause minor-league teams some pain.

Perhaps of bigger concern for the Indians are questions surrounding their home field. Bush Stadium, which is owned by the Indianapolis Parks Department, is a grand old brick stadium with seats close to the field and plenty of ambiance. But it's falling apart. Minor-league teams also face a 1994 deadline to bring their parks into compliance with standards set by major-league clubs. Bush is sorely lacking there, too, with terribly inadequate locker-room facilities and other infrastructure problems.

"It's a 62-year-old facility," Schumacher says. "We all love it; but it's one of the oldest stadiums in the country." The litany of problems includes everything from inadequate lighting to a lack of modern-day features such as exercise rooms and batting tunnels, facilities never contemplated when Bush was built.

The Indians have gone on the offensive, hiring one of the city's top public relations firms, Sease, Gerig & Associates, to help the team make the case for a new downtown park. "We just feel we can do a lot for the commerce of downtown," Schumacher says. The Indians envision a 15,000- to 20,000-seat multi-use stadium with skyboxes that would draw an average of 10,000 fans a night for 70 home games a year.

Schumacher admits that a new stadium might mean modest price increases for fans, but thinks a new facility in an easy-to-reach location would make up for it.

If Fort Wayne and South Bend are to be used as yardsticks, building a ballpark may not be a bad idea. South Bend officials built Coveleski Stadium and have watched it help draw more than 200,000 people annually.

In Fort Wayne, a combination of public and private entities came up with the $6 million needed for a new stadium. Funds included $1.5 million from Fort Wayne Coliseum (an arena owned by Allen County) operating funds; $2.5 million in food and beverage tax revenues; money raised by a community fund drive by the Fort Wayne Sports Corp. and a loan from the Fort Wayne Community Trust Fund. City and county officials think the investment will pay off. The Convention and Visitors Bureau study projects the Wizards will mean an additional $3.8 million in economic activity annually, not counting concession sales.

In Indianapolis, the response to the new stadium request have been lukewarm. If no park is built, there are serious questions about where to get the millions of dollars needed to upgrade Bush to meet new 1994 standards. That could leave city and team officials with the difficult quandary in which Kenosha found itself -- needing a new stadium to keep its team.

None of these concerns are evident on this pleasant May night, however. Even if parents have to leave early with their sleepy children and diehards are disappointed with a loss, one leaves with the impression that everybody got their money's worth.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:baseball industry in Indiana
Author:Morrison, Pat
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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