Your Field, Your Dream




FOR SAMUEL Grisham, baseball has always been important. He was 5 years old when he played his first baseball game, and he made it as far as the long-forgotten Mississippi Troublemakers before reaching the limits of his career as a catcher in 1983, at 23 years old. As editor of the Booneville, Miss. weekly Progress, he assigned himself the baseball beat and coached Little League.

It wasn’t enough. Sam Grisham wanted to own a team. But how? Major league teams cost hundreds of millions — the New York Yankees franchise, for instance, is valued at $400 million. Even some of the top-ranked minor league clubs, like the Lansing Lugnuts, could set you back $10 million.

Still, Grisham, a cousin of novelist John Grisham, wanted to give it a try. He found his chance in the Big South League, a ragtag group of six independently owned clubs in the Deep South. The league was looking for more teams. Grisham raised $30,000 with four buddies to form the Tupelo, Miss. Tornado and set the team up in a rented, ramshackle ballpark just down the road from Elvis Presley’s birthplace.

The locals got behind him. Grisham was able to sell $80,000worth of preseason tickets and got local merchants to cough up $80,000in advertising. To help cover the $120,000 cost of repairing the dilapidated ballpark, Grisham sold 42 billboards for the outfield fence at $1,500 a pop.

Everyone from Las Margaritas Restaurant to a local Chevy dealer supported the effort. The players themselves chipped in: Mostly castoffs from bigger minor league teams, they earn $500 to $800 a month, stay with host families or relatives on the road and travel in chartered buses.

But like any small business, baseball ownership isn’t all roses.

Right after the opening pitch of the 1997 season, Grisham’s general manager was fired. The rival Tulahoma, Tenn. Walkers folded after a month. After the playoffs (the Tornado finished third), the whole league folded. Grisham was out of pocket $165,000 in just one season.

Did Grisham throw in the towel? No way. He just reached deeper into his pockets to pay for his dream. He found another independent league –
the Lafayette, Ind.-based Heartland League — and the Tornado joined it.

This year all six teams in the league are expected to break even or make their first profits.

True, Grisham probably would have done better putting his money into a good, no-load index fund, but it wouldn’t be as much fun. He may even make some money.

Teams like his are spread from West Virginia to Illinois, Indiana and Mississippi. Properly run and supported by local communities, they can even turn a profit. One of the most successful clubs has been the Dubois County Dragons, founded with $50,000 in 1996. Last year founder Raymond Rytel, a furniture marketer from Cincinnati, and another partner sold 84%of the team for $240,000 to a group of 18local investors. He stays on as 16%owner and a hands-on shareholder.

The Dragons are based in tiny Huntingburg, Indiana, home to 5,000 souls and no movie theaters. The nearest shopping mall is a 40-mile drive out of town. The team plays in a stadium built for the Hollywood movie A League of Their Own. At about $5 a head, the Dragons draw 1,200 fans a night — unless there are several big weddings in town.

Commuting from Cincinnati, a 31/2-hour drive, Rytel makes about half of the games, along with his 11-year-old son, who serves as the team’s batboy. One of the biggest returns on his investment doesn’t come in the form of money but in the acclaim he receives strolling down the streets of Huntingburg.

Count him among the lucky owners. Not only has he gotten his investment back with a profit, he reaps great psychic rewards that the IRS hasn’t yet figured out how to tax. “I’m a celebrity,” he says. “I can walk into the mayor’s office, the newspaper or Rosie’s Deli and people come up to thank me for bringing baseball to town.”

Running a baseball team is just like any other business, explains Rytel. It’s about making the customers happy — in this case, the local fans. Rytel works hard at that. He fills the ice chests for the beer, grills the hot dogs and jokes about chasing kids to retrieve foul balls.

Balls cost $4 each. “We lose about 40 a game,” he says, a bit defensively. “It adds up.”

When the team is on a losing streak — not uncommon — Rytel dreams up gimmicks to bring in the fans. One recent success was a diamond dig.

Twenty women were given spoons and one minute to dig up a one-carat diamond ring buried in the infield. Nobody found it, but the dig drew folks to the game.

Hokey? Hey, it’s a long season.

Bradley Cohen is owner and manager of Heartland League’s woeful (32-39 last year) Lafayette, Ind. Leopards. Cohen placates the fans with gimmicks like Faucet Night. Alocal faucetmaker and devoted Leopards fan donated 32 faucets as giveaways. This year Cohen is throwing in the cost of a plumber to install them.

Cohen, 33, bought the Lafayette Leopards for less than $20,000 last year after becoming intimately acquainted with the team’s operations while running the pizza stand at Leopard Stadium. The first owner had skipped town in 1994, leaving $50,000 in debts; the second owner didn’t aggressively market the team and couldn’t drum up local advertising revenue.

Cohen grew up in Lafayette, knew the locals and had a sense that if he could get companies to send employees on group outings, there’d be a windfall from selling more food and merchandise. It started to work.

Tickets for Leopards’ games start at $3 for kids and top out at $5 for reserved seating, average for the league. That doesn’t nearly cover costs. Fortunately, most fans spend at least that much on pizza and drinks. Figure it this way: 600 people in attendance, $2,400 at the gate and another $1,500 and up from concessions.

The $4,000 a night Cohen brings in is typical for teams at this level. Figure a 40 home game season, plus merchandising income (caps and T shirts),advertising in the team program, and the average franchise probably brings in $250,000 to $600,000 in revenues each season.

Total team expenses are typically around $250,000 or more a year –
approximately what Chicago White Sox outfielder Albert Belle makes about every four games.

In addition to playing more for the fun than for the money, the players are expected to do their promotional bits. The Leopards take turns sitting in a dunk tank at county fairs; the more literate give reading lessons at the local library. Cohen makes sure the team’s furry mascot, named after a leopard from the local zoo, is frequently out in town drumming up ticket sales. At most stadiums, kids are allowed on the field after the game, and players happily sign baseballs.

Eric Reichert, who at 31 is the youngest owner and manager in the Heartland League, paid about $100,000 in 1996to start up the Huntington Rail Kings, named after the railroad tracks that pass perilously close to the left field fence.

“I first saw a minor league game when I was 21 — the Toledo Mud Hens,”
says Reichert, who had been a Detroit Tigers fan. For Reichert, the Mud Hens game was a defining moment. Now this was baseball as it should be, he thought. No temperamental players demanding multimillion-dollar salaries. No $6 beers. No blaring commercials. Just a simple ballpark that families could afford, “It was more for the fans,” he says of his investment. “This game is about community pride.”

If you want to experience this kind of ownership, check out the table. It lists the names and phone numbers of the five independent leagues. We’ve also included a sampling of representative team values.

The odds of making money in this low end of the sports world are about one out of three, owners say. But hey — what’s the use of having some capital if you can’t have some fun with it?

Juliette Rossant

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