Magazine article Newsweek

Not Just Peanuts; Minor-League Baseball Is More Than Quaint Stadiums and Dancing Umpires. It's Now a $500 Million Industry with Nearly 40 Million Fans and 176 Teams

Magazine article Newsweek

Not Just Peanuts; Minor-League Baseball Is More Than Quaint Stadiums and Dancing Umpires. It's Now a $500 Million Industry with Nearly 40 Million Fans and 176 Teams

Article excerpt

Byline: Alan Schwarz (Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine.)

Opening night was doomed. A few years ago, rain was pelting down on the Boston suburb of Brockton, leaving fans of the Brockton Rox soggy and despondent. But then, out of the storm, a fellow came to the rescue. He wasn't a player, he wasn't a weather god--he was even better. He was Bill Murray. The actor commandeered the dry-docked high-school marching band and led it around the stadium concourse in a raucous, 20-minute, baton-swinging rendition of Mack Rice's "Mustang Sally." "More cymbals!" Murray yelped as he high-fived and signed autographs for the fans. "More tuba!" No game was played that night, but not a single customer complained. "It was such a hoot," one observer recalls. "The effect Bill had on the crowd was just precious. That could never, ever happen in major-league baseball."

The observer was Mike Veeck, who along with Murray and former Wall Street lawyer Marvin Goldklang make up the Goldklang Group, an ownership consortium at the forefront of making minor-league baseball a major business. With Murray as unofficial director of fun, the group's four clubs have demonstrated how profitable minor-league franchises can be--to the point that major corporations like Comcast and Mandalay Entertainment, as well as major-league legends Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken, are buying in with their own franchises. Minor-league baseball, in terms of revenue, is now a remarkable half-billion-dollar industry (chart, page E13).

Sure enough, as bucolic, smaller-scale ballparks are echoing with modern touches like pulsing rap music, the most notable sound in front offices is the cha-ching of cash registers. "I'm so sick of how everyone talks about how cute minor-league baseball is--the weird mascots and the goofy giveaways," says Dave Chase, GM of the Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League. "The days of riding rickety buses and staying at Motel 6s are over. Minor-league baseball is a real business."

Positioning themselves as an antidote to the ultraserious major leagues--and its big-league problems like labor relations and huge salaries--the minor leagues' 176 teams hosted nearly 40 million fans last year, breaking the record set in 1949. (This doesn't even include the several million more who attended games of the five major "independent" leagues, whose players are not borrowed from parent major-league organizations.) Back in '49, 448 minor-league teams were dotted all over the nation, while the then 16 major-league teams played only east of the Mississippi. But that boom gave way to bust as the spread of TV and westward expansion put major-league action all over.

Through the 1980s, the minor leagues devolved into dull player pipelines to the parent clubs, with games played in outdated ballparks with dwindling revenue. Then, in 1990, the renaissance began. Like so much else in the fabled history of baseball, it happened by accident. Major League Baseball forced stricter standards on the minors for clubhouses, fields and such. That led to a boom in construction. More than 100 new stadiums with modern amenities (like expanded restrooms) married major-league economics--gross revenues are up 91 percent in the past 10 years, while franchise values have rocketed as high as $20 million--with traditional minor-league whimsy. Where else can fans get massages in the stands (St. Paul Saints) or souvenir inflatable bats endorsed by Viagra (Charleston RiverDogs)?

Those and other promotions (such as Skip Work Day, when fans were encouraged to blow off their jobs and all got sunglasses to hide behind) come straight from the mind of Veeck, the idea man for the Goldklang Group's growing empire. The name should sound familiar: Mike's late father, Bill, was a Hall of Fame major-league owner known for exploding scoreboards and once sending a midget up to bat. Murray is more of a silent partner who attends about 10 games a year and delights fans with his antics--a few years ago he inspired Conehead Night at a Saints game. …

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