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VOL. 126 | NO. 65 | Monday, April 4, 2011

Batter Up

Improved stadium, finances bode well for Redbirds’ 2011 season

MICHAEL WADDELL | Special to The Memphis News

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Opening Day is right around the corner for the Memphis Redbirds, who will open the 2011 campaign with improvements to both its ballpark and its financial outlook.

The Redbirds, the minor league Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, on Thursday begin their 14th season in Memphis and 12th at AutoZone Park following the move from Tim McCarver Stadium in 2000.

Officials with the team’s ownership group Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation hope the franchise can continue to bolster its fortunes, which began to turn around in August 2009. That’s when the Redbirds hired Global Spectrum, a division of the Philadelphia-based sports and entertainment firm Comcast-Spectacor, to run the team and replace former management company Blues City Baseball.

“The management under Global Spectrum has allowed us to restore order,” said Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation treasurer John Pontius. “They brought a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge as it related to sports management. There was a period of time where we operated under such financial distress, and we did not have the resources to do the job that we knew how to do.”

Pontius was referring to the team’s default on a $1.63 million bond payment to U.S. Bank, the trustee of a $72 million in tax-exempt bonds issued in 1998 for the construction of AutoZone Park.

As part of the transaction to replace Blues City Baseball, the team entered into a forbearance agreement with the previous lenders and re-staffed the entire organization with Global Spectrum.

The bonds used to finance the construction of AutoZone Park were sold in October 2010 to Fundamental Advisors Inc., which holds a much longer-term outlook about the team than the previous groups. The sale of the bonds also lowered the number of bond holders from five or six to only one, making for a much more manageable situation.

The Redbirds still owe more than $50 million on the bonds, but the arrival of Fundamental Advisors has the Redbirds on stable financial footing.

“They’ve allowed us to retain more of the cash for things like maintaining and improving the ballpark, all with an eye towards doing things that will have a long-term impact on the value of the team and the ballpark,” Pontius said. “They are working with us to find a buyer that will pay a price that they will accept as full payment on the debt, and it will be at a discount to its face value.”

When the team sells, it will be recapitalized with a new owner and new debt, and the combination of new debt and equity will be less than the current amount owed. The stadium improvements are part of the plan to improve the value of the assets available to sell. Pontius thinks there is also a good amount of upside to the increase in attendance from last year because it adds value to the team.

Richard Irwin, former director of the Bureau of Sport and Leisure Commerce within the University of Memphis’ Health and Sport Sciences department, agrees. He believes the team, thanks especially to the new management company, is now again on the right track after several years in a downward financial spiral.

“Global Spectrum coming in provides a wealth of opportunity,” Irwin said. “They have a national network of not only people and all of those resources but also the intangible resources of ideas. They’ve had a year or two to get acquainted with the market in Memphis and its challenges. We’re beginning to see hints on a national and local scale that things are in recovery, so that affords them an opportunity to take advantage of that in the upcoming season.”

The challenges are immense. The Redbirds’ total 2010 attendance of 479,000 marked a slight improvement over the 2009 season’s total of 474,000, but is still down significantly from the nearly 888,000 tickets sold in 2001. Redbirds’ attendance figures dropped every year from 2001 to 2009.

Although attendance has declined dramatically since the inaugural season in AutoZone Park, Irwin pointed out that the Redbirds’ success in their early years were the result of a perfect storm: the ballpark was new, the Memphis Grizzlies hadn’t arrived and the University of Memphis men’s basketball team was in a transition period.

“The Redbirds were really able to seize that opportunity,” he said.

As a minor league team that sees different players in and out of the lineup sometimes weekly, one of the team’s biggest attractions is its retro ballpark. The stadium, which is continually voted as the best minor league ballpark in America, holds 14,320 people and can reach a capacity of more than 16,000 with the bluff and additional standing room.

Now the team hopes to re-seize what it views as its biggest asset – AutoZone Park.

As a minor league team that sees different players in and out of the lineup sometimes weekly, one of the team’s biggest attractions is its retro ballpark. The stadium, which is continually voted as the best minor league ballpark in America, holds 14,320 people and can reach a capacity of more than 16,000 with the bluff and additional standing room.

Season ticket sales are up slightly over the same time last year, and the team expects to see the bulk of the renewals happen during the last 10 days before the season starts.

“Last year, we had a 20-game Flex Pack, and due to its popularity we have expended it to 24 games this season,” said Redbirds general manager Ben Weiss. “It’s been our most popular mini-plan. It allows fans tremendous flexibility so they do not feel locked into a set schedule.”

Also, a popular single game package from Comcast is also returning, where fans get a ticket to the game along with a hot dog and a soda.

Beyond the flexible ticket options, Redbirds officials are also excited about several significant upgrades to the ballpark. They hope the new enhancements provide a better overall fan experience during the team’s 72 home games and also bring more fans through the turnstiles, further solidifying the Redbirds’ financial situation.

“One of the things we’ve been able to do this off-season is give the stadium a fresh look,” said Redbirds director of marketing Adam Goldberg. “After the stadium was built, there was a honeymoon period where everybody wanted to go out there, and that’s died down a little bit. We feel like these improvements will bring the excitement back to AutoZone Park.”

After hearing from many fans who said they did not want to eat their food with it sitting on their laps, three sections of right field seats have been removed to make way for a picnic terrace that also provides a view of the field. Construction is also being completed on a new staircase in left field that will connect the boardwalk and bluff area to the lower concourse.

“We’ve also brought in all new wall pads, which makes the field look really sharp,” Goldberg said. “So nothing’s faded around the ballpark. We’ve got a new paint job and new windscreens. I think people are really going to enjoy what we’ve done to the ballpark.”

As part of the team’s capital improvements project, team owners installed all new point of sale systems at each of the stadium’s portable concession stands. This will allow the fans more convenience since they will be able to use their credit or debit cards for purchases. In past seasons, 90 percent of the portable stands were “cash only,” and it was an issue that fans brought to management’s attention.

Several popular menu items will return. And locally owned Ghost River Brewing Co. will once again offer its special Redbirds beer called Home Run Red along with other brews.

“Ghost River’s beers were a huge hit last year. It’s great to have the local brewery and local brands inside the ballpark,” said Weiss, who also noted the team’s continued support from King Cotton and its products like the baseball staple ballpark hot dog.

Another boon for the organization has been an ability to maintain the majority of its corporate sponsors from last season.

“It’s one of the things that we are probably most proud of,” Weiss said. “In our market here competing with the university’s basketball team, the Grizzlies and some of the other local sporting events, it is a challenge each year just to maintain our corporate sponsorships.”

And the Redbirds have brought on a number of new sponsors for this year, including T-Mobile, Chevrolet, the University of Phoenix, Subway, Denny’s, Blues City Café, Main Street Dental and Optimal Health Chiropractic.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division has worked with the Redbirds now for the past few years and is eager to again partner with the organization.

“The new management group has definitely been aggressive and their creativity has been impressive as far,” said Glen Thomas, MLGW supervisor of communications and public relations. “This year we will have three nights where we distribute energy conservation information, and they will show our public service announcements on the Jumbotron. It’s a great way to support the Redbirds and get our message across for people to use a little less energy.”

Redbirds management also has implemented several new promotions to help lure people out to the ballpark. The promotions that drew some of the largest crowds last year were fireworks nights, when many times the ballpark was filled almost to capacity. Management plans to do more of those this year, with 12 nights scheduled so far mostly on Saturdays and holidays.

Other promotions for the 2011 season that are expected to be crowd favorites include bringing in the famous San Diego Chicken and the Zooperstars. Jake the Diamond Dog will perform during the Bark in the Ballpark game on April 30.

The Redbirds will give out 5,000 red T-shirts on Red Out night on July 15, and they will hand out SillyBandz to the first 500 kids at every Sunday game. Other giveaway nights will feature magnet schedules, team card sets, gym bags and lunch boxes.

There will also be a Faith and Family Night concert on June 18 and a Guaranteed Win Night on Aug. 1 where if the Redbirds don’t win, fans can use their ticket to that game to come to another game.

The variety of giveaways and promotional nights are all being done to enhance to fan experience and ensure that minor league baseball remains at Union Avenue and Third Street.

“You can’t move the ballpark, and it’s one of the best in the country,” Pontius said. “There’s no reason to think that the Redbirds will not be playing in Memphis as a Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals for many years to come.”

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