Thursday, June 3, 2004

Success tough, not impossible

St. Louis, Kansas City boast minor-league models in crowded markets

By Colleen Kane
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Despite the odds, plenty of minor- and mid-major-league teams throughout the country are surviving.

The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks began in 1997, making them the longest-surviving area minor-league team left in operation. But just their name and their affiliation with the NHL help to keep them around.

So what about other teams in other cities?

A search of cities similar to Cincinnati showed that many have at least three minor/mid-major teams alive. Some, such as St. Louis, Cleveland and Kansas City, have five such teams in operation. And though teams come and go in these cities, too, there are examples of stability.

Florence Freedom general manager Connie Hildebrant pointed to St. Louis' Gateway Grizzlies, also of Frontier League baseball, as an organization she would like her team to emulate. The Grizzlies, a 6-year-old team in its fourth season, are located about 10 minutes outside St. Louis, similar to the Freedom's proximity to Cincinnati. The Grizzlies averaged just 900 fans in their first season, when they played at an American Legion ballpark. Last season, they averaged more than 4,000 fans a game and were named the Frontier League organization of the year, all the while competing with Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals.

"If you do it right, any place is a good place (for a minor-league team)," general manager Tony Funderburg said. "The Freedom can do well there. They can be a great team. Once they get the ball rolling, a team like that scares me. They could knock us off our pedestal."

Funderburg said cheap ticket and concession prices, a focus on the family and a location just outside the city have helped the Grizzlies succeed.

The Cincinnati Blaze's Ralph Underhill pointed to the American Basketball Association's Kansas City Knights as another model that works. The Knights, who operate in a city without much close basketball competition, have stayed with the ABA through its restructuring troubles, and owner Jim Clark has become the ABA's CEO. Their attendance average has fluctuated between 1,200 and 2,000 over the past four years, but the Knights' Brett Hunter said they hope for 2,500 a game this coming season.

He offers this advice to start-up teams: "Get out into the community. Do as many player and coach appearances as possible and as much advertising as possible. You have to get your name in the community."

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