After three straight years of declining attendance and growing debt, changes are coming to the Syracuse Chiefs. And it’s not clear whether the future of the International League franchise will include the Simone family, whose name has been synonymous with professional baseball in Syracuse for more than five decades.
The board of directors for the community-owned Chiefs met last Friday to discuss the team's financial woes—which, according to the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard, include a $500,000 operating loss this season and $64,000 owed in back rent at NBT Bank Stadium—and have called another meeting for this evening. The Chiefs have been the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate since 2009, following 30 years with the Blue Jays.
"The board is wrestling with some changes, and there will be some—that is a foregone conclusion. But different folks on the board have different thoughts on what direction they should go," said International League president Randy Mobley, who attended Friday's session to serve as what he called “a resource” to members of the board. "Tonight could be a very important night in the future of that ballclub."
One of those directions could include changes to team management, which is very much a family operation. Tex Simone spent 52 years with the Chiefs before resigning earlier this month, most recently serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer. He still maintains an office at the ballpark he helped build in 1997 and serves as a consultant for the franchise. His son John Simone has been the team's general manager since 1997, when he took over from his father. That is the same year Wendy Shoen, Tex's daughter, began working for the team as director of merchandising.
"As I said early on in the process, if it had not been for Tex Simone's efforts in the early 1990s, the team would not be at that existing ballpark and may not be in that city for that matter," Mobley said, referring to Simone's work to secure financing for the ballpark that allowed the Chiefs to move from MacArthur Stadium, which was built in 1934.
For many years, the Chiefs thrived in one of the International League's smallest markets. Attendance spiked 33 percent to 400,804 in 1997, the first year at the new ballpark (which had been called Alliance Bank Stadium from 2005-13), and climbed to 446,025 in 1999—the high-water mark in franchise history. It dipped to 413,566 in 2002 and would not top the 400,000 mark again until the team drew 416,382 in 2010. Attendance declined the past three years, bottoming out at 345,047 this season, the lowest in NBT Bank Stadium history and 12th in the 14-team International League. Average attendance has declined 15.8 percent since the end of the 2010 season.
A sour economy has played a role in the team's recent decline at the gate, as did particularly cold and wet weather in 2013. But Mobley says the board has identified issues with the team's operation as the primary reason for a decline in attendance and revenue, and some members say the team needs a better atmosphere at the ballpark and more focus on sales and marketing.
Roughly 4,000 shareholders make up the Chiefs' ownership, and a board of 22 individuals represents those shareholders. The Post-Standard reported that two proposals were presented to the board on Friday. One was from Elliot Wahle, a Toronto investor who served previously as CEO of Toys R Us and as an executive with the Blue Jays and Yankees. The other proposal came from one of the team's top shareholders, Paul Solomon. Both individuals declined comment to the Post-Standard about details of their proposals.
“It has to do with the financial stabilization” of the organization, Solomon told the newspaper.
John Simone did not reply to an interview request from Baseball America. In early September, following the resignation of Tex Simone, John Simone stressed to the Post-Standard that he believed his position with the team is secure.
“I think I’ve been running the team the last 10 years. I’m still here today,” John told the newspaper in the days following his father's resignation. “There’s people who wanted to see a change 20 years ago, when we opened the stadium. That’s never going to change. I don’t worry about that . . .
“Two years ago (after the team drew 416,382 in 2010), I was the smartest person in the world. You are only as smart as your last year. We’re working on things (for next year). But we haven’t been able to sit down and discuss them internally.”