Top 10 Ballparks

Memphis' park is No. 1, but financial issues remain




Memphis would never be the same after April 1, 2000.

That was the day AutoZone Park opened downtown in a city that had seemingly been waiting forever for a professional sports team it could truly rally around. An exhibition game against the Cardinals, Memphis' new big league affiliate, christened the ballpark, and even the bad news that slugger Mark McGwire would sit out the contest couldn't keep 15,000 fans from packing the shiny, new $80.5 million facility.

TOP 10 BALLPARKS

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"People were standing in long concession lines as I walked around the park and they were stepping out of those lines to hug me or thank me," former Memphis general manager Allie Prescott told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2001. "They wanted to let me know how they felt. More than anything, to me, was the look in their faces. They felt finally Memphis had gotten the best of the best of something. No shortcuts."

Certainly neither Prescott, nor the jubilant fans in attendance that day, could have imagined that 10 years later the Redbirds would be in dire financial straits because of that jewel of a ballpark. Or to put it simply, because "no shortcuts" were taken.

The Redbirds have seen annual attendance dip 36 percent from their 2001 high. Already struggling to meet a $5 million annual bond payment, the not-for-profit ballclub faces even more economic uncertainty heading into a recession, as season-ticket renewals are off roughly 25 percent from last year. And Memphis remains open to suitors after the Cardinals called off negotiations to purchase the club in January.

The Redbirds will celebrate their 10th anniversary this spring while keeping hold of a record that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

"AutoZone Park was the most expensive (minor league) ballpark ever built when it opened 10 years ago," Redbirds president and general manager Dave Chase said. "And it is still the most expensive."

A Team Of Their Own

The city had been burned in the past. Memphis played temporary host to an NFL team for two seasons before the Tennessee Oilers left for Nashville. The World Football League and the USFL were both failed experiments in Memphis. The Double-A Chicks played at Tim McCarver Stadium and left town for West Tenn after the 1997 season as Memphis awaited the arrival of a new team.

Stadium projects also weren't seen to fruition, as work to The Pyramid was never completed and the coliseum on the state fairgrounds remains empty. So when plans were drawn up to build a minor league facility as the centerpiece of a downtown renovation, it was decided that no expense would be spared.

No ballpark comes close to Memphis' $80.5 million price tag. Lehigh Valley, which debuted in 2008, comes in second at $49.4 million.

It could be argued that Memphis got its money's worth. But it also could be questioned if they needed to. AutoZone features the largest video board in the minors with a 23-by-30 foot screen that stands three stories above the playing field. The ballpark houses 44 luxury suites, nearly all of which were signed to 15-year contracts in 2000 that generate roughly $1.7 million in annual revenue. A grandiose plaza greets fans as they enter a stadium that features two party decks, three party suites and an elaborate underground facility that includes three tunnels, batting cages and some of the most expansive clubhouses in the minors.

"There is no other ballpark in minor league baseball that has the bells and whistles of AutoZone Park," Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III said. "It is magnificent. "

"I haven't found any area in the ballpark and questioned why we built it," Chase said. "There were cost overruns, no doubt about it. But the ballpark also opened a year later than planned. There was no mismanagement other than the zeal to make sure AutoZone was done right. Maybe some of that zeal was misplaced. Did we need an entry plaza so nice? Probably not. But that has become a centerpiece of what the park is all about."

Memphis has been the highest-grossing minor league club since AutoZone debuted. However, the Redbirds still struggle to meet their annual bond payment.

"That's basically our rent," Chase recently told the Commercial Appeal. "Most minor league baseball teams pay less than $500,000. There's something wrong with that equation."

The Redbirds funded construction of the ballpark primarily with a $72 million in tax-exempt bonds. The city of Memphis contributed roughly 10 percent to the project.

A Changing Landscape

The Redbirds were an immediate hit in Memphis. They drew 859,851 fans in 2000—second in the PCL to Sacramento, which also debuted a new ballpark that season. The ride continued in 2001, when Memphis boosted attendance to 887,976. However attendance slowly began to decline. The Redbirds drew 794,500 in 2002 and have seen the figure continue to fall before drawing 569,172 in 2008—good for fourth in the PCL.

A changing economic climate and increased competition in the Memphis sporting market has been at the heart of Memphis' troubles. The Redbirds were the only game in town when AutoZone Park was built and hauled in fans and corporate sponsors alike.

However the Redbirds success paved the way for the Vancouver Grizzlies to relocate their NBA franchise in the fall of 2001. Chase said the club lost $1 million in corporate revenue to the Grizzlies. The increased competition to lure fans, media coverage and sponsorships—coupled with the altered economic landscape following the 9/11 attacks—resulted in a shortened grace period for the Redbirds.

"Our honeymoon period was a little shorter than we expected," Chase said. "We expected to operate at a high level for a five-year run."

The Redbirds continue to pursue buyers but are not counting on one. Debt would have to be restructured for a sale to be completed.

Meanwhile, the team is looking for ways to attract fans to the ballpark while continuing to explore opportunities to utilize the facility for non-baseball activities. The team hired a full-time staff person in charge of coordinating non-baseball events like concerts—the Dave Matthews Band played there last year—corporate outings and even bar mitzvahs (one family rented out the entire park for one). Such events total less than a $1 million annually, Chase said, and are not enough to make up for the shortfall in debt.

Though full season-ticket sales are down, Chase said 10- and 30-game plans are up roughly eight percent. The team is also counting on the spike they saw in walk-up sales last year continuing in 2009. However the team is faced with the challenge of increasing marketing on a smaller budget.

"You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can't be in the marketplace sharing them, it doesn't matter," Chase said.