Franchise Shuffle Benefits Pensacola, Hurts Kinston

Carolina League, Southern League franchises on the move





The end of an era is upon the city of Kinston, N.C. The Kinston Indians—at least in their current form—will soon be no more.

A three-way franchise shuffle will result in the Southern League's Carolina Mudcats moving to Pensacola, Fla.; Kinston's Carolina League franchise moving to Zebulon, N.C., where the Mudcats play; and Kinston being left without a franchise after the 2011 season.


Local media in Pensacola and Kinston reported the moves on Wednesday, and the teams and cities have confirmed them. The Kinston and Carolina franchises will operate as normal for the 2011 season.

Kinston's professional baseball history dates back to the early 20th century, and the current franchise has been the high Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians since 1987 and under the same ownership since 1994. Cam 
McRae, the chairman of the nearly 70-member ownership group, cited "fiduciary responsibility" to the investors and a unique set of circumstances among the three cities as the factors that made the timing right to sell. He said he has already begun the process of trying to land a franchise to replace the Indians in time for the 2012 season.


"We're not out of the baseball business here," McRae, a successful entrepreneur, said in his downtown office. "And if somebody's got a predisposition about that, they shouldn't, in my opinion."

Carolina Mudcats owner Steve Bryant said he began discussing a new arrangement for the Mudcats in September, and he cited transportation costs as the driving factor. The Mudcats are the northernmost franchise in the Southern League, with just three franchises within 500 miles. Rules about flying and busing to games threatened to drive those costs even higher.

The Mudcats also are in the bottom third of Double-A teams in terms of attendance, drawing 255,360 fans in 2010. That would be one of the better figures in Class A. While on paper two franchises are moving, in effect the Mudcats will just change their letterhead, from a Southern League franchise to a Carolina League franchise.
 
"With this new setup, the Mudcats franchise is rejoining its roots in North Carolina professional baseball, as one time all teams in the state were Class A," Bryant said. "The level of play is excellent . . . and our fans and corporate sponsors will have the same great experience as before this transition, and our front office all will remain the same."

Bryant will sell his Southern League franchise to Pensacola businessman Quint Studer, who will move the franchise for the 2012 season. Studer has owned the city's franchise in the independent American Association since 2002, the Pensacola Pelicans, but he set his sights higher with the city getting a new downtown ballpark.

"I am extremely proud and excited for the actions that are being announced today," Studer said in a statement. "Bringing affiliated baseball to Pensacola will continue to add to the rich sports history that already exists in the area."

No purchase prices were released, but the Pensacola New Journal asked Studer if the price fell in the $12 million-$15 million range, and he said it was on the "high end" of that range. As part of the deal, Studer also took a minority stake in the Carolina League franchise that will replace the Mudcats in Zebulon.

Facing Reality In Kinston


McRae, a passionate baseball fan who has helped keep the team in the city despite limited profits, said the decision to sell was tough.


"It's an emotional thing for me," he said. "But I have to take a deep breath, too. This is a great place, but nature runs its course here, I think. Now I have new challenges. I've got a new mission here to get out here and keep the ball rolling. And we have time. I think we have ample time here.


"I hope that people look at it as the cup's half-full—more than half-full—rather than half-empty."


Kinston's relationship with the Cleveland Indians was one of the longest in all of minor league baseball. 
The Indians have been in the Carolina League for a total of 49 years, and consecutively since 1978. Their long relationship with the parent club was mutually beneficial.


"We've had a great run over the past 25 years," Cleveland Indians farm director Ross Atkins said in a statement. "We've had a great relationship with Kinston."


The wheels for the transaction were set in motion in early October, McRae said, when Bryant called him to inquire about buying the Indians. 
The Mudcats were being sold to Studer, opening the Mudcats' 6,500-seat Five County Stadium for a new team.


McRae confirmed the details in an exclusive interview, insisting that there was "not a for-sale sign" on the franchise and adding that the sale gives him an opportunity to restructure ownership of a potential new franchise. 
McRae said he spent much of his time at the Winter Meetings last week in discussions, "most of which, quite frankly, dealt more with the future of baseball, and not so much this transaction. So more news at 11 on that."


The Indians lease 61-year-old Grainger Stadium from the city of Kinston. City manager Scott Stevens said he plans to help McRae secure a team for the 2012 season.


"Baseball is part of what makes Kinston a great place to live," Stevens said. "We'll do everything we can to keep baseball being played in Grainger Stadium."


McRae, 61, partnered with former K-Tribe general manager North Johnson to lead the group of investors that acquired the franchise in 1994. Johnson, now the GM of the Gwinnett Braves (International), remains a general partner with the K-Tribe.

He said movement is necessary for growth in baseball.


"You can understand why the ownership group in Zebulon found the Kinston franchise attractive," Johnson said. "The Indians have done a great job in Kinston, and they became attractive to another market."


Kinston is the smallest market in the nation with an affiliated baseball team. Over the past five seasons, the Indians have averaged 115,933 fans a season. They routinely finish at the bottom of the eight-team Carolina League in attendance.

McRae said he and Johnson were "pretty ambitious" when they originally acquired the franchise.


"We thought that we were going to get the attendance up over a couple hundred thousand and just have a little smidge of a reasonable return so somebody could pay taxes and this and that," McRae said. "It never happened. But that doesn't mean that I'm going to give up trying to make that happen."

The Pelicans franchise will move to Amarillo, Texas, which makes better geographic sense for the American Association, which is in flux but has most of its franchises in Texas and the Midwest. Scott Berry and Gary Elliston, who also own the American Association's Shreveport-Bossier Captains, will be the new owners of the franchise.

David Hall covers the Kinston Indians for the Kinston Free Press, where this story originally appeared.