Redbirds Draw Fans Despite Slump

The Memphis Redbirds' losing ways have hardly kept the fans away.

The Redbirds (Pacific Coast) extended their losing streak to eight games over the weekend, but still managed to attract nearly 40,000 fans to AutoZone Park over a three-day stretch. Memphis drew 14,208 fans to its 8-3 loss against Colorado Springs on Saturday night, the first time the team has topped the 14,000 mark since 2006. That crowd was sandwiched between an 11,841 turnout on Friday night and 11,035 yesterday, and the three-game total of 37,041 was AutoZone Park’s largest in at least six years, Memphis general manager Ben Weiss said.

"To have three days in a row of over 10,000 paid (fans) is very unique," Weiss said.

A unique partnership played a big role in the turnout, as the Redbirds hosted Baptist Memorial Hospital’s 100th anniversary celebration. The event was three years in the making, Weiss said, and accounted for over 16,000 group sales tickets. The Baptist Memorial group took over the ballpark's right-field picnic area and members of the group sang the National Anthem each night, took part in player introductions on the field and received free access to the boardwalk kid's zone. As part of the deal, the group took over naming rights for the postgame fireworks shows.

"They essentially had sponsorship off all three days in the weekend," Weiss said.

The Redbirds’ recent success has not been limited to last weekend. The team’s average attendance increased 8.3 percent to 7,050 last season, and Weiss said they are already ahead of that pace in 2012. Memphis is averaging 7,080 fans in 21 openings (third in the Pacific Coast League) compared to 5,943 in 19 openings at this time last year.

“This year could be a very strong year for us,” Weiss said.

Despite its recent success, Memphis’ long-term future remains murky. The team still carries significant debt from the $80.5 million construction of AutoZone Park in 2000, which was largely financed by $72 million in tax-free bonds. In March 2009, the team defaulted on one of its three annual $1.625 million bond payments, leading bondholders to replace the team’s local management group, Blues City Baseball, with Philadelphia-based Comcast Spectator.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the team faces a $22.5 million deficit with $57.4 million remaining on its tax-exempt bonds. AutoZone Park, after depreciation, is worth $41.2 million. In addition, the 15-year leases on the stadium’s 38 luxury suites are set to expire after the 2014 season. “We’re already working to renew those suites,” Weiss said. “It’s a couple years down the road, but it’s certainly on the radar.”

The team has greater flexibility in meeting its bond payments since its debt was consolidated when a New York City private equity firm purchased it for a discounted $24 million in 2010. That flexibility allowed the franchise to focus on ballpark improvement projects, including a new 60-foot-by-60-foot scoreboard that Weiss says is the largest in the minor leagues.

“We have some new bondholders that . . . allow us to do our jobs and not be buried underneath trying to make those bond payments,” Weiss said. “It helps having a partner with the bond group. I can’t speak to the past, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t so much of a partnership five years ago. The last three years, we’ve been allowed to do our jobs, which at the end of the day is sell tickets.”