The owners of the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team are in the late stages of negotiating a sale of the Triple-A club to new ownership.
Fresno city officials, who on Monday afternoon approved changes to the club’s lease at the Chukchansi Park baseball stadium, identified the would-be owners as Fresno Sports and Events LLC. The company is in negotiations with the current ownership, Fresno Baseball Club LLC.
Fresno Baseball Club LLC bought the team in 2005, but the ownership group has had the team up for sale since 2012, said Derek Franks, general manager of the Grizzlies.
The prospect of the sale was first reported on May 23 by Ballpark Digest and by BaseballAmerica.com. The deal has apparently been in the works for some time, and Pacific Coast League president Branch B. Rickey said more needs to be done – including approval by the league – before a sale of the club is finalized.
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“It has been a long process. … I would hesitate to say it’s getting ‘very close,’ ” Rickey said Friday. “There are still a number of steps left, and they all need to be completed. … We’re not sure what the timing will be insofar as the parties getting to the close.”
Rickey characterized the deal as being in “extra innings,” and added that he and the league are optimistic about the sale being concluded. “They’ve been at it a long time; everyone is looking forward to getting to a conclusion.”
They’ve been at it a long time; everyone is looking forward to getting to a conclusion.
Branch B. Rickey, Pacific Coast League president, on negotiations for the sale of the Fresno Grizzlies
The individuals behind Fresno Sports and Events were identified by Mayor Lee Brand as a father-son team, Ray and Michael Baker of Colorado, and Jim Coufos of Southern California. Ray Baker is head of the stadium district that operates Denver’s Coors Field, the stadium that is home to the Colorado Rockies, and also runs the district that operates Invesco Field, the stadium for the NFL’s Denver Broncos. Baker and his son are involved in ownership of the Grand Junction Rockies, a rookie league affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. Coufos has also been involved in minor-league baseball ownership, including as a former stakeholder in the Single-A High Desert Mavericks of the California League.
“This is really good for Fresno,” Brand said Monday. “This brings a group that has extensive experience with baseball in Colorado. … I think we’ve done as good as we can possibly do to bring in a well-qualified team.” He added that the new owners are proposing an all-cash transaction in the sale – the terms of which are not yet being disclosed.
The council approved the changes to the lease – which only take effect if the sale goes through – on a 7-0 vote. The lease itself is a key condition of the sale of the Grizzlies. “This deal wasn’t getting done without this today,” Franks said after the council’s vote. “This was critical. Our deal with this group is contingent upon a negotiation with the city and a lease that made them more comfortable with the long term.”
Franks was reluctant to say much about the new owners beyond the fact that they have ownership interests in two different baseball clubs, but added that he hopes to stay on with the Grizzlies if the sale goes through. “We’ve got a group that is very well liked in minor-league baseball, they’re operators and owners of other clubs, and we think it’s a huge win for the city of Fresno and Triple-A baseball in Fresno to land this group here,” Franks said.
City leaders are also holding out hope for new ownership to bring a greater degree of financial stability to the team’s ability to keep up with its rent obligations at the stadium – a major concern over the city’s debt payments on the 15-year-old, $45.8 million ballpark.
Tim Orman, Brand’s chief of staff, wrote in a memo to the City Council that “the mayor and city manager strongly and wholeheartedly believe that this (lease) agreement and the new owners represent the best deal for the city of Fresno and provide us with the best chance of success at the stadium.”
The team’s original ownership, the Fresno Diamond Group, inked a lease with rent payments amounting to $1.5 million a year. But the team struggled for years to meet its obligations, and Fresno Baseball Club LLC bought the club – and in the process also assumed the rent agreement. Several years later, the team and the city renegotiated the lease in a controversial move that sliced the effective rent in half, to $750,000 a year.
Even at that reduced rate, the team has struggled to keep up with the rent. “In total they (currently) owe us about $2 million,” Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd said Monday. Those arrears would be paid off when the sale goes through.
The lease agreement being considered Monday afternoon calls for the new owners to pay $500,000 in rent annually, according to Orman’s staff report to the City Council. Additionally, the new owners would begin paying $300,000 each year into a capital reserve fund starting in 2020 for structural improvements and other needs at the stadium, bringing the total financial commitment of the new ownership to $800,000 a year. The city would match the capital contributions to help maintain its stadium.
The agreement also includes a “non-relocation agreement” that would require the team to pay the city for outstanding debt remaining on the stadium should the ownership opt to move the Grizzlies to another community.
The city’s approval of the lease changes is one step – but not the final one – in concluding the sale. In addition, Rudd said, “the new ownership group (has to) actually strike a deal with the existing ownership group; it takes three of us to dance.”
I think we’ve done as good as we can possibly do to bring in a well-qualified team.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand
The Pacific Coast League must also approve an ownership change.
Rickey said there are two stages to league approval of a sale. First is a preliminary review in which a committee of league owners interview the prospective new owners and review their application for league membership. Second is the formal purchase agreement and application for membership.
He added that the league’s subcommittee has interviewed the Fresno Sports and Events group “and urged them to go forward.”
“There are still some steps ahead of us. It’s not going to happen (this) week or the week after, and it’s uncertain after that,” Rickey said. “The league will try to do everything it can to expedite treatment of it, the review and processing of it, simply because that would be of great advantage to this situation.”
A sale of the team is not the same as changing the club’s affiliation with a Major League Baseball organization. The team affiliation is determined by the big-league team. Fresno went through that a few years ago when the San Francisco Giants decided to shift its Triple-A affiliate from Fresno to Sacramento and Fresno, in turn, became part of the Houston Astros farm system.
Rickey said an ownership change for the Grizzlies would have little or nothing to do with its Major League affiliation.
But there are other machinations in the world of minor-league baseball that could mean changes in the Fresno team’s affiliation. The Double-A team in San Antonio, Texas, is moving up to Triple-A in 2019, and there are rumblings that the Texas Rangers may shift their Triple-A affiliation from Round Rock, Texas, to San Antonio. If that happens, the potential exists for the Astros to relocate the Triple-A farm club to Round Rock – where baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan is not only a principal owner but also an executive adviser to the Astros.