Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: New ownership the next, necessary step for Grizzlies

Fresno Grizzlies managing general partner Chris Cummings, left, raises his arm in celebration during a City Hall ceremony with team staff and mascot Parker honoring the team’s Pacific Coast League and Triple-A championships. Cummings and his partners at Fresno Baseball Club have been trying to sell the team for almost two years.
Fresno Grizzlies managing general partner Chris Cummings, left, raises his arm in celebration during a City Hall ceremony with team staff and mascot Parker honoring the team’s Pacific Coast League and Triple-A championships. Cummings and his partners at Fresno Baseball Club have been trying to sell the team for almost two years. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Now that the Grizzlies are Triple-A champions, now that they’ve successfully rebranded themselves and their achievements are being recognized across minor-league baseball, there’s only one box left to check:

New ownership.

Fresno’s Triple-A baseball club is for sale. This isn’t breaking news because it’s been nearly two years since managing general partner Chris Cummings let it be known.

Yes, two years. Long enough for any “For Sale” sign to begin yellowing.

Two separate consultants, one hired by the Grizzlies and the other by the city of Fresno, have been contracted to help identify prospective new owners. The City Council reworked the stadium lease, giving cash relief to the team’s current owners and a more favorable payment schedule to its future ones.

And yet there have been no takers.

“We have talked to a couple interested parties over the last year, but as of now we don’t have a deal,” Grizzlies general manager Derek Franks said. “We’re operating for the next year as if there won’t be a deal to sell the club.”

Whenever something of value doesn’t sell, your first assumption is it’s priced too high. I can’t tell you how much Cummings and his partners at Fresno Baseball Club are asking for the Grizzlies because they wouldn’t tell me.

But we do have a few clues.

In 2013, Forbes magazine pegged the Grizzlies’ value at $24 million – making them the 15th-most-valuable minor-league franchise.

Considering the Las Vegas 51s sold for $20 million (the 51s play in the worst facility in Triple A) and the Oklahoma City Dodgers sold for $23 million to $25 million, maybe Forbes is right on the money.

Or maybe it’s way too low. After all, the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders ($32 million) and the Class-A Dayton Dragons ($40 million) both fetched considerably more.

“Until someone’s willing to write a check for that amount, those are just numbers,” Franks said of the Grizzlies’ $24 million valuation.

Ten years ago, Fresno Baseball Club purchased the Grizzlies for about $9 million. So if Cummings and his partners (brother Bill Cummings and former major-league pitcher Dick Ellsworth) get $20 million, they’d be more than doubling their investment.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. The Grizzlies have seldom been a moneymaking operation. In fact, it’s believed only two of their 17 seasons have been profitable.

“We’re not going to break even this year, either,” Franks said. “We’re still in the red and have to continue to find ways to cut into that deficit.”

It wasn’t all that long ago the Grizzlies were reporting $1 million or more in annual operating losses and generating negative headlines because they were constantly behind on their rent payments to City Hall.

Those things are no longer true, but the stain remains, leaving any prospective owner to wonder if this enterprise can actually make money.

“We’ve had a long history of struggle,” Franks said. “We’ve begun the turnaround here, the path to making this thing successful. We had a great year. But there were a lot of years of struggle. So anybody who’s looking at it, beyond the asking price, the question has to be, ‘Is Fresno going to be a great market for baseball?’

“I think this season proved that. I think we’re in a great position, and I think our community made a great showing during the end of the season and during the playoff run to show any prospective buyers that this thing can go without the Giants (affiliation).”

Two other factors include the stadium lease and uncertainty regarding the team’s naming rights deal with Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.

I’ll address those topics individually, starting with the lease.

Last summer, the City Council reworked the lease agreement. The Grizzlies still will pay $750,000 in annual rent, but gone is the complex system of credits that required a team of accountants.

The team’s next owners will owe the city $150,000 per month during the five months of the minor-league season. The deal also contains provisions that give the Grizzlies better access to the stadium on off days.

The City Council also granted a measure of cash relief to the current owners, who are paying $40,000 per month in rent (for a total of $480,000) with the remaining money deferred until the sale goes through.

“It’s just a cash-flow thing for the club, to help us operate easier while we’re marketing the team to sell,” Franks said. “For the new owner, the lease has been simplified. It’s something they can look at and not have to speculate how much they’ll have to pay.”

The situation with Chukchansi is more open-ended. In 2006, the team landed a $16 million, 15-year naming rights agreement with the Madera County tribe that owns the casino along Highway 41 in Coarsegold.

The tribe typically pays the Grizzlies $1 million, in one lump sum, every Sept. 1. But this year, with the casino shut down since last October because of internal turmoil, there has been no payment.

Franks said he has met with tribal leaders and they’ve agreed on a new payment schedule that coincides with the casino’s anticipated reopening.

In other words, Chukchansi Park will remain Chukchansi Park.

While the Grizzlies could have played hard ball, that would have spoiled a solid working relationship. A few years ago, the tribe even fronted the team $350,000 to help it make its stadium rent payments.

“We have a contract that goes seven more years, through the 2021 season, and have to look at things with the big picture in mind,” Franks said. “They’ve stepped up to the plate for us when we had our issues, so we don’t look at it like, ‘We need the payment by next month or pull the plug.’ It’s a long-term deal.”

In the meantime, Franks said the team’s current owners have come through with extra money so the team can pay its bills and continue to operate.

Whether the team gets new ownership may not matter to fans more interested in winning baseball, engaging promotions and a family-friendly ballpark atmosphere.

But it sure matters to Grizzlies employees who face another offseason of uncertainty regarding their jobs. If the team sells, it’s possible the new regime could clean house.

Fueled by the Triple-A championship and the prospect of more on the way thanks to the Astros’ robust farm system, ticket sales are up 40 percent over this time last year and 18 percent over two years ago, Franks said. Attendance last season dipped to 6,457 fans per game, down from 6,781 in 2014.

Now all that’s needed are new owners, and the transformation will be complete.

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