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Fireflies see ways for minor league team to succeed

Hospitality and Tourism
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A crowd of more than 9,000 showed up for the Fireflies inaugural home opener on April 14. (Photos/Jeff Blake)

By Mike Fitts

The New York Mets, the parent franchise of the Columbia Fireflies, select and pay the coaches and players. The Mets have a style they want their players to play and skills they want their possible future major league players to develop. Everything else, everything outside the foul lines, is the job of the Fireflies to manage – and their opportunity to earn money from.

In minor league baseball, the teams have an affiliation with a big-league club but are owned by somebody else and run locally. Hardball Capital runs the Fireflies franchise and moved the team to Columbia from an antiquated stadium in Savannah, Ga. Baseball can be played on any diamond, but it takes the right stadium to make money in today’s minor league baseball.

The team has three major revenue streams, explains Fireflies president John Katz. They make money through ticket sales, through partnerships that provide ad and sponsorship money, and through food and beverage sales.

Early response on tickets and luxury suite sales was positive, Katz said. Merchandise sales also have been good since the Fireflies unveiled their uniforms, which feature some glow-in-the-dark fabrics.

Orders have been placed from more than 40 states, so the new styles appear to be a hit, Katz said.

The size of the local market is another encouraging factor and the response so far has been “really good,” Katz said. Hardball Capital also operates a successful team in Fort Wayne, Ind., and has used that franchise as a model. But Columbia’s market is twice the size of Fort Wayne’s, Katz said, and that’s a major advantage.

Of course, the Fireflies share the market with the Gamecocks, who have their own shiny stadium downtown. Katz said he sees little issue there. Only seven scheduled Gamecocks games overlap with the Fireflies, he said, and the market is large enough to offset any overlap.

Also, Katz sees the fan bases are fundamentally different. USC fans are there to root for the Gamecocks and are invested in the team’s success, Katz noted. For the Fireflies, they are providing their audience with a festive night out. There will be some fans who are eager to see the Mets prospects play, but most minor league fans are out for a night of fun at the game.

With the revenue it raises, the Fireflies must pay the expenses at Spirit Communications Park. The city spent $29 million to construct the park, and it will be considered an open public facility every day of the year. But the team is responsible for all maintenance, utilities and upgrades to the park. “It’ll all be on us,” Katz said. Over a 30-year lease, Katz expects those costs to exceed the city’s initial investment in the park.

Columbia is far from the only place investing in minor league baseball recently. The prices to acquire a team have been going up as more teams are managed by savvy companies rather than individual local owners, according to Sports Business Journal. Organizations that invest in baseball are succeeding because have figured out how to make the right stadium work handsomely for them, it reported.

The Class AA Huntsville (Ala.) Stars were acquired for $16 million and headed to Biloxi, Miss., where a new stadium built with public and private resources awaits, the Journal reported. “By the time we put this team in a new ballpark, the value of the franchise should have accrued 30 to 35%,” franchise owner Ken Young was quoted as saying.

Columbia invested its money in a new ballpark in large measure because leaders saw it as a catalyst for the rest of the huge Bull Street redevelopment project. Katz said he believes that we will see that, and he points to Durham, N.C., as an example where it has worked.

The Durham Bulls built a new ballpark and saw businesses and other developments blossom all around it, though Durham, an old tobacco town, had not been a center of economic growth before. The ballpark’s vicinity there has seen about $1.2 billion in investment, Katz said, and the Bulls now are a Triple-A team, one step below the majors. “It’s become the model,” he said.

He hopes to see the same blossoming as the Fireflies go forward just in the Bull Street project, with new construction following the completion of the ballpark. “It’s exciting to be the first ones here on the site and watch it unfold around the site,” Katz said.

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