Small time sports playing in the big city - East Valley Tribune: News

Small time sports playing in the big city

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Posted: Monday, August 22, 2005 7:16 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The Inferno burned out. The Mustangs galloped off into the sunset. The Vipers and Cobras lost their bite. The Sandsharks swam out to sea. The Thunder were silenced. The Eclipse were eclipsed.

These are among the low-profile, low-budget pro sports teams that have dotted the Valley’s sports landscape over the years. They were colorful outfits that made for a cheap night out yet didn’t survive in a saturated sports market.

Despite the shaky history, more teams are in business today or are on their way, trying to find a niche that will allow them to hang on, and maybe even thrive.

Fans now can see the inaugural season of the Golden Baseball League’s Mesa Miners at Hohokam Park. Starting this fall, the sixth version of the Phoenix Roadrunners hockey team will start up at America West Arena.

And the third season of the Arizona Sting, a National Lacrosse League team, will take place at Glendale Arena this winter.

The most successful of past lower-profile teams were baseball’s Phoenix Giants/ Firebirds and earlier incarnations of the Roadrunners. The earliest version of the ’Runners became a big hit in the late 1960s, drawing weekend crowds of more than 10,000 (which rivaled the numbers for the early Suns teams).

The baseball team, which existed from 1958-59 and again from 1966-97, had a built-in motor: an affiliation with the San Francisco Giants. The team moved out — to Fresno, Calif. — only because the major league Diamondbacks moved in.

Stepping into these footsteps are teams such as the Miners, who often play before 100 or so fans on weekday nights.

But that doesn’t mean the fans on hand can’t have fun.

"Watch out for the tree!" yells Leslie Fitch, 41, trying to distract an opposing outfielder as he’s about to catch a Miners fly ball.

Fitch took an interest in the team when she noticed a newspaper story about how the club was looking for host families to house out-of-town players.

She half-jokingly told a neighboring woman, "You should get one of those young guys to live with you."

Sure enough, she did.

And Fitch now attends games on occasion with her two kids.

"We’re a lot closer to the game," she said. "With the Diamondbacks, it’s all corporate."

"This is more personal," agrees Debbie Newman, 43, who lives in the ballpark’s neighborhood. "I feel like I know the players."

Maybe fans like the players so much because the fans make more money than they do. Players average about $1,000 a month.

Said Marcus Knight, a 10-year veteran of pro baseball, "At this level, what keeps me going is the love of the game.

"This is not the level I want to be at. But you’re dealt the cards you’re dealt in life.

"You make the best of it."

Several investors, including "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak, own the Golden Baseball League as a whole. That way, a single owner on a weaker club isn’t devastated by one bad season.

The break-even point is about 1,500 per game, said Greg Coleman, a league vice president.

Coleman doesn’t directly answer a question on the Miners’ future but said the league will announce expansion plans after the season.

"We knew it would take three years to reach profitability," he said. "It’s tough to assess after one season."

FANNING THE FIRE

Craig Pletenik has an exceptional vantage point on all this.

From 1991-97, he operated the baseball Firebirds of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

Though this level of play was just one notch below major league baseball, it was still classified as minor league.

And that made for a tough sell in the Valley. The Firebirds generally drew about 3,000 per game, which was below average for Triple-A baseball.

The Firebirds, unlike the Golden Baseball League, didn’t have to pay the players; the major league team took care of that.

But there are similarities.

The best weather for minor league baseball in the Valley comes in April and May. But these months directly follow major league spring training.

"Talk about a tough act to follow!" Pletenik said.

Also, advertising in a big city is expensive. And selling season tickets, the backbone of any sports team, is difficult in a city that fields major league teams, he said.

Moreover, media attention is scant for the minor leagues.

With all this in mind, maybe it’s not surprising that the Miners list a league-low average attendance of 850.

Though he thinks the league has a solid business plan, Pletenik points out that teams such as the league’s Yuma entry — which lists attendance at about 1,600 — have an advantage.

"In Yuma, it’s a big deal. Here, it’s a blip on the radar."

But profitability isn’t hopeless. Even while jumping through all these hoops, the Firebirds managed to make money in each of his seven years at the helm, Pletenik said.

BACK IN BUSINESS

Turning a year-to-year profit isn’t the chief goal of the latest version of the Roadrunners, which will be run by the Suns’ organization and will be entered as an independent team (not affiliated with an NHL club) in the age-old ECHL, said incoming owner Robert Sarver.

Sarver said the chief reason the team is being given a new life this fall — the club will use a logo nearly identical to the one of days gone by — is to make better use of America West Arena; the Roadrunners have 36 home dates.

The team hopes to break even by drawing 4,000 to 4,500 fans per game, Sarver said.

For some, the average ticket price of about $18 might seem high for a minor league team. But the operators of the new Roadrunners are hoping the familiarity and convenience of attending games at the arena will have much appeal.

As the Valley continues to grow, "A lot of people want to see sports, but they can’t afford major league sports," Sarver points out. "We can offer them an opportunity."

Lacrosse’s Sting, which is operated by the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, certainly fits the low-profile label. The club doesn’t even have a listed phone number.

Yet the Sting could be on the way to establishing themselves.

Last season, the team made it all the way to the league championship game, which was televised nationally.

Along the way, the Sting averaged more than 5,000 fans, club officials say.

Though this wasn’t enough to break even — the club lost somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000 — "We were happy with the attendance," said Doug Moss, who is in charge of running the Sting.

The club needs 6,000 to 7,000 fans a game to break even, numbers Moss thinks are possible because the club will be able to use the Coyotes — who didn’t play last season during hockey’s labor shutdown — as a promotional vehicle for a sport that is largely unfamiliar.

Club operators point out that this isn’t a "minor league" team in the sense that these "are the best lacrosse players in the world," Moss says.

The season runs from January to April, with eight home games, eight road

games and the playoffs. Tickets average about $15, while player salaries average $14,000.

"We feel the worst case is to break even this coming season," Moss says.

If so, maybe the Sting can avoid becoming another footnote to the Valley’s colorful, low-profile sports history.

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