Minor League Baseball: A Journey

Cheap beer, affordable tickets, swanky surroundings — what's not to like about minor and independent league baseball parks?

Texas legend Nolan Ryan and Houston businessman Don Sanders run Ryan-Sanders baseball, which owns the Express and the Corpus Christi Hooks (Houston Astros AA affiliate).

And not surprisingly, like he did as a Hall of Fame player for more than two decades, Nolan Ryan sets the example for minor league baseball owners on how this business is run.

In Forbes' annual rankings of the top 20 most valuable minor league baseball franchises, both Ryan-Sanders franchises here in Texas make the list, with Round Rock coming in third overall at a value of $26 million (annual revenue of $14 million, operating income of $5.2 million) and Corpus Christi ranking 18th with a franchise value of $17 million (annual revenue of $9 million, operating income of $2.7 million).

Dell Diamond
Dell Diamond

In fact, Round Rock is one of only ten minor league baseball teams in the country, across all levels, to average over 8,000 fans per game.

No business succeeds without capitalizing on built in advanttages, and to that end, one of the best business partners that the Express and the Hooks have is the map of the United States. Geography. Quite simply, the proximity of both ball clubs to their respective parent teams allows for a synergy where fans of the MLB ballclubs can follow their team's future stars up close and in person at the minor league level.

In essence, the accommodating radius from Houston and Arlington to these affiliates allows fans of the Astros and Rangers to watch their players go from garage band to Grammy winners.

Before becoming the Rangers' AAA affiliate, Round Rock was the AAA farm team for the Astros. When the Astros decided to move their AAA functions to Oklahoma City, Round Rock didn't skip a beat at the turnstiles due in part to the Astros being backfilled by the equidistant Rangers.

"If it were any other Major League team besides the Rangers replacing the Astros as our parent club, it would cause a real challenge. Fans like to see the players who will eventually play for their big league club," said Fendrick.

In addition to the marketing benefits of geographic proximity, there's a tangible convenience factor for the parent ball club as well, particularly in the case of a AAA team like Round Rock, whose players are routinely summoned to the big league club.

"The closeness allows for our players to take a short car ride and be examined by Ranger doctors, if need be. If a player gets called up [to the Rangers] to play, they can be there in a matter of hours," explained Fendrick. "It makes a lot of sense."

Profit, convenience, fan friendliness, player recognition, brand awareness. All of these advantages of owning a minor league team within a short distance of the major league parent club are reasons why we've heard Astros owner Jim Crane extol the virtues of owning the team's minor league affiliates.

Crane makes no secret of his affection for The Woodlands as a possible site for the Astros' AAA affiliate once their contract with Oklahoma City expires after the 2014 season, for all the reasons Fendrick outlined in his overview of Round Rock's business model.

Crane hired former Ryan-Sanders CEO (and Nolan's son) Reid Ryan as the Astros' new President and CEO back in May. This sounds like a perfect project for him, doesn't it?

And Astro fans, because I know you're wondering, just know that Fendrick thinks that Jim Crane hit a home run in choosing Reid Ryan as the new President of the team, "A tremendous choice. The fans could have no better advocate in the front office than Reid Ryan."


Ask them their philosophy or mission, and every minor league baseball executive will give you some combination involving entertainment, customer service, and value.

But unless they are with the Dayton Dragons, they can't claim that they've successfully sold every seat since the inception of the franchise.

Yes, the Dayton Dragons, the single A affiliate for the nearby Cincinnati Reds, a Mandalay-owned franchise (same as the Frisco Roughriders) have sold out every single game since the franchise moved there from Rockford in 2000, breaking the professional sports record of 815 consecutive sellouts set by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Every. Single. Game.

When I spoke to Dragons Executive Vice President Eric Deutsch, "The Streak" had grown to 951 games with no sign of slowing down.

Simply put, to discuss the minor league baseball boom and not share the story of the Dayton Dragons is like being handed the box set for Season Three of The Sopranos and the DVD containing "Pine Barrens" is missing.

The Dragons are minor league baseball's gold standard, having won the John H. Johnson President's Trophy in 2012 for being "the complete baseball franchise — based on stability, contributions to league stability, contributions to baseball in the community and promotion of the baseball industry."

Ask Deutsch about the foundation for the team's success and on cue he lists his team's five principles that guide them: affordability, quality entertainment, customer service, community, and return on investment for sponsors and ticket holders.

You get the sense in talking to Deutsch that the organization is in lockstep, that if you passed any of the 36 full-time employees of the Dragons in the hallway, they should be able to recite the guiding principles on command.

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