2018 file photo
Written by Edward Smith
As the Fresno Grizzlies prepare for another playoff appearance this week, the team moves forward with new ownership, a new lease and a new vision.
Under the joint venture of Fresno Sports and Events, Fresno’s Triple-A baseball team has a renewed lease for Chukchansi Park and is exploring capital improvements to drive fan experience and, in turn, make the Fresno Grizzlies profitable again.
“It starts with five-dollar beer and it extends to investing in the ball park,” said team President Derek Franks. “We continue to add things to make this the greatest experience for your dollar.”
This season, the Grizzlies introduced $5 beers and reduced food prices as a way to “compete with people for their free time,” Franks said.
Grizzlies’ attendance across the league lies right in the middle of the pack, according to data from the Pacific Coast League (PCL).
In 2015 — the year of their first Triple-A National Championship and their first year with the Houston Astros — attendance was 458,431 people over 71 games, while the average for the 13 PCL teams was at 451,907.
Over the past few years, attendance has dropped steadily. It was at 439,389 people for 2016 and 428,341 for 2017.
This year, 61 games in, the team is at 361,120 with at least nine games to go.
This comes with a big bump in April that Franks attributes to lower ticket and beer prices, followed by a dip in the summer months due to the heat and air quality.
The team feared an attendance dip after the San Francisco Giants switched its Triple-A affiliation to Sacramento. After this season, the Grizzlies’ affiliation agreement with the Houston Astros will be up. The Astros have not yet announced if they would resign with the Grizzlies for another two-year run.
Bringing in the bucks
Still, the biggest concern for the team has been on the revenue side with one of the most expensive rents in the game. That was something a new ownership would have to change.
It took several years and several prospective buyers to sell the Grizzlies, according to Franks, who met with most of the buyers. In the end, it was Fresno Sports and Events who took it over.
Jim Coufos of JC Sports and Entertainment and Ray and Michael Baker of the Baker Family Group had both been looking at buying the team independently of one another — “kicking the tires,” as Coufos put it.
“We had both decided it was a big nut to carry and we kind of moved away,” Coufos said. “But then I heard that the Bakers, who are very well respected around baseball, had an interest and so I contacted them.”
Coufos came to California by way of Brooklyn, New York. There, he worked at the New York Stock Exchange for the brokerage firm Spear Leeds & Kellogg, which was acquired by Goldman Sachs in 2000. He worked in corporate relations, marketing and sales.
“I was responsible for building relationships with the senior management of our largest companies. That’s my love,” he said.
That specialty in relationship building has in no small way contributed to the work of turning around the team’s financials.
“I think we’ve developed a terrific relationship with the mayor, the police chief, the city council,” Coufos said. “We’re building relationships with our fans and improving relationships with our sponsors.”
Moving on from the past
Building those relationships comes at a time when dollars for the Grizzlies were coming in thin.
“The underlying problem is it was not financially viable,” Franks said. “One of the big ways to help that was a different lease and the city was not willing to do that with [the Fresno Baseball Club],” the previous ownership group.
When Chris Cummings bought the team with his investment group, Fresno Baseball Club, the team was struggling then as well, according to Franks. Attendance was down and expenses were high.
“We were doing a lot of things in the lean years and the last four or five of the previous ownership that were entertaining — tacos and creative fun things that didn’t cost a lot of money,” said Franks. “That works for a while, but eventually, you’re not fixing the ballpark up. People’s tastes are changing.”
In 2014, the City of Fresno had renegotiated the lease with the Fresno Baseball Club down from $1.5 million a year to $750,000, once the highest in baseball to only one of the highest, said Franks, but that savings wasn’t going toward the stadium. The investment group was trying to just break even.
Selling Triple-A baseball to fans is different than selling it in the majors, which rely on their records and legacies to fill seats.
Less than 20 percent of people coming to Grizzlies’ games are hardcore fans. The other 80 percent are people coming for $5 beers, the fireworks and the experience, said Franks.
That experience is exactly what the new ownership wants to drive attendance.
But experience can cost real dollars and a lot of money was going into just paying rent, and so the ownership met with the City of Fresno to lower that bill.
“The city realized they couldn’t keep a baseball team with the lease they had, so there had to be some movement,” Coufos said. “We and they came up with a fair deal that we were looking for.”
Turn the page
That lease is down now to $500,000 a year with an initial capital investment of $1 million. In 2020, once things have been a little more established, the group will begin putting $300,000 annually into a fund reserved for improvement projects in the stadium that will increase 3 percent each year. In addition, the city will invest $300,000, according to Tim Orman, chief of staff for Fresno Mayor Lee Brand.
“The rent is probably still high, but it’s fair,” Coufos said. “I know the city is realizing that as well. We see the opportunity in Fresno.”
Now, with money reserved, improvements to make Chukchansi Park more modern have already begun.
The movement in baseball stadiums has been away from seating and toward recreation and activities, according to Franks.
Replacing 1,000 seats in left field is a $1 million investment to install a social area with a full bar, televisions and patio tables. Construction seems to be going ahead of schedule and Franks hopes that it will be open in time for the first playoff game at home on Friday.
“A lot of the things we’re considering are things that take out more seats and add destinations and experiences in the ballpark,” said Franks. “I think that’s what our fans want.”
Coming next is an enhancement to the kids’ area in right field that will be about the same budget and scope as the one in left field. An official announcement will be coming in the next 60-90 days.
Not just baseball
Taking advantage of the off-season is another opportunity for revenue.
Back when John Carbray first proposed the stadium project, one of the visions was using the location as a concert venue, according to Fresno County Supervisor Sal Quintero, who was a city councilman at the time.
The problem was competing with the casinos to get good talent.
But now, they have both rapper Nelly and country star Jake Owen scheduled for September. The Grizzlies were able to do this by scheduling outside the dates of Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino’s concert series, according to Franks.
The city still owes $41.4 million on the 30-year bond issued in 2000, according to Mark Standriff, director of communication for the City of Fresno. That includes interest and a principal of $28 million. Because of the outstanding debt, the city wanted a guarantee the ownership would be there until at least 2030.
“We’re in it for the long haul, the city was very concerned about that,” Coufos said. Part of the terms of the contract included a clause outlining significant penalties for departures prior to 2036.
But what caught the eyes of ownership was the potential they saw in Downtown Fresno.
“I kind of see what happened in San Diego where the city put some real effort in and now you have the Gaslamp District, the ballpark down there,” Coufos said. “We’re seeing it happen in Fresno.”
The Fresno Grizzlies will make their second playoff run in four years starting Wednesday in El Paso, Texas, against the Chihuahuas. Game three returns to Fresno on Friday, followed by games four and five on Saturday and Sunday (if necessary). Visit the Grizzlies website for ticket information.