With opening night at AutoZone Park (April 13) less than a month away, I caught up with a rather significant local baseball fan. Along with being a St. Louis Cardinal loyalist, John Pontius is treasurer of the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation and will play an active role in the eventual sale of the ballpark. While recognized as the finest minor-league stadium in the country, the ballpark still carries significant debt 12 years after its grand opening.
Memphis Flyer: It’s been a big off-season for the world champions. How do you feel about the departure of Albert Pujols for Los Angeles?
Pontius: From a business standpoint, it’s not good to tie up that much of your revenue stream in one player. Life’s too fragile; things happen. I’m thrilled that it worked out the way it did. It’s good for Memphis. The Cardinals can use their resources to build depth in the organization, which is good for the Triple-A club particularly. Someone told me the biggest winner in this is Stan Musial. His legacy is preserved.
There was a recent report in the daily paper that suggested AutoZone Park might be sold to the city of Memphis. How close is this to happening?
The article in the paper was premature. While there have certainly been discussions about the outcome of the Redbirds and AutoZone Park, there’s far from any kind of business transaction that’s been agreed to. We’ve kept the city informed for six or seven years about the financial distress that, in the early days, was in front of us. There’s always been a desire — both from the foundation’s standpoint and the city’s — to make sure we concluded the final chapter of the Redbirds’ financial story that gave it new, positive, long-term life for the city. That’s what we’ve been working on for a few years. We’re closer to a conclusion, a recapitalization, a sale, or something that repositions the Redbirds for a prosperous future in Memphis. But it’s premature to speculate on which of those options will come about, and when.
What are the virtues the city might bring as a buyer (or manager) of the ballpark?
The city’s only potential role would be to own the ballpark and lease it to the tenant, which would be the Triple-A ball club that survives. At this stage, that could be done in a very credit-worthy transaction, one that doesn’t put the city at great risk financially. That’s all that’s ever been explored.
It doesn’t have to happen that way. A potential buyer could desire to own the team and the ballpark. The benefit to the city is having more control over the future of the ballpark. If that can be accomplished without taking on undue risk, it might be worth thinking about.
I’m a former city official, and have a little insight into how the city works. The last thing you want is an aging ballpark with an owner who doesn’t care for it.
It sounds like there are two types of a potential sale to be considered: one that packages the ballpark and baseball franchise together, another whereby they’d be sold separately.
There are two primary assets of the Redbirds Foundation. They could be sold separately or together, and it really depends on the buyer. Would a franchise owner want to own the ballpark too, or be a tenant in the ballpark? We’re deep in the throes of understanding the options, but we’re not [at a point of sale] yet.
Is there a dollar figure that’s been discussed?
No. But I have a sense of what it would take to satisfy our creditors [Fundamental Advisors in New York].
Have offers been made?
There have been a lot of people who have expressed interest, most of whom are waiting for us to be ready to consummate a transaction. There are multiple parties involved, because we owe our creditors more money than we could possibly yield from the sale of our assets. It’s not just the foundation deciding to sell. The lenders need to accept a discounted payoff. Everybody is friendly and talking with each other. I’m highly optimistic of a positive conclusion for the Redbirds.
A house that has been on the market for more than a few months will often have its price reduced to finally attract a buyer. Has there been price fluctuation with AutoZone Park?
We had an up year last year. It was a conscious effort to rebuild the franchise value, through improved operations and improvements in the ballpark. We did that and we were successful. One of the reasons we’ve taken our time and operated under this arrangement with our lenders is so we’d have the opportunity to improve the ballpark’s value before we put it on the market.
The Global Spectrum management team is entering its third full season. What’s their status for the future?
We’ve had a great relationship with them, both with the people they’ve brought on board locally and with the senior management in Philadelphia.
Is it safe to say Global Spectrum will be back in 2013?
I’d expect they would, unless we sell to an owner that has its own management company.
What do you expect for 2012? Attendance last year (493,528) was seven percent higher than the season before.
We expect another up year, in ticket sales and attendance. And also with sponsorships and advertising. We expect to do well with group events. We have a new scoreboard being installed that will be a game-changer. It will change the fan experience. It’s the largest and nicest scoreboard in minor-league baseball, close to a $2 million expense.
One of the top prospects in baseball — Shelby Miller — is expected to pitch for the Redbirds this season. Will he boost attendance on nights he takes the mound?
It’s always more fun to win and have prospects you can follow to the majors. Most importantly, it’s about having a good experience at the ballpark. We’d like to win on all accounts.