Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 2/13/13
The St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system is the envy of the league. ESPN’s Keith Law recently ranked the Cardinals’ minor-league teams Number 1 in his annual farm-system rankings, with Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Oscar Tavares all in Law’s Top 100 prospects. Baseball America agreed. But all is not well for the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League. Their story is a warning that, even in a baseball-loving town, it isn’t always true that “if you build it, they will come.” The Redbirds play in AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis. The ballpark, built in 2000, is nestled between high-rise office buildings not far from the Mississippi River. AutoZone Park is considered a jewel among minor-league ballparks. Baseball America named it the 2009 Minor League Ballpark of the Year. There are wide concourses, club seating, luxury suites and open-air party decks. It cost $80 million to build — a high price tag for a minor league ballpark. And now, it’s awash in a sea of debt. The Redbirds are owned by a local non-profit organization called the Memphis Redbirds Foundation. The Foundation was established by Dean Jerrigan, at the time the CEO of Storage USA and his wife. They financed the ballpark’s construction with nearly $80 million in tax-free bonds. The idea was to generate enough revenue to pay the annual debt on the bonds and funnel any remaining profits into inner-city baseball projects. In it’s first season, AutoZone Park welcomed more than 800,000 fans. That was the high water mark. With a downturn in the economy and competition from newly-relocated Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA, corporate sponsorships dried up and attendance declined. The Foundation fell behind on its bills. The low point came in 2009 when the Foundation missed a $1.625 million bond payment. The bond holders ousted the Redbird’s management team from Blues City Baseball — also owned by Jerrigan — and brought in Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum, a venue-management company owned by Comcast. Global Spectrum installed one of their executives, Ben Weiss, as the Redbirds’ general manager. But the changes didn’t come fast enough for the bond holders. In 2010, they sold the bond debt at a deep discount to the New York-based private equity firm Fundamental Advisors. And that’s where the story gets interesting. Over the last few seasons, Weiss has started to turn things around for the Redbirds. He beefed up the sales and promotions team and saw attendance rise. Ticket sales topped 500,000 in 2011 for the first time in years and rose again in 2012. Fundamental Advisors — the bond holder — has agreed to forgo debt payments on the bonds while Weiss works to strengthen the Redbirds’ finances. With the team’s finances beginning to stabilize, the Foundation would like to sell the Redbirds. The two most talked-about potential buyers: the Cardinals and the city of Memphis. The Cardinals reportedly looked into purchasing its affiliate but opted against it. That’s not unusual. The Atlanta Braves are the only major-league franchise that owns its Triple-A club, the Gwinnett Braves. All other Triple-A affiliates — and most other minor-league teams — are connected to their major-league franchises through a player development contract. The Cardinals recently renewed its PDC with the Redbirds through the 2014 season. An oft-floated idea — according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal — is for the city of Memphis to create a ballpark authority or similar entity to issue new bonds to finance a purchase of AutoZone Park and the team, under private ownership, would pay rent to the city. As the newspaper notes, that’s “the way many ballparks across the country are operated.” Indeed, it’s also the way for taxpayers to be left holding the short end of the stick. It’s not at all clear, however, that Fundamental Advisors has any intention of selling AutoZone Park anytime soon. Fundamental Advisors is a niche private-equity firm in that it invests entirely in distressed assets financed by municipal bonds — i.e., public-works projects like affordable housing, health-care facilities and stadiums. According to The Deal magazine, Fundamental’s founder and CEO, Laurence Gottlieb, invests in these properties not only to make money, but to restore a public asset for the benefit of the community. Gottlieb told The Deal last September that Autozone Park was still a “needy asset,” suggesting that Fundamental intended to hold onto that investment a while longer. That may be good a very good thing for city of Memphis and Redbirds fans.  
GET THE YARDBARKER APP:
Ios_download En_app_rgb_wo_45
MORE FROM YARDBARKER

LeBron: You don’t have to win championship to be great team

‘Concussion’ director: No compromises made for NFL

Kevin Sumlin: Texas A&M players have 'chip on their shoulder'

WATCH: Elvis Andrus steals home against Padres

Seahawks went on Hawaiian vacation to ease SB tension

Robert Kraft: Deflategate 'most overblown story' in NFL

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
GET THE DAILY NEWSLETTER:

Top 10 storylines for Week 1 of college football season

Jim Tressel once sent touching note to family of Michigan OL

Sony cut 'Concussion' scenes to avoid angering NFL

Ryan Clark: Trent Richardson is 'worst RB of all time'

Report: David Feherty won't be back at CBS Sports

Warren Moon: RG3 needs to start taking the blame

Harbaugh named starting QB but won't announce it

Ohio State downplays revenge talk ahead of Va. Tech rematch

WATCH: D-backs pitcher fails on quick pitch attempt

Ex-FSU WR Snoop Minnis trolls rival Florida in great way

Suspicous photo may lead to drug test for CC Sabathia

How the Houston Astros went from garbage to gold

Jack Eichel plans to move in with teammate Matt Moulson

Report: Bills GM 'went rogue’ in cutting Fred Jackson

Terrance Knighton irked by Redskins-Kardsashians comparison

Connor Cook on not being named Michigan State captain: 'It stinks'

Danny Amendola’s advice to those on roster bubble? ‘Control what you can’

Dallas Cowboys: Rookies to watch

Apple reportedly sought exclusive rights to new Bill Simmons podcast

MLB News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

By clicking "Sign Me Up", you have read and agreed to the Fox Sports Digital Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. You can opt out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.
the YARDBARKER app
Get it now!
Ios_download En_app_rgb_wo_45

Top 10 storylines for Week 1 of college football season

Underdogs: Hopefuls that can shock in the World Cup

Manfred digs Shoeless Joe a deeper grave

Why Mike Trout ain't right

The Opening Drive: Jamal Anderson warns UM fans before heading to Salt Lake City

Best and worst MLB players in August

RG3 blames intern for liking Instagram post trashing owner

Four most surprising roster cuts from NFL teams

Raiders cut Trent Richardson

Caroline Wozniacki smoking cover of ‘Rhapsody’

Today's Best Stuff
For Publishers
Company Info
Help
Follow Yardbarker