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Opening Pitch

When baseball fans walk into The Hangar on April 9 to catch the first game of the Lancaster JetHawks season, they might not recognize the nearly 20-year-old municipal stadium. The Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros has new owners and a new executive team that is bringing a bit of a big league touch to the minor league venue. While the JetHawks are now an integral part of the Antelope Valley scene, it was not that long ago that baseball practically didn’t exist in the desert communities. The Antelope Valley Ravens of the Golden State League lasted all of one week before the league folded in 1995. The team played at a field in Rosamond and continued as part of the short-lived Southwest Baseball League for the 1996 season. The Lancaster Stealth won the first and only championship of the California Fall League in 1999 before it folded. Then the JetHawks moved to Lancaster and the brand new $15 million stadium for the 1996 season from Riverside County, where the team had been known as the Pilots. Lancaster had offered to build a stadium for the then-last place Pilots and partially financed the project with a $7.5 million bond. The city paid off what it owed by selling to developers land adjacent to the stadium. The name reflects the region’s aerospace history, as does The Hangar nickname for the stadium – and the full-size fighter jet on a pedestal outside the front gates. “That is one of the cooler things I’ve seen at a ballpark,” JetHawks President Andy Dunn said. During their first season in Lancaster, the team drew more than 300,000 fans. Over the next 18 seasons, the JetHawks would send 111 players to the big leagues, win the California League championship twice (2012, 2014) change owners once and major league affiliation three times (Seattle, Arizona, and Boston) until signing its current Astros agreement in 2009. Single A players on average pull in about $1,500 a month. These players are often in their early 20s and may include some high first-round draft picks. With 60 teams at this level, only a small percentage of players make it to the major leagues. “It is a job and everyone strives to get to the big league level because that is where the money is,” Dunn said. However, some do and some even star. Among the team’s alumni are 2006 Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, All-Stars Dan Uggla and Carlos Quentin, and Juan Altuve, who won the American League batting title last year. “There have been Dodgers and Giants who have come through Lancaster,” said City Manager Mark Bozigian, a baseball fan who regularly attends JetHawks games. – Mark R. Madler For one, it will be hard to miss the party deck that can accommodate up to 80 people on the left field line, or the free children’s Fun Zone with JetHawks-branded play equipment that will be open during games. Even the signage will have been updated to match the team’s red and blue colors. More interested in what’s happening down on the field? Check out the new radar gun that will display pitch speeds. One thing hasn’t changed, though. The reasonable ticket prices are $9 or $14 in advance and $10 or $15 on game day – and with the stadium having a capacity of just 7,000, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. And that leads to something else new – the team slogan: “Affordable. Family. Fun.” “Every night is going to be the best show we can put on, it doesn’t matter the weather or the score,” said Tom Backemeyer, the 37-year-old executive vice president who handles daily operations for the team. In a sports-saturated region like Los Angeles, where professional and college teams dominate media coverage, the JetHawks get lost in the shuffle. But the team does have a few things going for it, aside from inexpensive entertainment. First, it is the reigning champion of the California League, the 10-team group stretching from Lake Elsinore in the south to San Jose and Modesto in the north. Second, it is the only minor league baseball team in Los Angeles County. It also has a highly respected new ownership team led by Canadian businessmen Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney, who took over in January after buying the JetHawks from the Carfagna family, of Cleveland. Kerr and Mooney also own the Vancouver Canadians, a Single A team of the Northwest League affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Canadians had been a troubled club when Kerr and Mooney bought it in 2007 after years of falling attendance and poor play on the field. Six years later they achieved such an impressive turnaround that Minor League Baseball executives awarded the Canadians with the John H. Johnson President’s Award as top franchise out of all 160 teams. Following improvements at the ballpark, attendance hit 184,000 in 2013 as that club sold out two-thirds of its 38 homes games. The Canadians won their third consecutive Northwest League championship that year as well. The JetHawks sale price has not been disclosed, but the ownership change comes at a time when the valuations of minor league teams have been reaching record levels. The Dayton Dragons, a Single A team in the Midwest League affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds, sold in July for $40 million. Months earlier, the Rough Riders, a Double A team in Frisco, Texas, sold for $32 million. Larry Grimes is president of Sports Advisory Group, a Gaithersburg, Md. firm representing buyers and sellers of sports teams that was involved in the JetHawks sale. While he declined to discuss the JetHawks deal, he said the Dayton price was an outlier because it is a particularly well-run team with cash flow more than the revenue of most Single A franchises. (When Forbes magazine in 2013 ranked the most valuable minor league teams, only one with Single A status was included – the Dayton Dragons of the Midwest League.) But he added that Single A teams that often traded hands for $5 million to $6 million a decade ago are now going on average for $ 9 million to $11 million. Stadium upgrades Courtney Brunious, associate director of the USC Sports Business Institute, said that over the past decade there has been a change to more business-savvy owners in the minor leagues and fewer family-owned teams as sale prices have risen. “Warren Buffet owned a team. (Movie producer and Dodgers co-owner) Peter Guber has a stake in a team,” Brunious said. “These are business professionals that know how to run a successful business.” There are 160 teams in Minor League Baseball divided into three classes – A, AA and AAA – that prepare players for careers in the majors. The minors are an affiliate of Major League Baseball, which handles all aspects of the players, managers, coaches and training staff. It also picks up half the cost of the equipment. Consequently, minor league ownership tends to focus on the fan experience. And while The Hangar was well-run, the new management felt there was a need to re-engage with fans, whose attendance over the years has been spotty. Last year, it hit 170,000, more than 2013 but well under the debut season. Kerr and Mooney were not made available for comment, but new team President Andy Dunn, who has a minority stake in the club, said the plan is to import practices that worked in Vancouver. “We want to give a professional sports franchise the community can be proud of,” said Dunn, who also serves as president of the Vancouver team. To start, the new owners made a long-term commitment to the area, similar to the 25-year commitment the Canadians have to play in Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver. The JetHawks earlier this year signed a 20-year lease at The Hangar starting at $55,750 annually. City Manager Mark Bozigian said the city had been ready to offer a five-year lease and was taken by surprise by the far longer offer. “They wanted that security of being here for 20 years,” he said. With that 20-year commitment in hand, the team made a significant investment in The Hangar during the offseason, though it would not disclose an amount. In addition to the party deck, children’s fun zone and signage, it is rehabbing the 12 luxury suites with new flooring, cabinetry, televisions and furniture. The suites cost $500 a night for the space that accommodates 15, or $1,000 for one that fits 50. “If you are a fan getting one of those, you expect a high quality, first class experience. That was not the case here.” Backemeyer said. The team, which only has 11 full-time, year-round employees, also moved its concessions from an in-house operation to an outside contractor, Aramark, the Philadelphia firm that handles many other sporting and musical venues, including the Forum and Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres. “Our philosophy has been to let the food experts handle the food and drink,” Backemeyer said. Also, the team added a monthly Super Star Series night featuring a major leaguer who will mingle with fans and sign autographs. Former Dodgers stars Steve Garvey, Steve Sax and Bill Russell are among those scheduled to attend this season. Also imported from Canada is a strong involvement with local charities. The Canadians have a foundation in Vancouver that gives access to baseball for children in economically challenged families and spends $100,000 on an eight-week Little League program. In Lancaster, the stadium spotlights a local non-profit every night to increase their exposure. “All these people are trying to do good work in the community,” Dunn said. Attractive returns Still, baseball is ultimately a business that requires revenue from ticket sales, advertising, concessions and souvenirs in order for the owners to make money. Since arriving in January, Backemeyer said much of his time has been spent drumming up sponsorships, including from some local companies that had not been involved with the JetHawks before. The team, for instance, partnered with The Blvd., the downtown Lancaster property improvement district group, on the luxury suites. Downtown businesses will feature JetHawks promotional material and signage, while The Blvd. will have branding and signage found on the suite level and in the elevator lobbies at The Hangar. A local brewery, Kinetic Brewing, is sponsoring the 50-person party suite, while Hunter Dodge Chrysler Jeep will get its name on the left field party deck. Single A teams tend to play in smaller stadiums and less populated areas, and often find it tougher to generate a profit. But Brunious, of the USC Sports Business Institute, said that new ownership that drives up attendance, improving advertising and makes game-day operations more efficient can increase a team’s valuation in a short period. By contrast, an established team may return of 3 percent to 7 percent at best on an investment, he added. “If you find that right fit and with the economy improving (it’s) an attractive asset for investors right now,” Brunious said. Backemeyer, who has worked for 14 years for minor league teams, added that minor league teams have another advantage. Unlike the Dodgers, for example, fans generally are coming out to the ballpark for an enjoyable evening, and while they want the home team to win, they are not devastated when it loses. “We are not as dependent on winning and losing as they might be at the major league level,” Backemeyer said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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