Grizzlies start season deeper in debt

FRESNO, Calif.

Fresno's $46 million downtown diamond has become symbolic of the city's past errors.

"It was an empty promise that unfortunately just keeps delivering red ink," said Fresno city council member Lee Brand.

Brand is the financial guru on Fresno's city council and when it comes to the stadium and the Grizzlies, the finances are not good.

A new audit shows the team lost $1.3 million in 2013, and fell behind on stadium lease payments to the city by another $300,000. It now owes $1.5 million, a full years' worth of rent.

And because of contract language, the city may have to ask the owners for all that money at the end of this season. The limited partners are personally on the hook for that debt, but only until the end of 2014.

"Every year for us is a make-or-break year," said Chris Cummings, who heads up Fresno Baseball LLC, the ownership group. "You know, we're doing our best every day, 365 days a year to make this work for the city of Fresno and for us."

Cummings pledged the team will keep paying the city and won't declare bankruptcy, despite its debts.

The team does receive $1 million a year in stadium naming fees from Chukchansi, and attendance climbed a little last year compared to 2012. An average of 6,771 people attended each game in 2013.

In fact, Forbes magazine recently ranked the team as the 11th most valuable in all the minor leagues, putting its total value at $21 million.

"But I've also seen nobody from Forbes coming here with a checkbook to write a check for that value," Cummings said.

He admits he's been listening to offers to sell for two years, and he would take the right deal. A new owner would have to pay the debts to the city, but could also move the team, striking a blow to Fresno taxpayers forking over $3.5 million in bond payments on the stadium for the next 20 years.

"We want a team here," said assistant Fresno city manager Renena Smith. "We love the franchise. We love the Giants. And we think it's good for our city for them to be here."

But even the Giants could abandon Fresno. Their agreement to send minor leaguers here ends after this season.

Grizzlies management still believes they can turn this into a profitable business through more ticket sales.

If they can get 1,000 more people to buy tickets for every one of the 72 games this season, they can make a profit. And how will they do that? Through promotions. They're going to give away Tim Lincecum bobbleheads, Pablo Sandoval bobbleheads, and also a 2010 World Series ring replica from the San Francisco Giants.

Fans actually camped out the day before a 2012 replica ring giveaway last year. The Grizzlies will need that type of dedication for a full season or they risk falling below a financial "Mendoza Line," which baseball fans will know means it's time to retire.

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