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Minors Strike It Big In Small-Town USA

'Family entertainment' is major-league business

Ross Corner is the local name for this confluence of rural, two-lane roads, where a cornfield, a vacant gas station, a farmers' market, and a diner had anchored each of the four corners. It's an unlikely chunk of a state known mostly for its turnpike.

So, when an investor toting a build-it-and-they-will-come dream announced plans to replace the cornfield with a minor league baseball stadium, people scoffed. But when the Class A New Jersey Cardinals broke league attendance records and won the championship their first year, scoffs became cheers.

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Today, Ross Corner is traffic-jammed on summer nights as sell-out crowds of 5,000 come from as far off as Manhattan, 60 miles east, to cram into the $11.5 million stadium, built to resemble the red barns of its surroundings.

It's another page in the storybook of minor league baseball's profitable entry in recent years into second-tier suburban and rural markets hungry for family-oriented entertainment.

"We're seeing stadiums go up in areas that ... had been considered too rural," says Mike Moore, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, minor league baseball's governing body. "But they've been able to provide a type of family entertainment on a real local level that those people didn't have before."

Cities and suburbs alike are pouring public funds into new baseball stadiums, battling one another to lure teams with names like Warthogs and Lugnuts. New Jersey, which hadn't hosted minor league baseball since the 1970s, now hosts two teams and is trying to lure three more.

Helped a bit by the Major League Baseball strike of 1994, by Michael Jordan's brief stint with the Birmingham Barons, and by two Kevin Costner movies - "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" - minor league baseball has hit the big time.

Not that there are more teams. The 216 official minor league teams are half the number that played 50 years ago, before television brought major league games to America's living room. What there are more of are new stadiums, fans, and profits.

In the late 1980s, cities like Buffalo, N.Y., and Harrisburg, Pa., built stadiums to attract teams playing elsewhere in sandlots. The stadiums also became magnets for economic revival in sections of downtown. That success led smaller markets to adapt the formula and bring baseball to the 'burbs and the sticks.

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The result: 48 new stadiums have been built since 1990, eight more are planned for 1997, and 12 cities are vying for the two new minor league expansion teams scheduled to play in 1999.

Behind the Rockwellian images of hot dogs and pennants is a business that, in a few years, grew from a small-town oddity to an increasingly profitable and volatile venture.

Retail sales of minor league merchandise reached $46 million in 1995. Since 1991, when an agreement with the major leagues opened the minor leagues to national retailing, sales of minor league trappings have totaled $170 million.

The revenue produced from merchandising has been much more than expected, and that's what led to all the strange team names, such as Hickory Crawdads and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. "They're trying to be as unique as possible," says Arthur Johnson, a University of Maryland professor and author of "Minor League Baseball and Local Economic Development." But as profits rise, so do the stakes, says Mr. Johnson.

A 1991 contract between the minor and major leagues set new standards for minor league stadiums. Substandard stadiums lost teams to new stadiums elsewhere. Instead of a few hundred seats, 4,000 to 10,000 became the norm. Canton-Akron's Indians left their seven-year-old stadium in Canton, Ohio, breaking the lease, for a new one in nearby Akron. In Rhode Island, the Pawtucket Red Sox are threatening to relocate if they don't get $12 million in upgrades to their stadium. Between 1993 and 1996, 35 teams relocated to new towns, lured by new stadiums.

"The owners have been successful because they understand their product, and their product is family entertainment, it's not baseball," Johnson says.

The 1991 agreement also ended the major league's subsidies to the minors, and for the first time required some minor league teams to return some profits to the majors. So, despite the happy success of the minors in the 1990s, Mr. Moore worries that profit motives will begin to drive up those $3 and $4 tickets: "I don't want to get the sport costing so much that we lose what we bill ourselves as, which is inexpensive family entertainment."

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