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Published: Thursday, 12/18/2008

Mud Hens optimistic despite economy

Attendance has been outstanding at Fifth Third Field for the Mud Hens, although Kody Kirkland didn t pay for this seat. Attendance has been outstanding at Fifth Third Field for the Mud Hens, although Kody Kirkland didn t pay for this seat.
JETTA FRASER / THE BLADE Enlarge | Buy This Photo

The Toledo Mud Hens are cautiously optimistic for another successful season at the box office in 2009 despite northwest Ohio s drowning economy.

But if dwindling salaries and lost jobs do keep people away from Fifth Third Field next year, it will not harm the Hens landlord Lucas County.

The Hens are operated by a not-for-profit organization that pays a base rent fee to play in the county-owned ballpark. Any profit the Hens make also goes to the county and is placed in a reserve fund to eventually pay off the bonds that financed the stadium.

Mike Beazley, the Lucas County administrator, said about $5.3 million has accrued in that reserve fund since the Hens began playing at Fifth Third Field in 2002. He said the county s debt for the ballpark has been paid down from $23 million to about $15.8 million.

We have considerable reserves should they have a bad season, Beazley said.

Neither county officials nor the Hens are expecting that reserve fund to come into play.

Hens general manager Joe Napoli said he s budgeted for the club to draw roughly the same amount of fans it drew this past season, when 584,596 entered Fifth Third Field the second most in team history. The year before the Hens set a club record for attendance with 590,159 fans.

The county hasn t received its payments from the Hens for 2008 yet, but the club paid $498,000 for the stadium lease and sent another $450,000 in profits to be placed in the reserve fund for 2007.

Minor league baseball, based on its strong foundation and relationship with Major League Baseball, has traditionally been able to weather a recession, Napoli said. I m able to measure how things are going, and for [the Hens] we re on the same pace as a year ago going into the first quarter.

An obvious draw for minor league baseball is its affordable tickets. The Hens ticket prices are $9 for any seat and just $7 for children and seniors on non-promotional nights. The Detroit Tigers, Toledo s parent club, has tickets priced from $5 to $70.

The minor league baseball industry is coming off a record attendance year, drawing 43,263,740 fans among its 15 leagues (including the Mexican League) and 176 clubs. The International League home of the Hens also set an attendance record in 2008 and went over seven million fans for the first time.

The IL is moving to a new market in 2009 the Richmond Braves are moving to Gwinnett County, Ga., and the Columbus Clippers (now the Indians Triple-A affiliate) are opening a new stadium. The sinking economy is not causing IL officials to worry about a new stadium, a new market, or any of its traditional venues.

Everyone is certainly aware of what s going on, said Chris Sprague, assistant to IL president Randy Mobley. Things may be a bit tougher than usual, but we don t foresee any great hindrances at this point. I think we re pretty fortunate and are certainly positioned as an affordable form of entertainment.

If you don t feel like driving to Detroit or Cleveland and spending more money, you can go to a game in Toledo, for instance.

Contact Joe Vardon at:jvardon@theblade.comor 419-410-5055.

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