Cardinals drop plans to buy Class AAA team

Thursday, January 15, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals have dropped plans to purchase their top minor-league affiliate in Memphis, Tenn., citing concerns about the sour economy and uncertainty about what the economic downturn will mean for baseball, an official with the Memphis Redbirds said Wednesday.

The Cardinals renewed a four-year agreement in September keeping the Redbirds as the Class AAA affiliate, and at the same time announced plans to buy the team from the not-for-profit Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation.

But the economy has taken a sharp turn for the worse since then. The Redbirds foundation was informed in a letter late last month that the Cardinals no longer planned to buy the team and rent AutoZone Park.

"We were disappointed," Redbirds president of business operations Bill Harter said. "We thought it was a good marriage. I don't think it's a question of whether they want to buy us, it's just timing."

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said the club had "done our due diligence, and just felt it was not the right timing to do this deal."

The Cardinals own all or part of three of their other minor-league teams, including the Class AA team in Springfield, Mo.; Class A Palm Beach, Fla.; and the Rookie League team in Johnson City, Tenn. They also own their flagship radio station, KTRS-AM.

Memphis has been home to the Cardinals' Class AAA team since 1998. The team ranks high among minor league teams in attendance, typically drawing more than 300,000 fans annually, Harter said.

The Redbirds are among the highest grossing teams in the minor leagues.

But, Harter said, they also have the highest debt.

The Cardinals have debt, too, three years after moving into the new $365 million Busch Stadium that was financed mostly by the team. Major league salaries continue to rise, even as baseball executives worry that attendance could suffer this summer because of the economy.

Harter understands the Cardinals' plight, and said the possibility remains that when the economy improves, the deal could be on the table again.

And he said the relationship between the two organizations remains strong.

"At the end of the day, it's still a business," Harter said. "But we're still very proud to be associated with the Cardinals. They're a great organization. Memphis has been a Cardinals town forever, so I think our relationship with them is not dampened by their decision."

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