surf

The Atlantic City Surf play the Newark Bears in an independent minor league baseball game in 2005 at Surf Stadium in New Jersey. The team folded just before opening day in 2009.

The Press of Atlantic City — Ben Fogletto, file

Behind the zany mascots of independent minor league baseball is a volatile business in which teams are constantly forming, moving and dissolving.

The average team of that kind lasts a little more than four years, compared with 17 years for Triple-A ball, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Economics.

Ventura Sports Group, which is forming a new Texas-based league and planning to build a stadium in Bellmead for its Waco BlueCats, is no stranger to that volatility.

Since it was formed in 2004, Ventura has owned five teams from far West Texas to the Jersey Shore. Today it owns none, and four of the teams no longer exist.

The Wisconsin-based group started with the now-defunct El Paso Diablos, selling the team after five years. Since then, it has owned the St. Joe Blacksnakes, the Atlantic City Surf, the Grand Prairie AirHogs and the Laredo Lemurs. Ventura owned none of those for more than four years. Today, only the AirHogs still survive, six years after Ventura sold them for $1.5 million.

Ventura CEO Mark Schuster said several of those teams faced challenges beyond the company’s control, including poor stadium conditions and local politics. Others declined after they were sold to other operators, he said.

Schuster said being able to control the stadiums and the league should help eliminate some of those risks. Ventura is forming the Southwest League of Professional Baseball and is negotiating with Bellmead and other cities to build small stadium-retail complexes.

And Schuster said he is proud to tell the city of Bellmead about Ventura’s record of successful baseball teams and stadiums.

“They’ve done their due diligence,” he said of Bellmead city officials. “They know who my partners are. There are explanations for why things work out or don’t work out.”

Bellmead City Manager Bo Thomas said he has not done extensive vetting but has researched Ventura online and chatted with businesspeople and city officials who have done business with the firm.

What follows is a summary of Ventura’s history in the minor league business, based on news articles, public records, interviews with city officials and Schuster’s accounts.

El Paso

After the Diablos, a long-established Double-A team, moved from El Paso to Springfield, Missouri, Ventura started a new independent team by the same name in 2004 to play at the city’s 10,000-seat Cohen Stadium.

“We had a nice run there,” Schuster said.

In 2007, the team made it to the American Association playoffs and had average attendance of about 4,000 per game, but several losing seasons followed. In 2010, minority investor David Pearlman sued Ventura, alleging deceptive trade practices including the commingling of funds from another team in Atlantic City. That suit was later dismissed, and Schuster said it was filed to “disparage” him while he was competing for a deal in Sugar Land. Pearlman did not return a call seeking comment.

Schuster’s firm sold the Diablos in 2011 to the Tigua tribe, which sold it two years later to WLD Suarez, a firm that included former Waco developer Michael Wray.

In the meantime, the city of El Paso recruited a Triple-A team from Tucson and promised to build it a new stadium. The Diablos moved to Joplin, Missouri, where they played as the Blasters before folding in 2016.

St. Joseph, Mo.

Ventura owned St. Joe Blacksnakes in the American Association from 2006 to 2007, when the team abruptly folded. Local newspapers reported that the city terminated the lease and locked the team out in a dispute over maintenance obligations.

Schuster said the problem was that the city’s Depression-era stadium was in poor condition, and his firm was only involved as part of an agreement with the league.

“It was very small market, and we knew is wasn’t going to support a team,” he said. “It was not a money-maker.”

Three years later, St. Joseph Mayor Ken Shearin wrote a reference letter praising Ventura as “upfront and honest” and calling the lease termination mutual.

Atlantic City, N.J.

In 2007, Ventura bought the Atlantic City Surf, playing in a city-owned stadium that turned out to have structural and mold problems. When the team folded just before opening the season in 2009, the leasing agency, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, told The Press of Atlantic City that Ventura had not paid rent in 21 months and owed $131,250 in back rent. Schuster maintained that the withheld rent had been credited for repairs.

Schuster said this week that the Surf had been promised a new stadium as part of a giant redevelopment project, but that project was derailed during the recession of 2008, leaving the team to play in a subpar location.

Grand Prairie

In 2008, the Grand Prairie AirHogs started play at QuikTrip Park, a public baseball complex Ventura developed for $20 million. The city helped finance the stadium with a one eighth-cent sales tax and got a cut of net income from the facility.

With the city’s permission, Ventura sold the team for $1.5 million in 2011, and it was sold again last year.

Grand Prairie Deputy City Manager Anna Doll said the city was happy with the stadium and the business activity it brought, though attendance has fallen since it opened.

“In the first few years, it was very, very good,” Doll said. “I think sometimes, when you have another ball club close by like the Rangers and the Frisco Rough Riders, it’s a challenge to keep that up.”

The city continues to spend between $500,000 and $760,000 a year to maintain the stadium, while bringing in about $85,644 in rent, the city budget shows.

Schuster said he is proud of the Grand Prairie project, though he said it was probably too large. Its event bookings also suffer from competition from the adjacent Nokia Theater, he said.

Laredo

In 2012, the Ventura-owned Laredo Lemurs started play in a not-quite-finished city facility called Uni-Trade Stadium.

The stadium, with 3,900 fixed seats, cost $23 million, $5 million more than originally budgeted.

Though the stadium was announced as a partnership between Ventura and Laredo, Schuster said the city ended up with control of the project and was responsible for the months of delay.

“My partners wanted me to sue the city for not living up to its contract, because it hurt us,” Schuster said. “We went through the first year not making any money. We should have made $1 million. I decided I didn’t want to be in the business of suing the city.”

Schuster demanded that the city offset his losses, and when Ventura sold the stadium to a Mexican investor in 2014, the city agreed to pay off more than $600,000 of Ventura’s outstanding debts.

The new investors, led by Arianna Torres, feuded and ended up folding the team in May of last year. After a season without a team, the city of Laredo has now recruited a Mexican team, Tecolotes Dos Laredos, to play half its games there for the 2018 season.

Juan Gomez, superintendent of athletics for Laredo, said that even with that revenue sharing, the city expects to spend about $700,000 a year maintaining the stadium.

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

Recommended for you