Fun is part of Fisher Cats owner’s investment strategy

Pursuing a second career has turned out to be an expensive pastime for Drew Weber, the retired New York clothier and current owner of two minor league baseball teams, including the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, who will be beginning their initial season this month in Manchester.

A lifelong baseball fan who grew up on Long Island rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Weber had no notion of going into the baseball business in the mid-1990s, when he and his brother sold W. Weber and Co., a family business for three generations.

“I knew a lot of major league ballplayers when I was in the men’s clothing business” he recalled. “They would say, ‘Drew, why not buy a minor league baseball team?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right after I become an astronaut.”

Instead, the future baseball executive went back to school. “I knew I didn’t want to retire, so I went to graduate school,” he said. A University of Cincinnati alumnus, Weber had earned an MBA from New York University early in his career. But this time, he returned to NYU with a totally different objective. “I wanted to be a psychologist,” he said.

But becoming a student again in a high-tech world was more of a strain than he had imagined. “I remember the low point was when I had a paper due, and I lost the paper in the computer.” His reaction might have made for an interesting psychological study. “My daughter called my wife and said ‘Mom, get home, he’s crazy!’ Finally I said, ‘What am I putting myself through this for?’”

He left graduate school and began seriously considering a venture in baseball. He visited a number of minor league teams and even interned for one in Jamestown, N.Y. “I sold ads,” he said. “Believe it or not, I went into some of the stores, and they didn’t even know about the team. Obviously there was no marketing support for the team at all. It was not profitable, so the owner put very little money into it.” He tried to buy the team, but the owner wasn’t ready to sell.

“The challenge would have been to turn a team like that around. It would have been difficult,” said Weber, who now considers it a blessing that his offer was turned down. He would eventually find a better opportunity when he attended the winter baseball meetings in Los Angeles in December 1996 and met Clyde Smoll, a classmate at the University of Cincinnati and owner of the Red Sox affiliate in the New York-Penn League.

Smoll was looking at the time to move the franchise from Elmira, N.Y., to Lowell, Mass. Weber let him know he was interested in buying a team and decided to stay in touch with Smoll and follow the fate of his team.

In his first year in Lowell, as the state was building a new stadium for the team, Smoll decided the time was right to sell. “I got a call from him asking me if I was still interested in buying a baseball team,” said Weber. He and his wife JoAnn made the trek from their New Jersey home to Alumni Stadium in Lowell to see the Spinners in action.

“After the game, we met — just the two of us,” Weber said of his encounter with Smoll. “It was a very clandestine meeting. He didn’t want anyone to know he was selling the team.”

Weber bought the franchise for $2.2 million. Since then, the team has been a hit at Lowell’s LeLacheur Park, playing before standing-room-only crowds for every game since August 1999.

“There was no one who predicted the success that Lowell would be–including me,” said Weber.

Fun and entertainment

So when the opportunity came to bring a minor league team to Manchester, Weber bought the New Haven Ravens of the Eastern League for over $10 million, including the buyout of the team’s lease.

“As soon as (the Ravens owner) made a deal he started calling other people and tried to sell it for more,” Weber said. “That franchise, without Manchester, wasn’t worth half of what he got for it.”

But with Manchester, the franchise would require a sizable investment. When the Fisher Cats move into the city’s new $24 million stadium next year, they will begin paying $750,000, a year in rent plus $169,000 of the city’s approximately $1.7 million debt service payments. The city will receive 25 percent of any net earnings the team makes in excess of $975,000. The team also is paying $1 million of the $4.1 million renovation of Gill Stadium, where the team will play this year.

As required under the agreement, Weber presented the city last fall with a personal line of credit worth $2.79 million to cover the first three years of rent and debt service payments.

With about 90 percent of his personal wealth now tied up in his baseball teams, Weber hopes to find other investors for the Fisher Cats. Earlier this year, he said he would like to sell as much as 80 percent interest in the team, while retaining control of day-to-day operations. He also said at the time that selling the entire team was a possibility if no investors were found by year’s end.

“That was taken out of context,” he said “They said, ‘What if you can’t find an investors?’ Well, that isn’t going to happen.” Asked if he has found any yet, Weber said, “I’m not doing anything on that now.”

With well over 100,000 tickets sold by the end of March, fan interest in Fisher Cats baseball is strong, though Weber doubts the team will be able to match the Spinners in sellouts. The New York-Penn League plays a shorter season, with games starting in June. “April and May can be pretty cold” for baseball in northern New England, Weber noted.

But he believes the Fisher Cats can duplicate the fun and entertainment value at Lowell and other minor league venues.

Weber’s favorite promotions at Lowell included a “Birth Night,” when expectant mothers were given Lamaze lessons between innings. The first to give birth would receive a year’s supply of diapers. The winning baby was in fact delivered within a few days of the contest, but the team was prepared to deal with an emergency during the game. “We had ambulances there,” he said, along with a good deal of publicity. “The Associated Press carried the story,” he noted.

The team also has hosted an actual wedding, conducted in stages between innings. At one point the bride and groom passed under a formation of crossed baseball bats held by Spinners players. Weber laughed as he recalled that the opposing manager, upset his pitcher had to sit through the delay, played the game under protest.

“Afterwards he came up to me and said, ‘What are you going to do next Weber, have a bar mitzvah?’”

Delays are rare, he said, since minor league rules place a 90-second limit on entertainment between innings. That way the amusements don’t become too much of a distraction for baseball purists. “The baseball people can go on talking about the game, while others can enjoy the entertainment.” The entertainment and family fun make up a large part of what inspires people to risk large sums of money on minor league baseball, he said.

“You’re not going to get a big return,” Weber said. “It’s people looking at it for the same reason I invest in it — for the fun. When you invest in IBM stock, you’re not looking to have a good time.”

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