You hear complaints in the United States that professional sports has become too big a business with owners and top ranked players earning millions of dollars each year. But that's an accusation one minor league American baseball team doesn't have to worry about. The Memphis Redbirds are America's only not-for-profit baseball team.
It sounds like the start of any other baseball game in the United States
"And now, here come your Memphis Redbirds..." said the announcer.
But here's a difference. The Redbirds won't be earning money from tonight's game at least none that will enrich an individual owner. The idea of a not-for-profit baseball team dates back to Kristi and Dean Jernigan, who started the Memphis Redbirds Foundation in the late 1990s. Redbirds president and general manager Dave Chase says an earlier Memphis baseball team had moved to another Tennessee community.
"They decided they wanted to bring back the highest caliber baseball possible, but make it so that a future owner couldn't take it away," he said. "So by setting it up as not-for-profit, it's basically community owned, ensuring that minor league baseball will be in Memphis for as long as the city wants it."
Not only does the community own the team; operating profits are put back into the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation. It funds two youth programs. Dave Chase says the first is called Stripes.
"Maybe about 10 years ago, the city school district dropped baseball and softball from the middle schools just the budgetary problems everyone around the country is having," said Mr. Chase. "They continued baseball and softball in high schools, but then you've created this hole in the experience of the kids, and the skill level wasn't there.
"So in 1998, when the Memphis Redbirds Foundation was created, it was to bring baseball and softball back to those middle schools," he continued. "The other program was called RBI-Returning Baseball to the Inner City-where we host a seven-week summer program for inner city children to come and play baseball and softball. But in reality we're teaching them life skills they need to go forward. Many of them don't have it in their home lives, so we provide it on the baseball field."
"You too can support our Redbirds Foundation just by shopping at Wild Oats Market…" said the announcer.
You'll hear appeals to help the Foundation during games, because individual fans play an important role in supporting it.
"When they take ownership with their $50-$100 annual contribution, they know they're making a difference," he said. "And the amount of ownership is fantastic. It's right up there with the corporations who spend thousands of dollars on our programs. And that ownership is the same. I think the story is almost too good to be true, that a pro sports team is giving back all of its profits. It doesn't happen very often."
The Redbirds are a minor league team, affiliated with the major league Saint Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals recruit and pay the salaries of Redbirds players. If they perform well enough, players move up to join the Cardinals. But while the players aren't directly affected by the team's not-for-profit status, Dave Chase believes it can influence their outlook.
"We can talk to the players about helping us be involved in the community through autograph signings and things like that," explained Mr. Chase. "And they know it's not just lining the pockets of a rich owner. It's helping a kid in Memphis."
"We're really enjoying the venue here," said Redbirds player Dee Haynes as he signed autographs for a group of young ball players. Answering the question about fan support "Great, we get a lot of fans every night. We've got to give back. We've got to keep the fans coming. We have a good time," when he talked about being part of the Memphis team." "The majority of the guys here want one thing, and that's to play in the major leagues and play with the Cardinals," Mr. Chase said. "But when we do have a lot of people in the stands, it makes them play better, and they realize that the better they play and the more people come to the ball park, then we're helping the programs."
Redbirds General Manager Dave Chase says game attendance has been high, especially since the team began playing in a new stadium in downtown Memphis in 2000.
"The not-for-profit does make a difference to me because it keeps sports in the junior high or middle school level," said Barbara Hill, who comes to almost every game."And as a mother of two athletes, that's important to me. And they support all kinds of kids' stuff, the hospitals. So they spend the money wisely, I think."
One of the team's major challenges has been dealing with the Internal Revenue Service. Dave Chase says U.S. tax officials are still deciding how to treat a baseball team that earns no commercial profits. The Redbirds are also struggling to pay for their costly new stadium. But Mr. Chase says they're excited by the initial results of their community programs.
"We've already had our first Stripes participant get a college scholarship," he said. "We're seeing it in the inner city now. Kids are telling us baseball is becoming a cool thing to do where it wasn't always that way. We're seeing improved testing scores in the schools. These kids really see that baseball can help them. And in the long run this is going to help our city, which is certainly where we want to go."
Profit-earning sports teams around the United States are also setting up foundations for community programs. Dave Chase says it's a trend he'd like see spread throughout the world of professional sports. He believes it's time to change the public perception that big-spending sports teams only take money from communities and show that those teams can give back as well.