Their names sound more like characters out of a comic book than that of championship contenders. Nor can fans talk about the rich tradition of excellence or the heroes who once wore the uniform.

But say this for L.A.'s minor league sports franchises: Fans love 'em, and the owners believe that profits can't be far behind.

Executives with all three teams the Long Beach Ice Dogs hockey team, the Lancaster JetHawks baseball club and the L.A. Blades roller hockey franchise say attendance is growing faster than anticipated and expect their investments to break even within a few seasons.

"We expected to take a loss for a while," said Joann Klonowski, chief executive of the Ice Dogs. "We didn't expect the fans to grow so fast and to be so passionate about a team that's not part of the major leagues."

Minor league sports owners realize they can't compete with the pros on the talent level. So they don't try.

Instead, they target the area where they say major sports are vulnerable giving fans the best overall experience for the dollar. The future should be bright as long as everyone sticks to the game plan: entertaining fans at relatively reasonable prices.

"Minor league baseball's growth is attributed to what we stand for. Our business has gotten better at marketing what we are," said Matt Ellis, part-owner and general manager of the JetHawks. "It's family fun because we pack a lot of entertainment value in our product."

The team, which plays in the California League and is a farm team for the Seattle Mariners, has been in Lancaster for the past two seasons. It attracts an average of about 4,200 fans per game at a 4,500-capacity stadium.

The club won't release revenue or budget figures. However, it does make enough to afford the city's $300,000 a year rental for a $9.5 million stadium Lancaster built for the team in 1995.

Attendance is the lifeblood of minor league teams, says David Simon of the L.A. Sports Council. That's because, unlike major league franchises, minor sports can't rely on an infusion of TV and merchandising money to help pay the bills.

"The owners are in it for other reasons their passion for the sport," Simon said. "And, in a lot of start up businesses with five year financial projections, you'll lose money for the first three years and then begin making money."


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