Zephyrs may move from New Orleans

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane talks to reporters during batting practice before an opening day baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Sunday, March 31, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle,  Karen Warren) Show caption
Houston Astros owner Jim Crane talks to reporters during batting practice before an opening day baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Sunday, March 31, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Karen Warren)

METAIRIE — The Zephyrs’ 20-year stay in New Orleans could be coming to an end after next season.

General Manager Mike Schline on Monday confirmed a report that owner Don Beaver has been in discussions with Houston Astros owner Jim Crane to sell the franchise, which likely would be moved to suburban Houston in 2015.

“I was a little surprised that it’s gone public at this preliminary of a stage,” Schline said. “But Don has had discussions with people in the past, and discussions are discussions. That’s where it is right now. If someone comes up with the right price and the right package, then he’ll sell the team.”

Crane has expressed interest in relocating his team’s Triple-A affiliate — currently in Oklahoma City — to Montgomery County, about 40 miles north of downtown Houston. Montgomery County officials have been seeking a team at some level for several years.

The Zephyrs’ lease with the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District for Zephyr Field runs through 2016, but an early exit could be negotiated, especially if there is a replacement franchise. The team’s agreement with the Miami Marlins ends in 2014, as does Oklahoma City’s with the Astros.

In any case, a new stadium in Montgomery County couldn’t be built until 2015 because nothing is beyond the talking stage.

“We’ve been looking at a few spots,” Crane told Comcast SportsNet Houston on Sunday. “That’s going to take a couple of years to get that done, but you’ve got to start planning.”

Speaking for Beaver, who owns two other minor league teams plus a piece of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Schline acknowledged that the Zephyrs have had financial problems in recent years.

“It’s always been a struggle,” he said. “In the early stages of the franchise, especially once we moved to Metairie (in 1997), we would get from $1.2 (million) to $1.5 million, but it’s maybe 80 percent of that now. It’s tough competing with two major franchises for sponsorships, attendance and attention.”

The Zephyrs drew 329,942 fans last year, the second-lowest figure at Zephyr Field, although seven late-season dates were lost because of Hurricane Isaac. The peak season was 519,584 in 1998, when the team was the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate.

The team’s average attendance of 4,999 in 2012 was 11th in the 16-team Pacific Coast League. Oklahoma City drew 5,633 per game.

“To be financially successful, every piece of the puzzle has to fit,” Schline said. “That’s season tickets, game-day tickets, suites, hospitality areas and concessions along with sponsorships. But I do think the city can support professional baseball. If everyone in the metropolitan area would just buy one ticket once a year, we’d be OK.”

Schline indicated that New Orleans could wind up with a team in the Double-A Southern League, but that likely would be under different ownership.

SMG, which operates the stadium along with the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and New Orleans Arena, likely would start pursuing a new tenant for the Zephyr Field when and if the sale goes through. Spokesman Eric Eagan said Monday that SMG has not been made aware of any negotiations to sell the Zephyrs.

Before the Zephyrs came to New Orleans in 1993, Saints owner Tom Benson expressed interest in owning a Double-A team, and Zephyr Field is adjacent to both the Saints’ training facility and one for the Hornets now under construction. Benson’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Schline said he did not think Zephyr Field would go vacant.

“We have a nice, well-kept facility here,” he said. “I would think somebody would want to come here. I do know everybody wants baseball to stay in New Orleans.”

The Zephyrs’ season opener is Thursday in Nashville, Tenn. The home opener is April 12 against Round Rock.