April 19, 2013

Fort Worth Cats set schedule amid questions of club’s finances

Vendors, employees haven’t been paid; team blames unexpected purchase of stadium.

The Fort Worth Cats released their 2013 schedule this week, proudly announcing promotional nights and ticket specials for the upcoming season.

It’s an optimistic time for those running the Cats. They hired former Chicago Cubs manager Jim Essian to run the club, will hold tryouts on April 27-28 and the season opener is scheduled for May 23 vs. Edinburg at historic LaGrave Field.

But baseball isn’t the pressing issue for the Cats. The financial state is in question after the ownership group, led by John Bryant and Byron Pierce, had to purchase the stadium last fall and have fallen behind on several payments.

Bryant refuted any notion that the club has any such concerns going into the season.

“The financial state of the club is excellent,” Bryant said. “We have a very strong balance sheet, but we had to spend a very serious portion of our available operating capital just to keep the stadium. It put us behind the eight-ball cash-wise, but balance-sheet wise we’re in great shape.”

The cash-strapped team has left vendors fuming. The most vocal is local sporting goods dealer Reuben Rice, who said the team owes him $40,000 for approximately 20,000 baseballs he supplied last season.

“They’re talking about having a season and I don’t know how they’d do that,” he said. “If they start a season, I’ll be out at LaGrave handing out flyers telling people about those owners.”

Rice said the team agreed after the season to make $1,000 monthly payments, but that didn’t work out and he had to hire a collection agency. But the collection agency didn’t make any progress with the owners.

“I’ve been in this industry for 18 years and this is the first time I’ve been screwed over this badly by a customer,” Rice said.

Bryant, a Dallas lawyer and former U.S. congressman, didn’t get into specifics of individual cases, but said: “We have accounts payable, no question about that, but they’re manageable in amount.

“We expected to deal with this through the fall and instead we had to deal with the stadium. That’s the plain facts. Minor league baseball teams are not set up to buy their stadium. It’s a seasonal sport. You operate from about April through October. We’ve handled it fine, we just did not expect to buy that stadium.”

Bryant is managing partner of FW Stadium Group Llc., which bought the property for $4.5 million during a foreclosure auction after Amegy Bank of Houston foreclosed.

The total cost with fees and taxes pushed it well past $5 million, Bryant said. The sale came less than 10 months after the group had purchased the team on Jan. 31, 2012, from Carl Bell.

Bryant said buying the stadium was a necessary, but unanticipated, move. With no stadium, after all, there would be no venue for the team to play.

But vendors and employees didn’t get paid. One former employee said close to two months passed with no paychecks and, when they were paid, it wasn’t in a timely fashion.

Bryant reiterated that the stadium purchase required a significant amount of the club’s cash. He also said the team pushed this current pay period back from Monday to Friday, saying, “We’ve been careful with cash flow with our internal staff.

“We’re not in a bad cash flow situation right now, but we’ve had to deal with normal operating activity in a much more careful way.”

Despite the vendors and former employees suggesting otherwise, Bryant remains optimistic about the organization and what his ownership group has done over their first 15 months.

“We rescued the team in January, we rescued the stadium in October,” he said. “The team essentially broke even last year. So we’ve been very pleased with the season and the team.”

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