This time a year ago, the Fort Worth Cats, the city's minor league baseball team, was on death's doorstep. Team owner Carl Bell had racked up considerable debt that come the economic downturn, he was unable to repay, prompting the American Association to boot the Cats from the league and Amergy Bank to foreclose on La Grave Field, their stadium seven blocks from downtown Fort Worth.
Enter John Bryant. The former Congressman, together with former Texas Rangers President Mike Stone and a few others, purchased the team from Bell, paid off its outstanding debts, replaced the entire staff, and prepared the team for the 2012 season. The new owners had the advantage of having a league for the team to play in, having founded United League Baseball, a collection of six Texas clubs, two years before.
The 2012 season marked something of a rebirth. On the field, the team was playing solid baseball, eventually going on to reach the United League championship. The team's finances were better than they had been in years. Everyone seemed to agree that the Cats had been fully resurrected.
Then, over the summer, vendors stopped getting paid.
"The outstanding balance has been there since July," said Reuben Rice, a sporting goods dealer who supplies the club's baseballs. Even when the checks stopped being there, Rice kept the deliveries coming through the season on the promise that he would be paid. The money never came, and "all of a sudden, we have 1,500, 1,800 dozen baseballs and they haven't paid for any of them," Rice said.
That's 20,000 baseballs for which the team owes $38,000. A uniform supplier, who declined to be named, told a similar story, saying he's still owed $10,000. And last month, a law firm filed a lawsuit against the club in Dallas County claiming a $10,000 debt it wants repaid with interest.
Rice said his attempts to get an answer from Bryan on when he might get paid are met with silence and evasion. "The biggest frustration with them at this point is they won't call you back," he said.
In a phone call this morning and a followup email, Bryant acknowledges the team owes suppliers money -- about $70,000 by his count -- but says he has every intention of making good on the debt. He just won't have the money until January 15.
Despite the unpaid bills, Bryant says the Cats are financially sound and in no danger of returning to the debt-ridden days of the past. They just have a bit of a cash flow problem.
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The reason, according to Bryant, is that the team unexpectedly had to drop $5.1 million to buy La Grave Field. It was unexpected because the team was waiting for the Tarrant Regional Water District to buy the property from Amergy Bank (the property is key to its strategy for the Trinity Vision Project , Fort Worth's answer to Dallas' Trinity River Corridor), but the purchase kept getting delayed. Finally, Amergy announced that it would sell the stadium to the highest bidder at a foreclosure auction.
Bryant and his partners worried that the property would be sold to a developer, which would then likely raze the stadium, thereby killing the Cats. To avoid that fate, they marshaled the team's financial resources and purchased La Grave Field and the 13 acres it sits on.
The move will be a boon for the club in the long run, since it ensures they'll always have a place to play, but coming as it did at the point in the offseason when a club has virtually no revenue, some vendor payments were missed. Once people start buying tickets for the upcoming season and revenues pick up, Bryant says the vendors will get paid in full. The target for that is January 15.
Bryant might want to let Rice know, and quickly. Rice is thinking about whether he wants to sue.