Less than a year after they invested in stock-car racing, the owners of the Red Sox have struck closer to home, becoming one of the few Major League Baseball operations to pursue a minor league franchise.
Fenway Sports Group, the marketing and entertainment arm of the company that owns the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park, yesterday said it is buying the Salem Avalanche, a Class A team that's part of the Carolina League, three rungs down from the Major League level.
The Avalanche, based in Salem, Va., and affiliated with the Houston Astros since 2003, are expected to maintain that relationship for the 2008 season.
Currently, the Red Sox have relationships with three Class A teams: the Lancaster JetHawks, of Lancaster, Calif.; the Greenville Drive, of Greenville, S.C.; and the Lowell Spinners.
The Red Sox's agreement with the JetHawks expires at the same time as the Astros-Avalanche deal, at the end of the 2008 season. An executive briefed on the details of the purchase said the Red Sox could switch their Class A affiliation from Lancaster to Salem when the contracts expire.
Fenway Sports Group officials would not comment; Major League rules prohibit executives from discussing prospective affiliation changes.
No price was disclosed, but the values of minor league teams can vary from roughly $5 million to $30 million.
Mike Dee, president of Fenway Sports Group, said the Avalanche purchase - like the group's purchase of an interest in Nascar's Roush Racing team this year - is the kind of opportunity that Fenway Sports Group was created to seek out.
"It's a good business model, roughly connected to our core business," Dee said. "We've had our eye on minor league baseball for some time."
The New York Times Co., parent of the Globe, holds a 17 percent stake in the venture that owns the Red Sox.
The purchase "makes a lot of sense," said Don Hinchey, vice president of communications for Bonham Group, a Denver sports and entertainment marketing company. "I think there are synergies they can play off that will benefit both parties."
The Avalanche can benefit from the Red Sox name and marketing expertise and sponsorships, he said.
"Some of these teams are getting very sophisticated about how they can distribute their messages - by cellphones and PDAs," he said. "That's beginning to spill over into the minor leagues, as well."
This year, the Avalanche played in the Carolina League championship series and set a franchise attendance record.
Jacoby Ellsbury, an outfielder who played for the Sox in this year's World Series, played in the Carolina league a year and a half ago.
The Avalanche franchise previously was affiliated with other teams, including a 20-year on-and-off relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The name Avalanche comes from when the team was linked to the Colorado Rockies.
The team is currently owned by Hardball Capital LLC, of Atlanta, which also owns the Fort Wayne Wizards in Indiana.
Avalanche general manager John Katz, a native of Canton, said the team has been in the Carolina League for 41 years and will benefit from being owned by the company that owns the Red Sox.
"They're really professional and experts in what they do," Katz said. "They haven't had the opportunity to put their stamp on a minor league team."
Most Major League teams are affiliated with - but don't own - teams at several of the five levels of minor league baseball, from Class AAA down to the rookie league. Below that are independent leagues, whose teams are not sanctioned under Major League teams.
Exceptions include the Atlanta Braves, which own two minor league teams, and several Major League franchises that own their teams in Florida.
"There are only 150 affiliated minor league franchises," said Dee. "It's not often those franchises are for sale."
Minor league team owners run the ballparks and sell tickets. The teams' Major League affiliates pay the salaries of players, coaches, and managers.
"Our plan with this is to invest, as with Roush, and to hold it long term," Dee said. "Minor league baseball franchises have been increasing in value over the last two decades."
Fenway Sports Group's previous acquisitions have not included outside investors. But the Avalanche will be held by the group, acting as majority and managing partner, and an additional number of limited partners and investors, to be named in about 30 days.
Fenway Sports Group owns the rights to Boston College athletics under a 12-year contract - consulting and handling marketing and sponsorships on local radio and TV.
It has a similar relationship with Deutsche Bank for the Deutsche Bank Championship in golf.
The group's biggest client is Major League Baseball Advance Media, which is owned by the 30 franchises. Fenway Sports Group sells online advertising for mlb.com and the 30 team websites.
The purchase is subject to approval by Major League Baseball and minor league baseball.
Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.