While Major League Baseball struggles to attract fans, minor league teams are packing out parks - and attracting big-time corporate ownership.
In the old days, a minor league baseball executive like George Habel would have been a grizzled veteran of hardscrabble towns and broken-down ballparks, of Class D leagues, cold-water trailer courts, and hocking the team bus to make the payroll.

But these aren't the old days. Instead, Habel is a longtime broadcasting executive with a swank office in a state-of-the-art stadium. His employer and team owner? A multimillion- dollar media company that has no trouble making payroll.

"The minor leagues," says Habel, who runs the Class AAA Durham Bulls for Capitol Broadcasting, "are not what they used to be."

That's because minor league baseball has turned into a major league business. Left for dead in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the minors are thriving - attendance is at record levels, the number of teams is at a three-decade high, and many national and regional companies whose primary business is something else are buying not just one team, but as many as they can get their corporate hands on.

"Minor league baseball isn't as glamorous as some of the other businesses we've been in," says Habel. "But it certainly is more profitable - significantly more profitable. The minor leagues have changed from a hobby to a nice business."

Flourishing almost everywhere
The numbers are nothing short of astounding. In 2002, the minors - the 176 professional baseball teams organized into 15 leagues - drew almost 40 million fans. That's the third-highest total ever, and just 1.1 million behind the record, set in the glorious old days of 1949, when 448 teams in 59 leagues drew 39.8 million.