The baseball season is once again underway and that got me thinking about the business of sports. Once upon a time, there were a number of public companies that owned sports teams, especially baseball clubs. Presently, given that Sam Zell has taken the Tribune Company private, there remains only one baseball team with public company ownership and that's the Toronto Blue Jays, part of the Rogers Communications media empire. This doesn't leave the average Joe with much choice. There has to be a better way, and there is.

Buying sports franchises has always been attractive to the wealthy. Who wouldn't want to be a sports baron? However, if you're looking to make money you best look elsewhere. For those lacking a billion dollars or more to be a part of the fraternity that is sports ownership, here are three sports-related companies that you can invest in that will make you money long-term without the steep price of admission.

Adams Golf (Nasdaq:ADGF)
It's not a big company, but it's an important one. Founder Barney Adams created the Tight Lies fairway wood in 1999, revolutionizing the golf business. Since then the company has created many innovative products, most notably the Idea hybrid club, which combines the best attributes of both woods and irons, making it much easier to hit the ball, according to Adams Golf anyway. Legions of duffers may disagree.

As a company, Adams has experienced its own share of difficulties. However, today it's in the best shape it's ever been both financially and operationally in its 21-year history. Sales in 2007 were $94.6 million with an operating profit of $4.1 million, in comparison to sales of $76 million and an operating profit of $3.4 million in the previous year. Return on equity in 2007 was 17.6%, the second highest rate of return to shareholders in company history. On a valuation basis, Adam's Golf is a bargain trading at 0.55 times sales and 0.97 times book value. Swing away. (To learn how to make all these numbers and ratios work for you, check out our Fundamental Analysis Tutorial.)

International Speedway (Nasdaq:ISCA)
If you haven't heard of the Daytona Speedway, you're probably not a sports fan. Daytona is the crown jewel in a star-studded line-up of 13 racetracks coast-to-coast owned by the Florida-based company International Speedway. Bill France, Sr. built the business from the ground up, including co-founding NASCAR in 1948 and building the 2.5-mile super speedway at Daytona in 1959. Since then, the company has gone on to build or acquire venues in California, Michigan and Virginia, among others.

As an investment, it's been a bumpy ride. International Speedway stock sits at low prices not seen since August 2003 and nowhere near $66, its all-time high reached in November 1999. In the last 10 years, EBIT margins have shrunk to 21.5% from 34.7%. It's no wonder the stock's annual return in the last 10 years is 6%, barely better than the S&P 500's 4%. You'd think with NASCAR's popularity, the stock would have done better.

Lifetime Fitness (NYSE:LTM)
Arguably, America's best and largest fitness operation, the Minneapolis-based Lifetime Fitness has 71 facilities in 16 states. Since going public in June 2004, its stock is up almost $13 from its IPO pricing of $18.50. Solid performance until you consider that six months ago, the stock was trading around $65. It seems that the market is worried that the party is over for Lifetime. This is likely an overreaction. Operating margins in each of the last five years were 20% or higher, with revenue increasing every year from $257 million in 2003 (pre-IPO) to $656 million in 2007. That's hardly a weakening business model. (For reading on measuring company efficiency, check out The Bottom Line On Margins.)

Critics point to a slowing membership growth rate, as seen in the fourth quarter of 2007 (12.5% increase year-over-year) this is down from a 15.1% year-over-year growth in the third quarter of 2007. The company says it was due to a combination of increased fees at some clubs to reduce overcrowding plus an economic slowdown. At 50% off, it could be worth taking the risk that the naysayers are wrong.

Bottom Line
Next time you're on the golf course, watching a stock car race or working out at the gym, remember there's the potential to make money from your leisure activities. You don't have to be a business tycoon like George Steinbrenner to profit from the wide world of sports. If you want to become a successful partial owner, just look for home run stocks.

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