Despite all the well-documented problems with the Lake County Fielders, the first team in the independent North American League to go under is Na Koa Ikaika Maui; meanwhile, the league announced it's shutting down the 2011 season a week early.
In announcing the end of the season will come Aug. 28, league officials said the move came because of the "ongoing impact of the distressed economy." (That, of course, is bogus: the economy isn't any worse now than it was a year ago when this league's business plan was conceived.) The plan announced late yesterday is to end the league season early and expand the playoffs by a few games. Given there's no doubts about the four teams in playoffs -- Calgary and Edmonton in the North, San Angelo and Rio Grande Valley in the South -- the move certainly was not a surprise (indeed, we predicted this would happen based on some information from some league GMs). And critics who predicted the league would not last the 2011 were proved partially right: the league really didn't make it to the end of the season. Here's why.
All along critics of the North American League raised one salient point: it's pretty much impossible for an independent league to rely on air travel to cart teams around. Witness the figure quoted to bring Lake County to Maui for a year-end series: $60,000 in airfare costs alone. Doing that multiple times in a season is a budget breaker. Now, we've been told league owners assumed they could put together some sort of trade or sponsorship with an airline (i.e., Southwest or Delta) to at least partially offset the travel costs. But airlines are in the business of making money and not giving away services to potential customers, and many league owners were shocked, to say, the least, when they discovered how expensive it would be to cart players, coaches and equipment to the likes of Calgary, Chicago and Maui.
Maui, in particular, posed a unique travel problem for other teams in the league. The team didn't draw last year and didn't draw this year; even before the league announced the demise of the team all players and coaches had been released. Pro baseball in Hawaii is always a crapshoot: the Pacific Coast League concluded that supporting a team in Honolulu simply wasn't financially feasible, and that was a much larger market than the NAL targeted. The original NAL plan was to place multiple teams in the state -- thus spreading out the travel costs -- but in the end only one team was launched in a rather small market, as there are 154,834 people on the entire island of Maui. Wailuku, where the team is based, has a population of 12,296.
So what comes next for the North American League? First, it's obvious Lake County won't be back: the team's backers have approached other indy leagues about a move, and having a single Illinois team in predominantly a California circuit will make as little sense in 2012 as it did in 2011. We're heard rumblings that the owners of four Texas teams are debating whether to go back on their own, perhaps adding two markets (like Brownsville) to make it a six-team United League Baseball circuit.
That would leave the core West Coast teams to decide their future. After their misadventures in Maui and problems in Fullerton the year before, we're not sure the Na Koa Ikaika ownership will be too eager for more in Fullerton, especially when there's no prospect for a new downtown Fullerton ballpark any time soon. (Maui ownership says they'll be back next year via a Facebook posting.) There's no chance the league will return to Tucson after the city reclaimed the Hi Corbett Field lease and awarded it to the Arizona Wildcats. There's no lease for an Omaha team at TD Ameritrade Park, and given the wonderful reception given the Omaha Storm Chasers (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League), it would be business suicide to put a team in the cavernous downtown ballpark designed to service 24,000 fans a game for the College World Series. Though the league has some prospective new markets in the San Francisco area (or, maybe not; Centerfield Partners has asked San Rafael, Cal. to postpone any decision on a new privately financed Albert Park ballpark pending a review of the league's business plan), we're talking modest facilities holding fewer than 2,000 fans.
Realistically, you may be looking at only four teams left in the NAL next season: Chico, Yuma, Calgary and Edmonton. That's not the makings for a successful circuit. Fifteen years ago, you could put together a regional indy league almost anywhere; there were plenty of open markets and unleased former affiliated ballparks. But with the rise of the summer-collegiate game, it's increasingly difficult to do so. When the Northern League launched in 1993, cities like Duluth and Rochester could host pro baseball, but today they're much more suited for summer-collegiate squads. In the Pacific Northwest a decade ago, the NAL could have looked to plenty of open markets -- Bellingham, Walla Walla -- as a way to bridge the gap between California and Canada, but those markets are locked up by summer-collegiate owners. As an industry, indy ball has grown to the point where it needs to happen in markets large enough to support affiliated professional baseball (like Winnipeg or virtually every market in the Atlantic League) or suburbs of large cities (as is the case in Kansas City or Montgomery County). There may not be enough open markets in California and Arizona for the North American League to take off and thrive.
As a postscript: the Fielders will play most, if not all, its remaining games against the Kenosha County Fielders, a road team formed specifically to play against the Fielders. A schedule has not been announced, but we'd expect all the remaining home games to be Fielders on Fielders clashes at Fielders Stadium. That allows the Fielders ownership to finish the season in a professional league, fulfilling some of the team's lease and giving ownership leverage against the city in any future legal actions.
UPDATE: It was announced today the Fielders will host the Wisconsin State League's Kenosha Kings this week and will not form a semi-pro pickup squad. The Kings will be in town tomorrow night and will presumably play games on Aug. 17-22 in place of Maui. It remains to be seen whether Yuma shows up for a scheduled season-endng series Aug. 24-28.
RELATED STORIES: It's Fieders vs. Fieders in Lake County; Fielders: We're still in NAL -- for now; Fielders tossed from North American League; Fielders skip on Hawaii road trip; season in question; Fielders game scrapped because of sub-par baseballs; Fielders may disband because of city inaction on new ballpark; Zion: Fielders owe us $185,000 in back rent; Fielders' Zaman quits on the air; Fielders continue blame game for financial woes, adding league to mix; Fielders: Don't blame us, blame Zion; Unpaid players revolt in Lake County; 9 traded, 14 released
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