Top Menu

Warning signs for independent baseball

The offseason means more changes for independent baseball.
By Dave Wright


As a rule, this is a quiet time of year for independent baseball. The playoffs are over and champions have been crowned. Some teams actually allow employees to take vacations while others shave their staff to the nubbins for a couple of months. There is the occasional player transaction and a manager announcement now and then. By and large, however, this is naptime for indy proprietors.

But this October has been very different. Independent teams are making a lot of headlines on these pages — and elsewhere — these days. And, as Martha Stewart would say, that is not a good thing. There has been a series of newsworthy items — most of them involving the Northern League — that may be prove troublesome for the future of independent baseball.

The Northern League is the grandpappy of indy ball. It was the league that started the craze in 1993. But I suspect it didn’t anticipate celebrating its 15th anniversary with a public spat that saw two teams leave and watch its most prominent team’s owner draw front-page notice for fiscal reasons.

Three years ago, the league took Horace Greeley’s advice and expanded west to Calgary and Edmonton. Both cities had experience in the realm of minor league baseball. Neither one had ever been a massive success but nor had they been colossal failures. Winnipeg had proved to be a successful move for the league and it was hopeful these towns would follow suit.

Halfway through their first season, it was obvious trouble was afoot. Attendance was mediocre and the longstanding teams were already muttering about the expense of flying to those ports. When the 2005 season ended, four franchises — including three had been with the league from day one — hoofed away and joined several southern teams for the new American Association.

To hell with St. Paul, Sioux City, Sioux Falls and Lincoln, the other NL teams said. If they didn’t want to be with us, fine. We’ll soldier on.

But the key to making independent ball work always was its low financial status. The fact that teams were close geographically was supposed to be an attendance lure. Fargo-Moorhead, for example, got considerable promotional mileage out of home games with Winnipeg (four hours one way) and St. Paul (four hours in the other direction). Picking up more games with Calgary, Edmonton, Kansas City, etc. didn’t make up for that. There was also the added financial cost of flying more to Canada as opposed to the easier bus trips to Sioux Falls and Sioux City.

No matter how they figured the financial aspect of it (go back to our site’s archives to read the gory details), it wasn’t going to work. Last week, when the divorce became official, the league was back where it started — with six franchises. Only now three of them were close to each other in the Chicago area while the other three were scattered in two states and Manitoba. (The Alberta exit meant the Northern League has had 21 different franchises come and go. This is one time where you don’t want to be first.)

That news would be bad enough for the league but the Sam Katz business gets nuttier. Again, we don’t need to rehash the details here. The links on the front page of the website tells the tale better than I could of what is happening with the majority owner of the Goldeyes, who is also the town mayor. Suffice it to say that, if this had happened with a major-league baseball team, ESPN might have interrupted one of its poker shows to get us all up to date.

None of the above is likely entice big-time advertisers to pitch anchor. Season-ticket holders have a right to wonder if they really want to fork out money to watch the same team come to town for 10-14 games in a three-month period. Variety is supposed to be the spice of life.

The American Association would appear to be more stable. The emphasis is on the word "appear." St. Paul, a lynchpin of the old Northern League, continues to motor on unabated. The Saints, a cash cow from the day they were born in 1993, again averaged more than 100 per cent capacity. (Truth in Journalism note: I worked for the Saints for nine years.) Lincoln, which drew solidly in the NL, has fared well here, too, averaging over 4,000 fans per date. Sioux Falls, which has had a series of sub-mediocre teams, topped the 3,000 per date mark this year for the first time.

But there is a significant falloff in league attendance from there. Sioux City was more than a thousand per game behind their South Dakota rivals. Their most recognizable name — manager Ed Nottle — recently resigned. (It’s usually not a good sign when the manager is most notable personality on the team.) Two of the bottom three teams in attendance — Coastal Bend and St. Joseph — are all but certain to close doors. Fortunately, Wichita, KS and Grand Prairie, TX have already signed on for 2008. So, the league will stay at 10 teams.

This will be Wichita’s fifth try at a minor league franchise since 1950. The new team hasn’t exactly hit the ground running. They have no nickname and no website yet. (However, if you google “Wichita baseball”, you can get info on the team that played there as a Braves affiliate from 1956-58.) Perhaps even worrisome is that stat: the 2007 team that played there finished last in the Texas League with an average of 1,695 fans per date.

Grand Prairie is a real unknown quantity. But they have a very sharp mind in Dave Burke as General Manager. And just about everybody agrees it has to be better than Coastal Bend, which suffered from staffing and geography issues.

But this doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still a huge financial haul for northern teams to go south and vice versa in this league. Not everybody can afford to fly for these games. It is a nasty, exhausting bus trip from Pensacola to, say, St. Paul.

The American Association may be in the same danger that eventually did in fledgling leagues like the World Hockey Association and the American Basketball Association. Both those leagues had very successful franchises but were too top-heavy to survive. Eventually, the top teams merged into the NHL and NBA while the lessers disappeared into the history books. It is highly unlikely history will repeat itself if the NL and AA start to stumble. A merger between the two leagues would be the only possibility.

There is a baseball history lesson, too. In 1971, Aberdeen was a successful franchise in the four-team Northern League. St. Cloud and Sioux Falls were turning slight profits. But Watertown drew just 8,000 fans for the season and folded at season’s end. Huron and Duluth had left the year before. The league disappeared.

It is really this simple: If you are going to pay players to play, you are going to have to draw a certain level of attendance or else you will lose money. The number may vary from town to town but you need eight teams in a league to really make it work. And if you throw in too many expenses — or scare away potential advertisers and fans with bad publicity — you are going to be in big trouble.

There are success stories in independent ball. Although they had a few shaky moments, the inaugural year of the South Coast League worked out. There is going to be a franchise shift (good bye, Bradenton) but that is it. Calgary and Edmonton are seriously looking at the Golden League, which had six teams this year. On paper, this looks like a worse idea than the Alberta teams’ old home. But if the Golden League wants to really make name for itself — and the other owners are willing to share expenses — it has a chance to succeed. In the end, what killed Calgary and Edmonton in the NL was the simple realization that the other owners didn’t want them as equal partners.

The Can-Am League is losing two teams this year and may be on double secret probation for the future. But it still has Brockton (3,333) and Quebec (3,302) as models to emulate. The Atlantic League, which plays a longer schedule than the other (126 games) seems to have settled in with eight teams. The lowest attendance team in that league (Bridgeport) averaged 2,426 per date.

The quiet success story — but perhaps the model the western leagues should be looking at — is the Frontier League. The 12-team league does have some weak attendance links. Slippery Rock averaged just 713 per date and Kalamazoo isn’t much better at 1,169. But the other teams have melded in well with their communities. Chillicothe, OH fits in nicely and so does towns like Florence and Traverse City. The Frontier League doesn’t get as much national play because of where the teams are geographically located and their owners aren’t as well known. But teams are turning profits, fans are going to games and advertisers are happy.

When one looks at the current Frontier League, one remembers how the Northern League started. Rochester, Duluth and Thunder Bay were original Northern League towns. Madison came in a few years later. It was all fairly close geographically. All ended up leaving the league but found love in another forum — the summer-collegiate Northwoods League. Madison, in fact, averaged an impressive 6,047 per date in 2007.

Nobody is suggesting this is the beginning of the end for the Northern League or the American Association. But there are danger signs on the horizon. When this happened in the WHA and ABA, owners brushed them off and pressed on. Several of the cities that lost teams in those leagues never got back in their respective sport. Some of them (Houston in the WHA comes to mind) were fairly successful.

In 2009, Pensacola is supposed to open a new stadium. By all reports (and early design images), it looks stunning. It would be a shame if there was nobody left to play there because owners couldn’t learn the basics of give and take.

(Dave Wright is senior editor at August Publications.)