Many in baseball were stunned when respected operators Darren and Russ Parker pulled the plug on the Victoria Seals (independent; Golden Baseball League) for the 2011 season, citing issues with the city and concerns about the future of the GBL. Was the decision a harbinger of what’s to come with independent baseball?
When the Parkers, successful hockey-team owners and the former owners of the Calgary Cannons (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) entered the GBL, most in the baseball world gave the league props for bringing in a solid owner. Yes, the venue wasn’t perfect — because it was shared with other youth and amateur teams, the Seals management had to strike the outfield fence and other ballpark elements after every homestand — but it was assume that good, solid ownership could overcome these problems.
They couldn’t. While attendance on paper was decent — 2,597 a game in 2010, up from 2,343 in 2009 — the actual attendance was reportedly much lower. And there were continued spats between the city and the team over the ballpark.
But it was this part of the press release about the team folding that got our attention:
In addition, the current uncertainty surrounding the makeup of the GBL and the financially demanding geographic layout of the league put added stress on the organization.
Usually when teams cease operations, the owners aren’t as blatant as this in expressing doubt about the future of their league.
Now, these are tough times for all baseball teams on all levels. But the GBL economic model, even if there’s interleague play with the Northern League and United League Baseball or some sort of merger, is a little questionable: GBL teams rarely control their own venues and are run as low-budget affairs. In some ways the economic model is closer to the summer-collegiate game than the pro game: because some teams share college venues the GBL season doesn’t start until late May, the same as summer collegiate, and modest crowds in modest venues is the order of the day. But the GBL model also manages to throw some huge costs onto franchises: travel between the likes of Calgary, Maui and Tijuana; workers comp; and real player salaries. It’s hard to reconcile Triple-A costs with Single-A revenues.
The Parkers obviously saw where things are headed and pulled the plug. No attempt to sell the team, no attempt to shift their challenges onto someone else.
So it will be interesting to see how the indy game unfolds in the next year. The American Association and Frontier League are both well-positioned for some additional lean times: a strictly enforced $75,000 salary cap and emphasis on cost containment will serve the Frontier League well, while the American Association’s insistence on adequate (and real) financing ensures teams are prepared for whatever comes along. The Atlantic League seems to be set up well, until you realize the league is attempting to expand to Texas for 2012 — a move that seems to resonate with what the GBL/NoL/ULB may do in 2011. We’ll see what economic model survives.
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