The demise of the London Rippers (independent; Frontier League) has some fairly basic lessons for potential baseball entrepreneurs: know your market and read your contracts carefully.
The London Rippers withdrew from the Frontier League Wednesday morning at 12:01 a.m., days after being locked out of its team office/gift shop for nonpayment of rent. It was not a move made lightly: team owners Othman Kadry and David Martin didn’t have or chose not to tap the cash needed to keep the team going. Martin, a rookie team owner with no background in professional baseball, was the daily face of the Rippers and had only a small stake in the club; Kadry, who owned the majority share of the team, certainly should have known better about the capitalization needed to run a team. Pulling a team in the midst of a season is about the worst thing a team owner can do: they’re salting the market and giving the circuit a black eye. Frontier League Commissioner Bill Lee is leaving open the possibility of a return to London, but that seems to be an unrealistic wish.
London is not an easy market: it’s small, it’s in Canada (which makes for travel challenges) and its fans have already suffered through a few failed indy teams. Martin certainly made a horrible first impression by choosing Rippers as the team name and then scurried away from the obvious reference — to Jack the Ripper, the notorious mass murderer — in favor of an alternative storyline where Jack was some sort of failed hockey player who “rips” the ball. The logo, alas, completely undermined the lame storyline: throwing someone who looks like a prospective Jack the Ripper on your logo pretty much announces your intentions no matter the disingenuous denials. Now, there’s a proud tradition of outrageous team names and logos as drivers of merchandise sales, but normally mass murderers do not make for warm, fuzzy team names. London baseball fans spoke out against the team name; they were right.
Now, a bad team name can be overcome if the product at the ballpark is solid, but there’s no indication this was so. It’s a universal truth that beer sales drive profits for minor-league teams, but the team’s lease at Labatt Park didn’t allow for beer, and someone in this process with any experience should have seen this omission a mile away. Martin’s efforts to land a beer license were fruitless, but in his defense the city and the London Majors, the semipro team holding the ballpark beer license, weren’t exactly helpful: the city refused to get involved and the Majors were pissy about the situation, offering only to sublicense beer sales for $500 a game — an absurd amount. Martin was understandably frustrated when he challenged the Majors to a one-game playoff for the beer license, but what began as a ill-conceived stunt escalated into something worse: Martin ceded the high ground to the Majors and irritated city officials. What began as a serious setback snowballed into a mortal wound for the franchise.
There is plenty of blame to go around here for the demise of the London Rippers, and by the beginning of next season the team will already be forgotten. But there are definite lessons here for anyone looking to make a living in the business of baseball. At the end of the day, all of these mistakes could have been avoided with a little thought and an experienced eye — giving the team a fighting chance to make it in a tough market.
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