Tonight’s Northwoods League All-Star Game in Eau Claire’s Carson Park is apt celebration for how far the summer-collegiate league has evolved — and why its business model is one of the best in baseball.
The Northwoods League launched in 1994 with five teams — Dubuque (IA), Rochester (MN), Kenosha, Wausau and Manitowoc (all WI) — and a revolutionary operating philosophy: the league would be run as a professional baseball league in the front office with summer-collegiate players on the field. The idea of a summer-collegiate league wasn’t new, but instead of passing the hat to cover expenses, teams would charge admission and run things like a standard Minor League Baseball operation. League founder Dick Radatz, Jr. had the experience running MiLB teams for the Boston Red Sox in the Florida State League and NY-Penn League (setting some attendance records along the way), and he applied that experience to the start-up league. (He also applied some higher education as well: he has a master’s degree in sports administration from Ohio University.)
That first season saw the league draw 70,000 fans and establish solid roots: the Rochester Honkers and Wisconsin Woodchucks are still in the league, and Kenosha is returning in 2014. From Doug Moe in the Wisconsin State Journal:
While in Florida, Radatz witnessed the blossoming of the baseball program at the University of Miami. It was marketed aggressively, and the Hurricanes drew 6,000 people to home games. It gave Radatz the idea of a summer league using college players. That wasn’t new — the Cape Cod League dates to 1885 — but doing it for-profit, in the manner of a professional minor league, with billboards, mascots and relentless promotions, was new ground for a college summer league.
The Northwoods League debuted in 1994 with five teams. Radatz owned the Rochester Honkers, less glamorous a post than it might sound. The stadium in Rochester needed work. Radatz redid the women’s bathroom himself.
“There were some sleepless nights,” he said of those early days. The league lost $33,000 the first year, covering it with it a loan from their largest stockholder, who charged 10 percent interest. It took about five years, but the league repaid him, a total of $49,000, with the interest.
“That’s when I knew we had made it,” Radatz said.
And now, in the circuit’s 20th season, the great history of the league will be celebrated. First: it’s so appropriate to hold a 20th-season All-Star Game in Eau Claire, because it perfectly represents the league’s operating philosophy. Carson Park is a historic WPA-era ballpark where Henry Aaron played shortstop for the Eau Claire Bears of the original Northern League. Most of the league’s teams play in old minor-league and indy-ball ballparks (Duluth, Madison, Waterloo, Mankato, Thunder Bay, Rochester, Wisconsin Rapids, Green Bay, Battle Creek, and Wisconsin all play in former minor-league facilities and in almost every case brought new life to a deteriorating classic ballpark.
The second reason why Eau Claire is appropriate: as in some other Northwoods markets, the league had to make a big effort to work with existing amateur leagues on sharing a valuable community facility. Town ball is a still a big deal across the Upper Midwest, and many town-league teams have put a lot of work into maintaining old ballparks. In the case of Eau Claire, the league took several years to work out an agreement to share Carson Park with the Eau Claire Cavaliers. Patience is the key to building a successful business.
It’s expected that the league will be the first summer-collegiate circuit to draw a million fans; that could come next season when Kalamazoo and Kenosha both enter the league, bringing the total to 18 teams. And there’s future growth on the horizon as well, as expansion could happen in the Dakotas, where there’s a number of markets with old minor-league ballparks (Bismarck, Huron, Aberdeen, Jamestown) that would perfectly fit the Northwoods League model.
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