The independent Atlantic League hit a big milestone this weekend, attracting the 30-millionth fan to a league game.
“We are excited to celebrate surpassing 30 million fans coming to our ballparks in just our 17th year,” says Atlantic League president Rick White. “Our goal every year is to provide affordable family entertainment for all baseball fans, and their support is what keeps us going.”
The league launched in 1998 with the Somerset Patriots and the Bridgeport Bluefish (still in the league), Newark Bears, Atlantic City Surf, Nashua Pride and Newburgh Black Diamonds. The Long Island Ducks were also part of that league debut, but didn’t enter the league until 2000, when Bethpage Ballpark opened.
It’s been a remarkably stable independent league: If you look at the league lineup, it’s been pretty consistent with a core group of teams (Long Island, Somerset, Lancaster, York, Camden, Southern Maryland and Bridgeport) forming a solid nucleus, and very little turnover since 2002 (only Atlantic City and Newark dropping out since then). An expansion into Texas yielded a very strong franchise — the Sugar Land Skeeters — with a search for a second and maybe two after that.
When independent baseball launched, the business model was pretty simple: set up shop in old MiLB ballparks with a low overhead and cheap front-office costs. The Atlantic League turned that model around with an emphasis on new ballparks, high-profile players (usually working their way back to the majors), some visionary founders and owners (Frank Boulton, Steve Kalafer, Peter Kirk) and solid financing. This is the model that prevails today: for any indy league to succeed, they’ll need new facilities and solid financing. (The old indy model has moved on to the summer-collegiate level, where it works well these days.) Independent baseball serves a useful niche in the marketplace, but it’s hard to see whether attempts to launch new indy leagues and bring back struggling ones can worth without enough capital and new ballparks.
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