The Washington Wild Things (independent; Frontier League) have filed suit in U.S. District Court over MKE Sports and Entertainment‘s lease at Kokomo Municipal Stadium for the Kokomo Jackrabbits (summer collegiate; Prospect League), claiming damages over the loss of the market after months of negotiations.
There’s a lot of backstory here. The independent Frontier League, led by Wild Things owner Stuart A. Williams and Florence Freedom owner Clint Brown, had been negotiating with Kokomo officials over a potential lease for Kokomo Municipal Stadium, with an expansion team planned for the market. Instead, the city decided to go with a competing bid from MKE Sports and Entertainment for a Prospect League team. There is a lot of crossover between Frontier League owners and the Prospect League management: MKE Sports and Entertainment had participated in both leagues as Kokomo Jackrabbits and Jamestown Jammers owners in the Prospect League and signed a management contract to run the Frontier League’s Rockford Aviators this season. The Frontier League terminated the Aviators management deal, saying that because MKE owned teams in another league (i.e., the Prospect League), it couldn’t be part of any Frontier League deal because two-thirds of the owners did not approve. (Pat Salvi owns teams in both the Frontier League and the American Association, while Dr. Chris Hanners, who helped found the Frontier League, owns the Aviators and also the Chillicothe Paints of the Prospect League.) That terminated contract led MKE Sports and Entertainment to appeal Lee’s decision to void it.
Now, some of these names — Chris Hanners, Bryan Wickline (the former Rockford Aviators president who is now Prospect League commissioner) and Mike Zimmerman, head of MKE Sports and Entertainment — pop up in this lawsuit, which was filed by the Wild Things and not by the league. Williams is claiming damages because the Prospect League, through the effort of Hanners, Wickline and Mike Zimmerman, landed Kokomo, thus denying a Frontier League franchise that would have generated $50,000 is expansion fees, as well as eliminating the need for the owner-subsidized Frontier Greys, the travel team needed to round out the schedule in the 14-team circuit. Williams had urged the Frontier League to take action against Hanners, Wickline and MKE Sports, and indeed he did. From the Observer-Reporter:
Williams claims his efforts to negotiate with Kokomo were undermined by W. Chris Hanners, owner of Rock River Valley Baseball LLC, which operates the Rockford Aviators, and board member at the time Bryan Wickline, alleging they were working with Zimmerman and MKE. The MKE website describes Zimmerman as a Southeast Wisconsin developer and venture capitalist and the suit in Indianapolis federal court identifies him as the chief executive officer of the Aviators.
Last July, Thomas R. Ysura, general counsel for the Frontier League, wrote to the Hanners Group warning them to discontinue negotiations with Kokomo and that refusing to “stand down would constitute a breach of fiduciary duties to the league and its members.”
The Wild Things and Williams claim they “have been materially harmed” by Zimmerman and the others interfering with the Frontier League’s proposed development of the Kokomo baseball market and branded Hanners, Wickline and the Rock River Valley club “a civil conspiracy.” Under the Frontier League’s bylaws, Washington filed a complaint against the Hanners Group in August 2014.
“Hanners, Wickline and the Rock River Club, collectively and separately, owe the (Frontier) League, Williams and the Washington Club … duties of loyalty and of good faith and fair dealing,” the suit claims.
Indeed, Bill Lee ended up fining those responsible a “substantial” amount for guiding Kokomo to the Prospect League and not the Frontier League. That closed the case for the Frontier League, and it also seems to have ended any possible relationship between the indy circuit and MKE Sports and Entertainment. From the Kokomo Tribune:
Shortly after signing the lease, Williams claims Zimmerman began to attempt to use it as leverage to gain membership into the Frontier League. Shortly after his requests were denied, however, Zimmerman was named chief executive officer of the Rockford Aviators, according to the lawsuit.
Whether Williams win losses in court remains to be seen: the core of MKE Sports and Entertainment’s defense is that the league, which passed on a lawsuit, is the only proper party to any damages. And it’s even more debatable whether Kokomo was actually a good choice for the Frontier League: it’s a smaller market that’s drawn fairly well for summer-collegiate ball, some 1,243 per game, but probably doesn’t have the corporate base needed for pro baseball. The Kokomo MSA is only 82,760, so you need to cast a wide net outside of Howard County to hit the 100,000 population experts say is needed to support pro baseball. On the flip side, there’s a lot of passion in Kokomo for their Jackrabbits (indeed, their passion for their new ballpark led to a win for Best of the Ballparks in the summer-collegiate field), and it’s important to note that the city isn’t a party to anything going on here. And, of course, it’s also important to remember that everything here is an allegation in a lawsuit, and there are always two or more sides to an issue.