The opening of Jimmy John’s Field today doesn’t just mark the launch of a new league, it’s also the first round of an independent-baseball model based on facility ownership and centralized management.
Jimmy John’s Field, a privately financed $15 million facility in Utica, Mich., is home to three independent United Shore Professional Baseball League (USPBL) teams — Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, Utica Unicorns and Eastside Diamond Hoppers — and features a schedule where there’s baseball scheduled every day. More importantly, says Andy Appleby, it allows for baseball to be scheduled every weekend, which is where teams traditionally draws the most fans.
For Appleby, the former owner of the Fort Wayne Wizards (Low A; Midwest League) and owner of Rochester-based General Sports & Entertainment, the opening of Jimmy John’s Field isn’t the crowning achievement for his firm: it’s just the beginning of a league that will eventually grow to 20 teams playing in 10 ballparks across the Midwest. That’s a pretty ambitious plan, considering the Midwest is already home to multiple affiliated circuits (International League, Midwest League), independent leagues (American Association, Frontier League) and summer-collegiate leagues (Northwoods League, Prospect League). Finding nine more markets and financing nine more ballparks will be an interesting challenge, but Appleby says it’s doable, per Crain’s:
“We would want to own and control all the stadiums and teams, so there’s that tremendous level of professional and quality in everything we do,” he said.
Appleby, 53, is relentless about quality control and customer service with his new league and stadium. He said he’s using his 30 years of sports management and marketing experience to bring every best practice to Jimmy Johns Field — and avoid every mistake.
Owning all of the teams also is a safeguard against failure, he said.
“Almost always, a league is only as strong as its worst owner,” he said. “Why do we want to buy teams in other markets when I can create just as good here, and create the mascots, colors, nicknames and uniforms. We will only go into markets that make sense, and not be beholden to an owner that may be undercapitalized, who may not be a good marketer. Our league scales extremely well to other towns across the Midwest.”
Scale is a challenge, and scaling to 20 teams and 10 ballparks will certainly be a challenge.
So far Jimmy John’s Field and the USPBL are off to a good start at the box office: 21 of the 24 suites have been leased for three-year terms, and all 18 four tops are sold out for the season. Our Zach Spedden will be down there in June to check out the ballpark and the business model.
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