Back in 1993, Marv Goldklang and his partners were venturing into
uncharted territory. As the owners of the St. Paul Saints, they were
one of six owners in the new independent Northern League, trying to
prove a minor league didn’t need ties to Major League Baseball to
survive and thrive financially.
Now the Saints are setting off into uncharted waters again.
Thanks to strong management and a heavy dose of wild promotions, the
Northern League was a success, helping pave the way for a slew of
independent leagues over the next decade. Many independent league have
come and gone, but overall indy ball has become a proven part of the
minor league landscape.
Now the owners of the Saints, along with the Northern League’s
Lincoln Saltdogs and Sioux Falls Canaries, will again push the
independent league envelope.
“I think this may be the most exciting year since 1993,” Goldklang said.
“We have the challenge of creating something new. It’s unique and different,” Lincoln president Charlie Meyer said.
The Saints, Saltdogs and Canaries announced Thursday that they’ll
withdraw from the Northern League to form a new, unnamed league. The
move leaves the Northern League with nine teams, but lacking its
flagship franchise and indy ball’s best-known team–St. Paul–that has
been subject of books and a television series.
According to Goldklang, the decision to leave came because of the
clubs’ desire to head in a different direction than the Northern League
“We’re not leaving because of them, but because of us. We want to do
something a little different with a broader focus,” Goldklang said.
Both sides term the separation as amicable, but the differences seem
to center around how much the Northern League would interact and
cooperate with other independent leagues. When the four other most
established leagues began pushing for tighter cooperation two years
ago, the Northern League adopted a more arms-length stance.
St. Paul, Lincoln and Sioux Falls were more interested in a
cooperative approach. Their new league will be open to the idea of
interleague play, cooperating in marketing and sales, and potentially
having playoffs between leagues to determine an overall champion.
That’s a tall order in the independent leagues, which have become more
fractured in the past year, but Goldklang said he thinks it can happen.
“If you’re waiting for the perfect time, that time will never come,”
he said. “We decided that this is the time. We’re prepared and
comfortable to move in that direction. We won’t say there won’t be
obstacles in the road and there won’t be people who don’t share in that
philosophy. But if we prove this works and can be better for everyone,
I think you’ll find the fractiousness will diminish over time.”
The decision to depart came as a surprise to Northern League
commissioner Mike Stone. He declined to address the teams’ reasons for
leaving, saying it was best addressed by them, but said the league will
go forward with plans to expand to 16 teams in the next few years.
Northern League bylaws allow teams to withdraw with no penalty, simply
by informing the league of their intent.
“I don’t know if I’d call it shocking,” Stone said. “I won’t say I’m
saddened, but I would say I’m disappointed they don’t want to share our
Stone said in a conference call after the announcement that the
remaining nine teams have assured him they were remaining in the league.
“I won’t debate the fact that those three teams are important to the
league,” Stone said, before adding: “This league has several candidates
for expansion. I have no concerns about the league’s health or future.”
St. Paul was second in the Northern League attendance last season
with an average of 6,171 fans a game. Lincoln was fourth, with 4,328
fans a game, while Sioux Falls was eighth with an average attendance of
2,471. Winnipeg led the league with a 6,867 average.
Where the two leagues go from here is a matter for rampant
speculation, partly because the three teams announced they were leaving
without concrete plans for a new league.
Stone said the Northern League will prepare three different 2006
schedules: an eight-team schedule, with one current team going dark for
a year while awaiting further expansion to ease travel concerns; a
schedule for the remaining nine teams; and a 10-team schedule with one
Stone later said he thinks it’s unlikely any of the potential
expansion candidates would be ready for the 2006 season, however. He
would not specify which team would consider shutting down for a season.
As for the trio of departed teams, Goldklang said they offered to play the Northern League clubs in interleague play in 2006.
“We have offered to the Northern league that if they would like to
have some limited interleague play to alleviate scheduling or travel
considerations, we’d be open to that,” he said. “If the Northern League
doesn’t want interleague play, we’re perfectly capable of developing a
96-game schedule entirely on our own.”
Goldklang said the new league could have eight or more teams ready
for 2006, considering markets that have existing facilities, strong
ownership groups and the possibility of new stadium projects. The
Northern League used more air travel last year with the addition of
Edmonton and Calgary, and Goldklang said the new league would also be
open to that idea if it allows the league to get into better markets.
Where those markets will come from is not clear. It’s already a busy
offseason for indy ball, with the Northern League news coming a week
after the fledgling United League making several significant
announcements regarding teams in Texas.
First, the United League announced it has a lease in Edinburg, which
hosted the Central League’s Edinburg Roadrunners until the city council
canceled the team’s lease this month over a late payment. A couple of
days later, another Central League club, the San Angelo Colts,
announced its defection to the United League, after the new league paid
to help the club retire the debt on five-year-old Colts Stadium.
With those two losses, the Central League is left with six
franchises, one of which–Jackson, Miss.–has not decided whether it
will field a team in 2006. Another team, Coastal Bend, shares its
market with a Double-A Texas League team, Corpus Christi.
Central League commissioner Miles Wolff said his league has not had
any discussions with the trio of breakaway Northern League teams.
“No specific things have started on the Central League end, but we
know they are out there and we are pretty sure over the next week or
two there will be discussions,” Wolff said. “I think potentially it
could affect us in the Central League. We’re sort of waiting to see how
it shakes out.”
A pairing of the Central League with the free-agent trio of teams
would make sense in some ways. But there would also be many hurdles to
a straight merger–most notably geography and travel–and some Central
League markets are smaller than the profile the new league appears to
be aiming for. For his part, Goldklang said the teams’ plans do not
involve a switch to another league.
“We will be neither joining nor merging with any league, but we’ll be a league of our own,” he said.
The landscape for new leagues seems to be wide open now, and with
all the movement going on there’s no telling what indy ball will look
like next spring.
“It’s sort of Wild West out there right now,” Wolff said.