Consolidation Reflects Indy Ball's Growth




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Another Opening Day in the independent minor leagues has arrived. We're about to celebrate two decades of the modern independent movement, and two decades of trying to figure out exactly what to make of indy ball.

One thing for sure is that independent baseball is going through a major consolidation that ultimately is going to leave us with three significant leagues in the long term: the American Association, the Atlantic League and the Frontier League.

All three of these leagues have a proven track record of success, in some cases stretching back to the beginning of the modern era, and the financial strength to remain stable and weather the inevitable bad season or bad market.

What they reflect more than anything else is the maturation of independent baseball as an established subset of professional baseball. For those of us who have been around long enough to see the entire evolution, it's interesting to see that many of the teams that helped get the whole movement started probably would not find a place in the independent leagues of today.

When independent baseball started up in 1993, with the Frontier and Northern leagues, it was seen as an alternative to the affiliated minors for markets that had either been squeezed out or didn't have facilities to meet Organized Baseball's new standards.

The archetype seemed to be a smaller market that had an existing facility and a population still interested in baseball. In part this was because it was preposterous to think of a city building a ballpark for a league—an entire movement—that had no track record.

Much like the affiliated minors, though, as leagues established themselves and had success, they found cities perhaps more willing than they would have expected to build new ballparks. If you look at the three biggest indy leagues now, you find few stadiums that had a previous life. And when you do, such as with El Paso and Wichita in the American Association, they're more often modern parks, not old Depression-era stadiums.

The Atlantic League serves as the most notable example of the change in facilities, as  all of its teams play in ballparks built for them, with the oldest stadium (Bridgeport) having opened in 1998.

The success of those three leagues—and to a lesser degree the Can-Am League, which has been around since 2004 but has struggled to build beyond its core of four solid franchises—interestingly have made it more difficult for additional new leagues to establish themselves and become successful.

Where 20 years ago you could find enough open markets and unused ballparks to get a league going with relatively manageable expenses, now it would take an incredible amount of luck or money to establish a strong, viable league. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball is littered with the names of leagues that have tried in the last two decades, from the North Atlantic League to the West Coast League, and you can seen the remnants of several of these failed leagues in the North American League, which is trying to piece together a future with 10 far-flung teams scattered from Maui to Texas.

Very Different Approaches

Of the leagues that were able to get going and grow into the independent establishment, an interesting argument could be made for any of the three as the best of the bunch.

The American Association was founded in 2005, but it stands on the foundation of the Northern League, which gets the most credit for establishing independent baseball as a viable thing. The St. Paul Saints are its most notable franchise, but the Kansas City T-Bones and Winnipeg Goldeyes actually outdrew the Saints last year, when the three teams combined to draw more than 750,000 fans.

The Atlantic League has great markets, with some in the game arguing that the Long Island Ducks are the most profitable minor league team at any level, but it's better known as a place where former major leaguers and four-A veterans find a soft landing as they hope for another opportunity. Running down an Atlantic League roster is guaranteed to bring a few bursts of nostalgia for any fan, with not just marginal players but longtime major leaguers like Rickey Henderson and Ruben Sierra, both of whom returned to the majors after stints in the Atlantic League.

And the Frontier League long ago established itself as the more developmental-focused league, with an age limit for its rosters and a focus on giving players who slipped through the cracks of Organized Baseball a chance to prove themselves. Success stories like Morgan Burkhart and George Sherrill burnished that reputation, and along the way the league has also grown to 14 teams and drew more than 1.4 million fans last year.

The baseball gods must have determined that independent baseball would return when it did, because if such an effort came 10 years earlier or later it may never have gone beyond a few seasons. But whether they would ever admit such a thing or not, independent baseball has now firmly established itself as part of the baseball establishment.