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Upstart League Mines For Gold
By J.J. Cooper
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For a league that has yet to play its first game, the Golden Baseball League has been on a roll.
The new independent league that began as a class project at Stanford Business School has managed to make itself the most viable startup league to try to give independent league baseball a try in several years.
It landed a $1 million sponsorship from Safeway supermarkets before its first pitch. That money, combined with the $5 million in startup funds raised from a variety of investors, ensures that, unlike a number of startup independent leagues, mediocre attendance in the first month--or first year--will not result in unpaid bills.
The league also announced it would spend more than $100,000 to develop a comprehensive drug testing policy to try to ensure that the league's players are clean of steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. That gave the league a wave of positive publicity, as the league's announcement came just before steroids became the front-page sports story through congressional hearings and revelations of steroid use among major and minor leaguers.
And when an attempt to place a team in Tijuana, Mexico, fell apart a couple of months before Opening Day, a potential embarrassing black eye turned into more positive publicity when the league announced that it would field a traveling team completely filled with Japanese players. The Samurai Bears have helped the league establish ties in Japan and could raise fan interest among the large Asian population in California.
"Things happen for a reason I guess," league commissioner Kevin Outcalt said. "It certainly raised the awareness of the league, not only in Japan, but also in the markets in which we play. There is an overall interest in the Japanese style of play."
For most leagues, a travel team is a nondescript group of nomads who resemble the Washington Generals: They show up, lose to the home team and then move on. The Golden League hopes to turn its travel team's arrival in town into an event. The team will train and play the Japanese way, with an emphasis on plenty of workouts, pitchers who work deep into games and pitch off their breaking stuff, and more bunts and steals than home runs. Former big leaguer Warren Cromarte, who had a long playing career in Japan, will be the manager.
"It's hard to tell (how they will fare)," Outcalt said. "We're trying to craft a team along the lines of what we've done with the U.S. teams. We have no idea how they will stack up, but we think they’ll be very competitive."
But a couple of public relations successes do not ensure a successful league, something the Golden League's owners are well aware of.
When it opens its season in seven cities in California and Arizona, the league will be trying to become the first new independent league since the Atlantic League arrived in 1998 to maintain any viability.
The five established independent leagues, with the exception of the eight-year-old Atlantic League, have all been around for at least a decade (the Central League and Can-Am Leagues were previously known by different names). Over that time, another 12 leagues have arrived, and in most cases, quickly faded away, often leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills.
The league is trying to succeed where the Western League has failed before it. The Western League at one time appeared to be a stable member of the independent league family. It arrived in 1995, during the boom in independent baseball as 12 new leagues began during a four-year stretch, but while nine of those leagues failed within three years, the Western League showed signs of success, as several clubs drew over 90,000 fans a year.
But by the time the 21st century arrived, the league was fighting for its survival, battling poor attendance figures and expensive leases. The league shut down after the 2002 season. Now the Golden League will be returning to three of the former Western League cities: Chico, Long Beach and Yuma.
"We've studied the other leagues," league president David Kaval said. "(The Western League) had a lot of undercapitalized ownership groups. Some of the teams shouldered all of the burden. They had some great franchises . . . but because they had fractured ownership, it wasn't able to be successful."
Kaval said he believes that the combination of top-notch facilities, compared to some of the Western League's subpar stadiums, and the centralized ownership should allow the Golden League to succeed where the Western League failed before it.
"The plan has always been, for three years we don't make any money in any market," he said. "That fundamental assumption is sound because you don't know where the curveballs will be. (Fans and sponsors) in some of the old Western League cities have a wait-and-see attitude. That's OK, because we'll still be there next year."
The league will also have teams at a pair of major league spring-training sites in Arizona, Surprise and Mesa. Mesa's HoHoKam Park (home of the Cubs during spring training, and Surprise Stadium (home of the Royals and Rangers during spring training) are two of the top facilities in independent baseball, but with stadium capacities beyond 10,000 and summer temperatures that often top 100 degrees, they will require some innovative marketing for a league where the break-even point is 1,800.
"We got 11,000-seat stadiums. We know we won't fill that every night,” Outcalt said. “But we're looking at how can we get 10 sellout dates there. We're working on, 'How do we blow out the opening weekend?' and, 'How can we do additional things to jam these stadiums?' "
One Owner, Eight Teams
Insufficient resources to get started or weak teams that dragged down the strong have often hampered leagues that have failed in the past. The Golden League hopes to have solved the first problem by having plenty of capital on hand to begin the league, and has gone to a central ownership model to try to solve the second problem. The eight franchises are all owned and operated by the league office. Managers and general managers are hired by the league, and then sent off to sign players and run the team's promotions.
"We'll budget each team based on market," Outcalt said. "It's not an exact science. There are factors like stadium size and the ability to market the team. We'll look at all of those things and work with general managers to come up with reasonable targets."
With centralized ownership and matching player budgets throughout the league, the league expects to see a relatively even spread of talent. The league has positioned it below the Atlantic League and Northern League's level of play and roughly on par with the Central and Can-Am League, with a spread of a number of young players (eight rookies are required on each team's roster) and a number of experienced vets (five veterans per team). Relaxed requirements allowing plenty of players with a couple of years of experience in pro ball should also help supplement rosters with talented players. Thanks in part to it being the only league on the West Coast, the league will get underway with a decent number of established veterans, including infielder Alex Arias and outfielder Desi Wilson.
"What we're trying for is a balanced team of skilled professionals," Outcalt said. "We've got a lot of West Coast-based players who grew up here. It precipitated trades with other leagues and free agents who contact us in search of a team."
Some teams in other leagues were less than thrilled to watch their talent head to West Coast, though the Golden League says that it has emphasized honoring other teams' contracts.
"We try to do deals. We want to do fair deals," said Kash Beauchamp, the Golden League’s director of player procurement. "We don’t want to jeopardize relationships. If you screw someone one time, they’ll remember. I don’t want to steal players."
Karma would seem to dictate that the Golden League serves as a good neighbor. Kaval and co-founder Amit Patel spent hours talking to commissioners and other officials in other independent leagues before they began the Golden League.
"One of the things that has enabled us to be successful is we’ve talked to the people back East. From the first day, when we started talking about creating a league, our first call was to (Central and Can-Am League commissioner) Miles Wolff ," Kaval said.
"A lot of hard work has gone into making it a reality. It’s great to see the dream become true."