The playing field has been reduced and new management has taken over, but the Texas Collegiate League has revived operations less than two months after it appeared headed for implosion following a revolt by seven of the league’s nine teams.
Only time will tell if the now four-team league, which hopes to expand to at least six before Opening Day 2008, will be able to maintain a standard that made it one of the nation’s best wood bat summer leagues.
In its four years of operation, the TCL saw 158 of its players get drafted and the league arguably ranked second only to the prestigious Cape Cod League. But the TCL’s success on the field was rendered moot when, days after the Coppell Copperheads won the league championship in late August, seven teams formally announced plans to pull out of the TCL. They cited an inability to turn profits during the league’s four years because of an unfair business model, which included $20,000 annual renewal fees and a league-wide sponsorship deal that owners said did not benefit them. The TCL responded by suing the seven teams in an effort to block any attempts to form a new league, and the TCL remains in litigation with five teams.
Two teams involved in the lawsuit’"the Copperheads and Wichita Falls Roughnecks’"and the TCL have ironed out their differences and joined the Bravos Valley Bombers and McKinney Marshals in announcing a commitment to resume play this summer. The biggest factor in the league’s resumption was teams gaining a controlling stake in the business operations of the league, a factor owners felt led to significant financial losses in each season. Under the new agreement, the Haddock Foundation, a non-profit group formed by league founder and Fort Worth investor Gerald Haddock, will license the rights to run the TCL to the participating teams, which will split the operating costs and any profits generated by the TCL. The teams will pay their revenue fees for 2007, and annual installments of an undisclosed amount for licensing rights from the TCL.
“Gerald Haddock decided it was in the best interest of everybody that he step aside,” TCL general counsel Emily Crockett said. “He started the league and got it to a good place and expects these guys to run it and have a success with it. His main goal was to bring summer college ball to Texas, and he did it, and in order to continue that tradition he is willing to step aside and let these guys run with it.”
Brazos Valley co-owner Uri Geva said the league’s new structure will be conducive to making the league a financial success, adding that four of the league’s most successful teams are returning and should be successful in acquiring top talent to participate.
“There was a lack of corporate incentive (in past years),” said Geva, which brought the Bombers into the league for its first season in 2007. “It was very much each team to its own and the league to its own. The board of governors new relationship to the league will be very fresh. We will try and bring sponsorship opportunities. It’s a different situation than in the past. It was very centralized and difficult for the league offices to encourage revenue and work for the teams.”
The return of any of the five teams in litigation remains a question. One owner estimated typical losses for a TCL team in four years at $200,000. For some teams a return was not financially viable, while others seemed opposed to conduct business with the league.
The Weatherford Wranglers ownership group ceased operations permanently. Jim Reeves, a former co-owner of the Wranglers and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, said in an Aug. 16 Star Telegram story that it cost the team $160,000 to $200,000 each season to operate and that the Wranglers lost more than $50,000 a year since the league began. Stacey Hollinger, owner and president of the Colleyville LoneStars, told the Star Telegram that the league’s fees and other charges made it tough to balance the books.
Tucson general manager Rick Parr is going into next season with an unusual promotional strategy to lure fans to the ballpark: Come see the Sidewinders before they’re gone.
This season will be Tucson’s 39th, and final year in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Owner Jay Zucker, after several attempts to find a local ownership group that would keep the team in Tucson, sold the ballclub to a Nevada group that will build a stadium and move the team to Reno.
Rather than ignore the inevitable, Parr and the Sidewinders seem ready to embrace it and use it as a means to bring fans to the ballpark for a final farewell.
“It’s business as usual, but with an urgency to it,” said Parr, who plans to move to Reno with the ballclub and remain GM next season. “It’s the last time around to see your Triple-A team. If you’re going to group a book event, you better book it now because you’re not going to have another chance to see Triple-A baseball after this season.”
Tucson had a loyal fan base, just not a very large one. Several factors worked against making baseball in the town a success. The northern “snowbirds” who call Tucson home during the winter are gone by the time baseball season comes around. The Sidewinders had a small season-ticket base, with local baseball fans opting to commit their money on spring-training games.
“When (spring training) came into the market, it kind of blew us out of the water,” Parr said.
The Sidewinders’ home, Tucson Electric Park, was owned by the local county government, and Parr termed their relationship a struggle. The two entities did not see eye-to-eye on projects’"the team wanted to add a videoboard and luxury suites, and reduce the amount of general admission seating.
Regardless of the challenges, Parr said the Sidewinders look fondly back on their years in Tucson.
“There are a lot of good people that come out to the games,” Parr said. “We just needed more, that’s all.”
A Failed Experiment
And then there were six.
The Calgary Vipers and Edmonton Cracker Cats announced that they are leaving the independent Northern League after the league requested that they post a combined $1 million bond as proof of their intent to stick with the league through the upcoming season. The Northern League will look to expand for 2009, but it will go into 2008 with a six-team schedule.
The announcement ends a match made in hell. Calgary and Edmonton joined the league in 2006 as replacements when four Northern League teams left to form the American Association. From the start there were problems. The Vipers and Cracker Cats said they felt like they were treated as second-class citizens by the league, which required them to pay a travel subsidy to the league’s other six teams. The league worried about the promotions and direction of the two franchises, which ranked at the bottom in attendance.
The Vipers and Cracker Cats announced that they are looking to join the California-based Golden Baseball League. The league has no teams within easy travel distance of the two Canadian teams, but could use the opportunity to try to expand elsewhere in the Northwest as well.
The Northern League defections have been only the most notable move in an already busy offseason for independent leagues. The American Association announced that it has added franchises in Wichita and Grand Prairie, Texas. Those two clubs will likely fill the spots of the St. Joe Blacksnakes and Coastal Bend Aviators on the schedule, as those two existing clubs have to decide whether they intend to go forward after struggling to draw fans.
• A bond that would pay for renovations to Rookie-level Helena’s Kindrick-Legion Field will go before voters in the November election. Part of the revenue would go toward replacing failing light posts and outdated lighting with energy-efficient fixtures at the stadium built in 1939. It also would provide ballfield repair, improvements to weathered wood bleachers and damaged seating.
• The Northwest Arkansas Democrat reports that ticket sales have been brisk for Northwest Arkansas’ debut season in the Texas League. General manager Eric Edelstein told the paper that the team has sold 12 of 22 available luxury suites, 852 “super premium” seats, which stretch from dugout to dugout in the first 10 rows, and two of four sponsorship slots on the scoreboard.