Fledgling Indy Leagues Find It Tough To Survive

There's never a good year to unveil a new independent league, but 2015 has been particularly challenging.

The Mount Rainier League died less than two weeks after the season opened.

The East Coast League never made it to Opening Day (although it did spawn the North Country League).

The Ozarks League and the Heartland League have both announced plans to play this year in the Springfield, Mo., market. Both originally talked about debuting in early June. As of mid-June, though, neither had played a game or had an operating agreement to occupy the ballpark where they have said they will play, and in fact, the Heartland League folded before it began.

The names of the leagues and the cities change from year to year, but the stories remain the same. Players who want to play baseball will travel anywhere and endure seemingly any hardship to keep their dreams alive. So they sign up, show up and quickly find themselves trying to find a way home.

New leagues pop up almost every year, but especially now, they face the longest of odds.

The four entrenched independent leagues—the American Association, Atlantic League, Frontier League and Can-Am League—have been operating in some form for 20 years or more.

The Frontier League and Northern League debuted in 1993, while the Northeast League opened in 1995 and the Atlantic in 1998. The American Association and Can-Am League formed from the remnants of the Northern and Northeast leagues.

After that, everyone else in independent baseball is subsistence farming.

The initial success of those four leagues prompted plenty of imitators. But since the Atlantic League debuted, many new leagues have failed to find success.

Here's an assortment of the various leagues that have debuted and failed since then: All-American Association (2000), Central League (2002-2005), Southeastern League (2002-2003), Arizona-Mexico League (2003), Southwest League (2004), Golden League (2005-2010), United League (2006-2010, 2013-2014), Continental (2007-2009), South Coast League (2007), New York State League (2007), North American League (2011-2012) and Mount Rainier League (2015).

That's a dozen leagues that often struggled to make it through year one. And the list includes only leagues that actually played a game. Many more presented grand plans, but disappeared before Opening Day.

To their credit, the Pecos League is in the midst of its sixth season (after debuting in 2010), and the Pacific Association (2013) is getting ready for its third Opening Day. Both operate on extremely tight budgets and struggle to draw significant attendance, but they have managed to keep the lights on for several seasons.

But to graduate from subsistence to steady success? It's unlikely that any independent league will make that jump in the near future. The hurdles are just too high.

The original independent leagues' model was to move into cities that were either barred from having an affiliated minor league team because of Organized Baseball's territorial restrictions, or to find cities whose stadiums did not meet the increasingly stringent standards of the Professional Baseball Agreement between the majors and affiliated minors.

For the first decade of independent baseball, that meant plenty of markets and plenty of opportunities to make this approach work. But before long, the best available markets had been claimed—as had the deep-pocketed owners with business acumen. Needless to say, the best new owners usually end up in affiliated or established indy leagues.

“I don't think there is an independent team in the four (established) independent leagues that operates for less than $1 million a year," American Association and Can-Am commissioner Miles Wolff said.

Making the prospect of starting up a league even riskier now, summer college leagues have largely replaced upstart independent leagues as the way for smaller markets and smaller operators to go.

In 1994, when independent leagues first popped up, there were nine NCAA sanctioned summer college leagues. Last year there were 21. As independent baseball became more expensive and harder to sustain, summer college leagues were popping up everywhere. There's good reason. Because summer college teams don't have to pay players or pay for worker's compensation insurance for players (often an expense of at least $50,000 a year), summer college league teams have dramatically lower costs.

Pat Salvi owns the Schaumburg Boomers (two-time Frontier League champs) and the Gary Railcats (2013 American Association champs). He also owns the North Shore Navigators in the Futures League, a summer college league in New England.

Salvi estimates the cost of a well-run summer college league team is just 20 percent of an independent league team. The best franchises in a league like the Northwoods League are on much more stable financial footing than an independent team attempting to make a go of it in a similar-sized market.

“Cities that are marginal independent league cities are in summer college leagues and they are doing just fine," Wolff said. “You can get by for $200,000 in a summer college league, compared to $1 million (in indy ball)."

As the seasons turns again, we'll likely hear about a new independent league or two, but the chances that we'll still be hearing about them a year later remains smaller than ever.