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Independent Can-Am, Frontier Leagues To Merge In 2020

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Eric Gagne (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Getty Images)

The independent Can-Am League and the independent Frontier League announced on Wednesday that they will merge for the upcoming 2020 season. The 14-team combined league will continue to operate under the Frontier League banner.

The move provides a stability going forward that would have been lacking without the merger. The footprint of the league grows significantly—which also opens wider possibilities for expansion. The tradeoff will be likely higher travel costs.

“I think it’s good for our industry," Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee said. "Some other cities have shown some interest in joining a bigger league. It’s had some positive benefits for them and for us."

The move was a needed one for both leagues, but especially for the Can-Am League. A decade ago, the league had expanded to seven teams (with an eighth slot filled by a New York State League all-star team). Going into 2020 with Ottawa losing the lease to its stadium because of unpaid bills, the league was looking at potentially having only five teams. The Frontier League’s 2019 champion River City Rascals had shut down at the end of the season, cutting a league that once had 13 franchises to one that was heading into 2020 with nine teams.

The combination makes this the largest league in independent baseball. The league will split into two, seven-team divisions for 2020 with the five Can-Am teams (New Jersey, Quebec, Rockland, Sussex County and Trois-Rivieres) and Washington and Lake Erie forming the Can-Am Division. The as-yet unnamed other division will include Evansville, Florence, Gateway, Joliet, Schaumburg, Southern Illinois and Windy City.

If the league can get up to 16 teams, it could later split into four, four-team divisions. There is significant talk of future expansion to round out the league—focusing on adding teams in Canada, the Northeast and the Midwest.

“You have more travel. But if we can get to the point with expansion, it may be a short-term issue,” Lee said.

It is possible that the expanded Frontier League will expand to 16 or more teams going forward, but even more than that, the merger provides some significant cushion if the league continues to lose teams to amateur summer wood bat leagues. In the past five seasons, four teams have left the Frontier League with summer wood bat teams taking their place. Independent leagues have found that it’s becoming more difficult to compete against the lower costs of summer wood bat leagues because they do not have to pay their players.

Many of the final details are still to be worked out. The Frontier League limits teams to players who have not yet turned 27 (with one exemption per team). There is a possibility that age limit will be bumped up slightly in 2020 to help accommodate Can-Am League team rosters, which did not have such an age limit in the past. The salary cap may also go up.

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