Thursday, November 11, 2010

Goodbye Golden League?

It's a sad day in the sports world whenever a franchise closes its doors. Seattle SuperSonics fans mourned the departure of their franchise moving to Oklahoma City. Cities that hosted Arena Football League teams saw them shut down in 2009 due to the economy (arena football has since been revived). And in the realm of independent baseball, it seems we are witnessing the inevitable demise -- or best case scenario, the incredibly drastic reshuffling -- of the Golden Baseball League.

The GBL, which played its first season in 2005 with eight teams throughout California and Arizona, finished its sixth season this September after expanding to a league-high 10 team format that stretched from Tijuana to Edmonton to Maui. Many thought the league's massive expansion, especially amid difficult economic times with dwindling crowds, would be the final nail in the coffin for the league. Yesterday, someone took a hammer to that last nail and began driving it home.

The Victoria Seals announced that they would cease operations on Wednesday, putting an end to a two year run that ostensibly appeared successful, at least relative to other franchises in the Golden Baseball League. The Seals cited problems with their lease at Royal Athletic Park along with "uncertainty surrounding the makeup of the GBL and the financially demanding geographic layout of the league."

Victoria drew well for an independent team. Shoot, they probably drew well compared to some affiliated clubs. I was fortunate to witness their inaugural opener in May 2009 when they hosted the Long Beach Armada. It was the first and one of only two full stadiums I ever saw in the GBL over my four years in the league. Their fans loved the team and appeared to support them. While weather clubbed the Seals early in the 2010 season, when the sun came out on Vancouver Island, RAP was the place to be, albeit with a shoddy outfield fence and awkward seating layout (for anyone who never saw RAP, it's a baseball field forced into a soccer pitch -- a diamond peg in a rectangular hole if you will).

[Ballpark Tour of RAP]

With this announcement coming from one of the seemingly strongest clubs in the GBL, it's hard to not forecast the inevitable end of what's left of the Golden Baseball League. In October, one of the other new league "flagship" organizations, the Tucson Toros, announced their would suspend operations for the 2011 season to make way for the temporary return of Triple-A baseball to the city.

These two organizations that joined the GBL beginning with the 2009 season won't be there in 2011 which leads me to believe that there will be no GBL in 2011. Quick review, here's a list of the 10 teams that took the field in the Golden League during the 2010 season:
  1. Calgary Vipers
  2. Chico Outlaws
  3. Edmonton Capitals
  4. Orange County Flyers
  5. Na Koa Ikaika Maui
  6. St. George RoadRunners
  7. Tijuana Cimarrones
  8. Tucson Toros
  9. Victoria Seals
  10. Yuma Scorpions
Of that list, the Tijuana Cimarrones, Yuma Scorpions and St. George RoadRunners struggled to finish the season, completing 2010 either as league-run entities or under different ownership structures than they started the season.

The Yuma Scorpions were reabsorbed by the league after Ricky Smith and the Venezuelan baseball affiliate that was supposed to play the players and finance much of the operations cut ties with the organization midseason, leaving dozens of players missing paychecks. The poo hit the fan in Tijuana when the Cimarrones forfeited their final game as the original "Cimarrones" in June when the uniforms were repossessed or stolen depending on who is telling the story (and, no, I still don't know which version I believe. Sincerely). They finished the season as a duct tape mess thrown together by the league so as not to disrupt the schedule of other teams with home games slated against them the rest of the season. St. George buckled to financial troubles after July, and yet another squad of replacement players finished the year under the RoadRunners moniker.

Those three squads combined with Victoria and Tucson make for half of the league not likely to play in 2011. While Yuma was semi-purchased by a local businessman toward the end of 2010, the league had the option to sell him total control of the franchise for 2011, and while I don't know if that transaction was ever completed, it's hard to imagine he would still want to buy the franchise to play in a league that might not exist next season.

The Chico Outlaws, long held as the closest thing to a "model" example of a GBL franchise until the 2010 season, do not have a lease in place for 2011 at Nettleton Stadium, and based on some of the articles in the Chico Enterprise Record, the two sides aren't close to negotiating a new deal. Chicoans still have a hard on for the Heat of the old Western Baseball League, and the Outlaws have burned bridges with bills that went unpaid, as cited in this article in the Chico ER.

Without the Outlaws, a small market team with what had proven to be a captive fan base -- a fan base that was in some part alienated during the 2010 season despite the Outlaws taking the GBL title -- the GBL would be left with four franchises, the Edmonton Capitals, Calgary Vipers, Orange County Flyers and Na Koa Ikaika Maui.

Na Koa Ikaika Maui was acquired by part of the Orange County Flyers ownership group as the 2010 season wrapped up, and those owners have/had plans to put at least one other team in the Hawaiian Islands for the 2011 season. Don't know if it will happen as the travel to the Hawaiian Islands became the most economically strenuous aspect of the GBL this past season. Teams traveling to Hawaiian to larger chunks out of the bottom line than any road trip before. It wasn't something easy to accomplish in the turbulent economy.

The Orange County Flyers are focusing on trying to get out from under the thumb of Cal State Fullerton and an extremely costly lease at Goodwin Field. The team has been pining for a new facility at Fullerton's Amerige Park in downtown. If that stadium deal doesn't get done, the organization would look into relocating, potentially to the Hawaiian Islands as they now controls the rights to Hawaii. Other options listed by the Flyers ownership group include Palm Springs, which they acquired the rights to prior to the 2010 season; Long Beach, which does not appear feasible as Blair Field is now run by Cal State Long Beach, which had what could be described as an adversarial relationship with the GBL's Armada franchise; or Las Vegas, which already hosts the Triple-A 51s.

While the Flyers are negotiating with CSUF as a backup plan for next season, according to team managing partner Bob Young in this article, the lease at Goodwin has been one of the biggest unavoidable reasons for the ownership group losing a reported $2 million since buying the team from the league in 2007.

If OC and Maui don't field teams in 2011, which while still possible is appearing less likely given the uncertain climate around the rest of the league, that leaves franchises only in Calgary and Edmonton, the two former Northern League transplant communities. The Vipers and then-named Cracker Cats joined the GBL in 2008 after years in the Northern League, looking for a better deal than having to help subsidize the rest of the NoL's clubs to fly up to Canada. The GBL presented much great opportunities for the clubs at the time: Victoria's expansion and the hopes of a fourth team in Kamloops made a "Canadian Division" look like a feasible option. It didn't materialize, and now those two clubs might be left with the option of rejoining the Northern League -- if at all possible -- if they want to remain operational.

There doesn't seem to be many other options for new teams to join the GBL in time for 2011. The person I know who had the ability to somehow throw it all together and, perhaps not always in the cleanest of ways, make it work was the GBL's founder and former President Dave Kaval, who is now working for the Major League Soccer team in San Jose. While Kaval has certainly had his share of relationships go sour around the league, he did seem to have an ability to keep it all together while at the helm, if it required duct tape, chewed gum and a shoestring. There were talks of teams in Medford, Ore., or some old WBL cities, but by this stage of the offseason, it's hard to get anything up and running in time for next season. What potential new owner would cash in while so many others appear to be trying to cash out?

It's unfortunate that these teams may not have a league to compete in for 2011, but the other side of the coin shows a league that doesn't have enough teams to truly compete.

I feel I had a great opportunity to grow as a broadcaster and front office person in the GBL since 2007. I started as an on-field MC and sponsorship/ticket sales account executive and parlayed that into the start of what I hope to be a long career in sports broadcasting. I've met lots of great people throughout my time in the GBL, from other broadcasters, to PA announcers, to GMs, players, managers, salty nut hawkers, mascots, and owners. Lots of rising stars in the game of baseball got their shots to showcase their talents while fans got to watch former big leaguers prove they still had what it took to compete.

If we are truly witnessing the end of the Golden Baseball League, it's a sad day for sports. Lots of great people will lose amazing jobs, and good players will miss out on opportunities. But as the sun sets on this Golden League, I will be thankful for the memories and relationships I've made as a result of the opportunity.

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