Archive for December, 2013

Can-Am/AA merger: New opportunities emerge

American Association logo (source)

American Association logo (source)

There has been chatter over the viability of the Can-Am League in the past couple years.

Since the Worcester Tornadoes went through issues with their stadium lease and player salaries and the number of teams has dipped below the number 6, the league has been battling critics who continuously question the future of one of the longer standing independent professional baseball leagues in the world, dating back to its days as the Northeast League.

More fuel was added to the fire in late November when Miles Wolff announced the league would not operate independently in 2014, merging with the American Association.

The American Association already covered a large geographic area before the merger was announced, with teams in 3 divisions ranging from Winnipeg, Manitoba all the way down to Amarillo, Texas. Now adding the Can-Am ‘division’ to the circuit, it’s clear that the AA is the dominant indy league on the continent.

Here is a portion of the official press release from the office of Miles Wolff:

Durham, N.C. — Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball commissioner Miles Wolff announced on Wednesday that the league will play as one of four divisions in the American Association for the 2014 season. Can-Am League players will also participate in the American Association All Star Game, to be held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on July 29, and interleague play between the two leagues will continue for a third season.

Four teams will make up the Can-Am League in 2014: the Quebec Capitales and Trois-Rivieres Aigles from the province of Quebec; the New Jersey (Montclair) Jackals; and the Rockland Boulders of Pomona, N.Y. The Newark Bears will not operate in 2014.

As the release mentions, the Newark Bears will not field a team in the Can-Am League next season. This is essentially the reason that the merger is taking place. Logically, it wouldn’t make sense to field a 4-team league with a 100-game schedule, so this move is the right one.

It is most likely not a bad idea to move away from affiliation with the Newark Bears organization. The team has been a staple of independent baseball since 1999, but since then has experienced a steady decline in attendance, with the average tallying as low as 453 this year and 668 in 2012.

When Ottawa baseball fans heard that they were getting an expansion franchise in the Can-Am League, I’m sure they opened up Google and did some research. At least, that’s what any knowledgeable fan would do.

The first thing that many of them saw were clearly the attendance numbers of the Bears, as the first reaction for many was “Ha! The teams in this league draw 400 people! It’s a beer league!”

Point is, it’s a good thing for Wolff and his mecca of independent baseball to not have the burden of the Newark Bears on his back.

Not only that, but it allows the focus to shift to one larger league in the form of the American Association. Wolff, as the head of both Can-Am and the AA, now has one less league to worry about for at least the 2014 season.

Personally, I hope that the Can-Am ‘division’ remains. With the addition, the American Association has become a 16-team league with clubs ranging all across the continent, becoming a large and more legitimate league.

It will also be nice to see some real competition. I can boost the Can-Am League all I want, but in the end everyone has to realize that a 5-time defending champion can’t be a positive development, of course eluding to the continued success of the Quebec Capitales.

We had seen the same thing in the IBL with the Brantford Red Sox, which also caused nothing but questions regarding the legitimacy of the league.

In a much larger league, not only will the Capitales have a tougher numbers game than in the 5-team Can-Am League, but tougher competition as well. Clubs such as the Winnipeg Goldeyes, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and Wichita Wingnuts will give them all they can handle in their hunt for the championship and it will be fun to watch Quebec face the adversity that they’ve been deprived of for a long time.

Teams having success on the field also leads to other positives, some of them off the field.

An example of that can come from the Winnipeg Goldeyes, the 2011 AA Champions. A team based in a market that the MiLB steers clear of due to its location, the Goldeyes have become one of the model franchises in not only the indy circuit, but the minor league circuit as a whole.

With an average attendance of 5,880 last season, Winnipeg ranked 28th among all MiLB/Indy/Summer Collegiate teams in North America. Also to their resume is a deal with TSN Radio, a nationally acclaimed brand, who broadcasts every single one of their games.

My friend and fellow Minor League Baseball aficionado Carlos Verde had an idea for independent baseball that has a potential to come to fruition with the merger of these two leagues. I consider it a good idea, however the Can-AM/AA bond must continue through this season for a plan to come to fruition.

There has to be revenue sharing in an indy league. There has to be, otherwise it is not a viable investment. Because so many teams are going to fall off the radar – that’s the trend right now and I think that’s the trend that we’ll follow for a while.

That’s the trend that all indy leagues follow, some teams make a lot of money and others barely keep their heads above water and that’s why they have failed.

To counteract this alarming trend, start a revenue sharing program among teams to level the playing field out so to speak and allow some financially troubled teams to catch their breath while their ownership group recovers from the initial shock of owning a professional baseball team.

I’m all for the possibility of revenue sharing among the teams in the league. This may be needed in the future for teams who are experiencing issues on the money end, are in the middle of a hefty and impractical lease, or anything on that end. Looking at successful franchises like Winnipeg and St. Paul, it could be looked at as one giant, year-long Christmas gift.

That isn’t the extent of new opportunities for the merger either.

Let’s say that the merger does continue past next season, and the Ottawa franchise is a member of the American Association. This would give the league 4 Canadian teams – in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Trois-Rivieres and Quebec City.

If you ask me, the window is open for a Canadian baseball renaissance. There are so many markets both in between Quebec and Winnipeg, including beyond those boundaries. Telus Field in Edmonton has been regarded as one of the best ballparks in Canada and it currently sits without a tenant.

Fort McMurray is also in the process of building a state of the art facility to host baseball games.

Even with the 4 existing teams involved, a tournament to determine the best of the indy Canadian teams could also be a reality – a “Canadian Indy Classic”.

At that point, you could even look at the possibility of national TV deals to cover the games – hey, it seems as though TSN will have many open slots on their schedule starting next year. The more teams the better as well – even making the addition of the IBL and WMBL champions could expand the footprint.

If Ottawa can replicate what has happened in Winnipeg, I’m not sure that Ottawa Stadium will look so empty. With a recent rebrand, Ottawa already has a TSN radio station, plus a Rogers station in the form of 1310News. One of those two stations broadcasting games would do wonders for the legitimacy of the team.

A winning franchise and good marketing is always helpful as well. The partnership that the Fat Cats had established with the Ottawa 67’s is one that the new franchise should seek to continue. Now, this may be a little tougher with OSEG’s other entities going head to head with the baseball season, however if possible I’d love to see some cross-promotion.

Whatever happens, the potential for independent baseball in Ottawa is still around – whether the team’s first pitch comes in the Can-Am League or the American Association is just a minor detail with the initialization of some strategy.