There is another new independent league looking to hold its first season in 2015. The Heartland of America Baseball League (HoABL) has a unique concept – the league will have 10 teams representing 10 cities with every team having 25 players. Each team will play 90 games in 100 days using one main stadium in Ozark, Missouri as well as three satellite stadiums in the Springfield, Missouri area. The league hopes to hold their first games this summer.
I recently had a chance to interview the Director of Operations for the HoABL, Art Wilkinson, and ask him some questions about this unique business model.
What is your affiliation to the league?
I am the Field Manager of the Springfield Team. I also currently serve as the Director of Baseball Operations for the Heartland of America Baseball League.
Who are the owner (s)/commissioner?
The Commissioner of The HoABL is Phil Wilson. The HoABL is owned by Heartland of America Baseball League, LLC, a Nevada Limited Liability Corporation
Could you clear up the name situation between Heartland of America and Ozark baseball since both names have been used in conjunction with the league?
The original idea which resulted in the creation of this business model was brought forward by Ozarks Pro Baseball, LLC, which has since become The Heartland of America Baseball League, LLC. This transformation occurred after the concept had been introduced to a small number of people within and without the industry. It’s taken a few members of the original group, a bit longer to fully grasp the change, than it has for others. The transformation is absolutely complete. There is one entity which will operate our league. The name of the league is The Heartland of America Baseball League, and the ownership is as I indicated.
*Update* There is now a separation between the two (as of May 23, 2015). Please read the statement HERE.
What type of players are you looking for, and how will they be chosen for each city/team they represent?
It is our mission to become the one true developmental league for all of Major League Baseball. The age limit for our League is 26 OR 3 Seasons in the League. We are not looking for players who have spent 10 years in the Majors and can put 500 more fans in the stands. We are not looking to bring Michael Jordan back to baseball at age 50, to displace a young player whose best years are still ahead of him. Our ideal Player is someone who is in any one of the following categories: A great college player who had a bad senior season. A great college player who got hurt in his senior season, or had a bad season for some family, health, relationship or other reason. A not so star-studded player who came into his own after scouts had already labeled him as a guy who wasn’t worth a second look. A player who signed a Major League contract out of high school and where things didn’t work out the way anyone had planned.
We want to be a developmental league and a 2nd Chance league. We want to be there when MLB Clubs just don’t have room for a young guy, and have to let him go, but they don’t want to let him go that far. Our goal is to move as many players as fat up the ladder as we can in the shortest period of time.
All players are signed to League Contracts. We don’t sign more players than will represent some team in our League. All players show up on Day 1 of Spring Training, knowing they will be on a roster in our League. We play a week of squad games watched by all managers and coaches. On Day 7 at the end of the last squad game, we hold our draft, right there, on the field, just like when we were all kids choosing up sides. League contracts are then assigned to the team who selects them in the draft. Teams then have an additional week to practice together, before the Season starts.
The website says that all teams will use one stadium. Can you explain how this is going to work and why you chose Ozark?
The Main stadium is a 7200 seat stadium in Ozark, MO, which is undergoing various renovations in advance of the upcoming season. We will play day-night doubleheaders, Monday-Friday, every week, and day doubleheaders on weekends. We also utilize 3 satellite stadiums all in the Springfield, MO area, where single games will be played nightly
We chose Ozark, because of the availability of this particular stadium, the cost of acquisition, the incredible appetite for baseball in the Southwest MO – Northwest AR, area, and the preference of Commissioner Wilson to initiate the “Re-invention of Minor League Baseball” in his adopted home region.
What are your expectations for fan attendance and community involvement?
When independent baseball played in the same stadium in prior years, crowds of over 5000 fans per night were not out of the ordinary. Even when the AA Springfield Cardinals arrived, attendance at this stadium was more than acceptable. We anticipate that season ticket sales will eclipse 2000 and with nightly and weekend bus trips coming in from the ten cities we represent, we are hopeful of bringing thousands of fans into our stadium nightly, and daily. We are not in competition with the AA Springfield Cardinals. We are both baseball teams, and both share the goal of advancing the caliber of baseball being played in front of some of the greatest baseball fans in the world.
We have a few advantages in terms of being able to to support an active community involvement program. With one business entity owning the stadium, the league, all 10 teams, concessions, parking, merchandising, media rights, and other ancillary revenue generating sources. We are able to promote community involvement through financial support of local youth sports and other organizations in all ten cities represented. Each one of our 10 team will be adopting a charity in their city. We will also be supporting youth baseball in each city represented by hosting clinics at the main stadium, and also in the cities themselves.
This is a very unique concept for professional baseball. How and when did this idea start?
Commissioner Wilson is the architect of the basic concept. Coach Wilson has been a college baseball coach for more than 40 years. He has also owned the Sho-Me Baseball Camp, ran the Youth Baseball Program at Dodgertown for the LA Dodgers for more than a decade, and has managed in independent baseball for many years. Coach Wilson always felt that more time was being spent developing poker playing skills on 18 hour bus rides, than developing baseball skills on the baseball field. He felt that eliminating travel benefited players. Eliminating travel benefited owners. No dark days at the stadium aided in keeping ticket prices down, and that benefits fans. Giving scouts only one place to stop and see 250 legitimate pro prospects over a 2 day period, benefits MLB Clubs. There were no losers in this equation.
When coach brought the idea to me last year, I loved it. I took the concept to the Winter Meetings. When I talked to some high ranking MiLB and MLB executives, one said the “This is one of those ideas that when you hear about it, the first thing you do is shake your head because you can’t believe it wasn’t done 50 years ago…and the 2nd thing you do is kick your own ass, because it isn’t your idea.” Shortly after that, a former World Series Manager said, “You guys aren’t just starting a new league… you’re re-inventing minor league baseball.”
Even with this one stadium design, there are always some financial concerns surrounding new independent leagues. Do you have any worries about the league from a financial standpoint?
How exactly does the pay system work for players? Are they given host families, meals and other accommodations they may need?
All players earn the same amount of money.This eliminates pressure on managers to play higher priced players, regardless of talent or the player’s future upward mobility potential. Our salary is more than competitive with every independent league in the country for rookie and younger players. Host families are an option. Alternate housing is provided at a substantially reduced rates over prevailing rents in the area. Meal subsidy programs and awards are a part of the aggregate compensation package. Players who wish to earn addition monies on off times can perform non-baseball services for the League for additional compensation.
Do you expect the players to get a fair look from scouts with a chance to move up to affiliated ball?
One of our managers is a former full-time scout for the Bureau, and was assigned to Indy Ball. He was released last season, after the Bureau made a decision to stop providing coverage to Indy Leagues. After we got this league going, we were advised that the Bureau would be re-initiating coverage for our league, based on the age of the players we would be attracting. In addition, we have made a concerted effort to present our league to as many scouts, Directors of Minor League Ops, Directors of Scouting and others who we hope would be willing to come to our park. The fact that a single scout can come to one place and see 250 legitimate prospects in only two days, has been very attractive to the Bureau and the Clubs. 18 Clubs as of this writing have indicated that they WILL see us on Opening Day, and they WILL be back throughout the 2015 Season. We will absolutely give some great kids every chance in the world to have their lives changed in the two-fifths of a second that it takes a 90 mph fastball to cross the plate.
The track record isn’t good for new independent leagues. What are you doing to ensure that the league sticks around for the long run?
We are re-inventing minor league baseball. This business model IS the wave of the future when it comes to Indy Ball. We have a six year expansion plan in place which will see seven of our leagues in place by 2020. Our business model eliminates every speed bump on the road to success, and every reason why Independent Leagues have routinely struggled. We are part of the Indy Ball Community and wish every League, every owner and every player, nothing but success. We do however, believe that the model we have developed offers players, owners, clubs, fans, leagues and Indy Ball in general, the absolute best chance to succeed.
Finally, is there anything else you would like the readers to know about the league?
Our league is fan friendly, club friendly and player dedicated. Our only goal is to provide the highest level of baseball to fans, scouts, clubs and others, and to move every player up the ladder as far as possible, as fast as possible. I was asked by a local reporter on ESPN Radio in Springfield, MO, “What would help me to know that my first year as the Manager of the Springfield Team, had been a success?” I told him I would know we had succeeded, if on the last day of the regular season, one day before the playoffs would begin…every starter on my 1st Place team came into my office with their bags packed, and told me they had all been called up to affiliated Clubs. Winning, in this case, has nothing to do with Championship rings or trophies. It has everything to do with how many dreams you make come true.
THAT, is why we’re doing this.