So You Want To Start an Indy League? The Season That Wasn’t – 2015 edition

During the off season, I posed the question, “Will There Be New Independent Leagues playing in 2015?” I took a look at two new proposed leagues, The East Coast Baseball League (ECBL) and The Mount Rainier Professional Baseball League (MRPBL) even going as far as interviewing the owners of both leagues to learn as much as possible.  The answers I received were encouraging, and I was slowly becoming optimistic for the upcoming season.

Then, I received word that another league with a unique concept, The Heartland of America Baseball League, was looking to begin. I did a question and answer session with their Director of Baseball Operations and really liked the direction the league was looking to go.  Over time, it became clear that there was a divide among members of the Heartland League. The Ozarks Pro Baseball League was then born.  The Ozarks league was created by members who just couldn’t see eye to eye with the heads of the Heartland League.

Sadly, all four of these leagues failed to last very long.  Financial problems, poor organization, lack of marketing, and more issues came together to result in all four of the leagues folding.

The ECBL brought guys into spring training but never played an official game.

The MRPBL had guys come to spring training and played official games for a couple of weeks.  It was far from glamorous, but guys were playing ball and enjoying their time in a beautiful area of the country. The players rallied together when the owner had some health issues and pushed to keep the league going as much as possible. However, the league ultimately folded.

The Heartland League could never overcome the challenges that occurred thanks to the split of the Heartland and Ozarks leagues. They had also brought players to Missouri for spring training, but they couldn’t get the money or stadiums in place to continue playing.

And finally, it looked as if the Ozarks Pro League would be getting off the ground. Players, including some who where originally supposed to be with the Heartland League, showed up and were given team assignments. They began to play games, but slowly their lack of finances became obvious. And then, the final nail in the coffin came from this post on Facebook on July 21st:

Phil Wilson has told the players to go home and wait. If we get the finances in order we will ask the players to come back, but we will send money in advance.

We made mistakes but we are not giving up, folding or anything but working hard. We were promised funding and it “will be there tomorrow” for months now.

We are working hard for the guys to have a place to play ball and show their skills. The players are going home but we are not quitting.

We will not ask players back again, ever, unless we have proper funding.

An off season that seemed to hold so much promise for indy ball really couldn’t have been much worse.

However, there is one bright spot that came out of the ECBL folding.  The Watertown Bucks’ owner, Bruce Zicari, decided to regroup other failed ECBL teams and rebrand the league as the North Country Baseball League (NCBL) with the Watertown Bucks, The Newburgh Newts, Old Orchard Beach Surge, and the Road City Explorers.

While there have been many hurdles and obstacles for the NCBL, including stadium issues that resulted in one team without a home (in addition to the already planned road team), the four teams are still playing games.  Their statistics may not always be completely up to date on their official website, but players are getting a chance to showcase their talents and are being signed to the Atlantic League and one player to the American Association at a pretty decent rate for an upstart indy league.

Survival over many years is a long shot for the NCBL, but at least Zicari is trying to keep indy baseball alive in the Northeast for the remainder of the 2015 season.

Hopefully the next time we experience such promise for independent baseball, the future owners look back on the 2015 season and learn as much as possible from the four failures that have occurred in just this year alone. This has caused a black eye for indy ball, and it may take a lot to build up the reputation of independent baseball in the future to an outsider looking in.

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16 thoughts on “So You Want To Start an Indy League? The Season That Wasn’t – 2015 edition”

  1. Good post.

    As a father of an aspiring indy baseball player who got screwed by 2 of the leagues mentioned in your article, I’m seriously considering asking those supposed experts (in the Independent Baseball Chat Group on Facebook) if they would care to lend their expertise to a clearinghouse/evaluator of start-up indy leagues as some other indy leagues seem poised to come online in 2016.

    In a perfect world, I’d love to know who the investors were who made-promises-not-kept with funding that never came (if they even existed outside the minds of the failed league owners).

    Kudos to the Watertown Bucks/NCBL owner — I hope they’re around for season #2.

    Thumbs down to the Midwest leagues around Price Cutter Park. The one guy was a con man from the word go and OPB league is still accepting purchases of “season tickets” even though there’s no games scheduled.

    Keep up the good work, K.

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    1. Here’s what I have learned talking to people who do any sort of startup business these days — you have to start from the top down. If you don’t have corporate money IN PLACE you can’t get to the “go” part of the “pass go” phase. Anybody who is starting a league based on selling tryouts or is counting on “attendance” to pay the bills already has failed. That should be the easiest part to identify. The other part about getting signed leases in real ballparks where real amenities can be provided … and a real spring training … all that is hoopla … but necessary. Still, leagues are built with money, not ambition.

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      1. John, no from me argument. As a small business owner myself, what you say makes sense.

        What I’m trying to communicate is, let’s say “New Indy League ABC forms and says to the public/players ‘we have funding – come try-out for our league'”. Yeah, besides their word, how can a prospective player and his family verify that statement?

        If the funding source is unique (say, a consortium of independent scouts, or a rich business owner wanting to fulfill a dream of owning a professional team, or an established indy league not wanting its name associated with a new venture that might be used to expand its existing venues until success is proven, etc.) and doesn’t necessarily want to broadcast their involvement, what’s an individual player supposed to do/research at that point? The background of the front-line people — typically baseball coaches, ex-players, or sports promoters? How’d that work out in 2015?

        My out-of-the-box solution is that with confidentiality paperwork signed, some entity steps forward and evaluates the business plan and financing of a new indy league. And then makes a recommendation to players and others about the viability of the new league. Sort of the BBB of indy baseball.

        The absence of a gatekeeper or (informal) governing body for indy leagues plays right into the hands of dishonest organizers who state that they have the funding then take-the-money-and-run after tryouts or once it’s obvious that “thousands” of people aren’t going to attend the games.

        If others have ways to evaluate a new indy league without having access to or knowledge of the funding source & business plan, and without a feasability analysis done by some independent entity (my proposal), I’m all ears — let’s hear it.

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  2. It’s really not that complicated, man.

    When you do your homework, use common sense and know what to look for, you don’t need “a feasibility analysis done by some independent entity” to evaluate leagues – you can get a pretty good idea on your own of whether a league is legit. All of the leagues which folded this summer had a number of things in common which made it pretty obvious that they were destined to fail.

    – Do the league organizers have experience in the business of minor-league baseball? Read their bios…if they carry on about how they coached Northeastern Wyoming A&M to the Alfalfa Conference semifinals in 1992, but don’t touch on their backgrounds operating professional teams, that’s a huge red flag.
    – Are these leagues playing markets large enough to support a professional team? Whitefish, Montana, and Old Orchard Beach, Maine, are not professional markets.
    – Are these leagues playing in professional facilities? It’s impossible to generate enough revenue to operate a professional club by playing at a high school facility.
    – Essentially, does it seem like the team and league have their you-know-what together? If it’s a couple of months before the season and the team’s web presence (including social media) is unprofessional (or nonexistent), that probably means they don’t have money to pay someone to do it right – or money to pay for a lot of other things, including their players. If you’re considering playing for a team in a startup league, compare your team’s site to a team in an established league (AA/Can-Am/Atlantic/Frontier). If they’re not of similar quality…that’s another red flag.

    These things should be fairly apparent, even if you’re not well-versed in the business of independent baseball. But so many players (and their parents) are willing to overlook these red flags because they just want their dream to work so badly, that shady, poorly-run leagues will always find guys willing to play in them.

    So, basically: don’t sit and wait for someone else to come along and judge the leagues for you. You can do it yourself – it’s not that hard. But when you choose to ignore the obvious evidence sitting out there, and instead decide to drive to Moses Lake or Ozark and play in some crappy league created by clueless idiots – you’re asking for whatever comes your way.

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    1. Fair enough, Galloway.

      However,
      1) As a professional in marketing analysis where area demographics, transportation infrastructure, etc. are used to determine the feasibility of a new bank branch or fast food restaurant or WallyWorld — the variables that go into a venue’s success are complicated. As such, how is the layperson going to know if a market can to support an indy league team? Add-in complication factors like the vicinity of affiliated teams, a strong college league summer program in the area, etc. as well as the local politics which may figure-in to whether alcohol can be served at the proposed stadium locations, will they bump American Legion for the indy team to be able to play at night, etc.and I think we can safely say that John Doe or Jane Smith aren’t equipped to be evaluating the viability of an indy league based on markets (unless the signs are way-obvious, like Bum-f*ck, Idaho, population 154 and one rec baseball field).

      2) If I’m Dan Bartlett, Eddie Medina, Carlos Marquez, Ron Scheurs, or several others (from the NCBL) and I listened to your advice about evaluating the biography of the league’s organizer(s), then there’s a good chance I’d be sitting at home instead of playing in the Atlantic League right now. So it’s not always a slam-dunk that a fool-proof way to evaluate a league is to do a deep-dive into the bios of the front office people.

      Your points about a professional stadium being necessary and in-place before any tryouts and passing a general sniff test are good ones.

      Thankfully, we did not drive out to Ozark from the Northeast — you’re correct in that both leagues there smelled bad — hell, OPB can’t even spell the word “available” correctly on its website’s landing page and it’s been that way for months.

      In closing, if you think you have the expertise to properly predict the success or failure of 2016’s proposed indy leagues coming online, I will ask for your input — seriously and without sarcasm. Because I don’t think it’s as simple as you suggest. My kid and I will need some guidance and look forward to your thoughts this winter.

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      1. (No sarcasm here) – You see? You didn’t need an “independent feasibility analysis” to tell you that the Ozark League was going to be a s***-show. You did a little homework, it didn’t pass the smell test, and you turned out to be right. Good on you.

        On market size: Yes. There are a lot of variables, some of which a “layperson” wouldn’t know. But Whitefish, Montana, has a population of 6,300 – and the Mount Rainier League plopped a club in there anyway. It doesn’t require a huge deal of research or insider knowledge to figure that it’s not a pro baseball market. (This sort of goes hand-in-hand with stadiums – a town this size will almost never have a professional-quality stadium anyway.)

        On league founders’ backgrounds: don’t twist my words. I didn’t say it was a slam-dunk “yes or no” on whether a league would be viable – just that this, along with other factors, can be a way to help tell if a league is legit.
        Nor did I ever say that guys shouldn’t play in these leagues. I really don’t have a problem if they do – knock yourself out. What I do have a problem with is the “why won’t someone think of the poor ballplayers” garbage from players and parents* when one of these leagues goes under, as if they’re OWED the opportunity to play pro baseball. There’s plenty of evidence sitting out there that lower-end indy leagues are a risky, fly-by-night cesspool. If you want to ignore this and go play for the Moses Lake Mud Turtles anyway, you do this at your own peril.

        (*not you personally – you’re asking the right questions and thinking about this constructively, which is appreciated…thanks for letting me spar.)

        Also: actually, Bartlett, Medina and Marquez aren’t playing in the Atlantic League right now – they were all shown the door after one game. There’s a huge jump in talent from the North Country League to the Atlantic League, and higher-level indy clubs are ruthless when it comes to production, especially for rookies. To his credit, Scheurs seems to be hanging around and performing well.

        Feel free to ask questions – no guarantees on anything, but I’ll give it a shot.

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  3. All but one of those North Country players have already been released from the Atlantic League (York Revolution.) Ron Schreurs is the only one still on the team. The rest saw very little playing time and were released quickly.

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  4. Thanks Emily & Galloway for the updated information on the former NCBL players who advanced to the Atlantic League — I didn’t know.

    I won’t hog this comment thread much more but I did want to reach out to Galloway on one last item before s/he disappears into cyberspace.

    The Desert League — starting in Fall 2016 (www.desertleague.com).

    Your impressions?

    I can’t see anything about the organizers at the website. The website itself, seems O.K. (at least they know how to spell)

    I see 5 Arizona cities “approved” by the league (hmmm, red flag on who is doing the approval?) — not sure of their market sizes and ability to support an indy team.

    There’s an instructional league where “25% of players will be guaranteed contracts for the season” — sounds enticing for players chasing the dream — but just another “hook”? (No info on fees, etc. for the instructional league yet.)

    What due diligence research do you recommend a player engage in at this point about the Desert League, Galloway?

    Thanks.

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    1. Just an FYI I have talked to someone with the Desert League and will be doing a blog post on them in the future. Not sure how soon as we haven’t had too much communication yet, but it will be coming! Thanks for the great conversation and the support everyone!

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    2. Huh, hadn’t heard of that one. From how they position themselves on their web site, it looks like another league that spends a lot of time thinking about the baseball, but not much thought given to the business side of it – which is usually a sign they won’t be around long.

      Their little list of cities comes across as an afterthought – you’re right in asking “what does ‘approved’ mean”? You and I can “approve” cities by staring at a map – but, until they have actual stadium leases in hand (which typically gets announced), it doesn’t mean much.

      Fall 2016 is a ways away, so a lot can change, and it’s early to pass judgment. But if by, say, January 2016, they don’t have a full list of teams with legitimate stadiums in place who have begun sales and marketing efforts, it might be a sign that they’re not focused on the right things.

      As for the instructional league…yeah, the 25% is a “hook” to get guys to sign up. It doesn’t totally mean that the camp wouldn’t be worth going to – I don’t know enough about who’s putting it on or what they’ll be doing. You might want to crowdsource the folks at the Facebook independent group about this. But I wouldn’t go to it purely because you hope you can be in that 25%.

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  5. The problem is the lack of operational experience these people bring to the table. I went to a NCBL game. Awful. D3 juco ball at best and Herkimer CC would throttle those teams. The guy that kept the league together is a great guy I am sure. But, surely a smart business man knows you can’t start in Jan. and try and play the same season. The game I went to had 15 people there, no promotions, no signs. No nothing. He should have taken his $$$, planned for a year, evaluated what was realistic and what wasn’t and went from there. How about hiring REAL baseball people, not some local yocal who wants to play GM in these cities. And, since all of these markets have already failed, it will take a year minimum to build sponsor trust. Those markets now may be dead forever because someone tried to play sports owner. It is unfortunate but grouping a bunch of adult league players, paying them peanuts and calling it “pro” ball does not make it that way. Indy ball can be so good, but, these mickey mouse leagues are killing that trust. It can take in upwards of seven figures to run A franchise in leagues like the CANAM, Frontier, etc..these places can’t support a tenth of that.

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    1. Not “upwards” of seven figures. It DOES take seven figures to run an independent club in one of the four legit leagues (FL/C-A/AA/Atl). Most have budgets of $2 million+.

      If he was truly a good businessman, he wouldn’t have gotten involved in this at all, because anyone with any knowledge of how this works could have seen that the ECBL was a stupid, doomed idea in the first place, and because Watertown is too small for an indy team and it won’t ever work there anyway, even if you wait and “plan” and “evaluate” for a year or two or 10.

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      1. Fair enough 117. I was trying to be somewhat sympathetic but you are right. The league was based upon very marginal players and I am guessing that they though they could fool the public. No one was fooled. Let’s see how he proceeds. Cutting ties and moving on is the obvious answer but he had a chance to do that last year.

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  6. The NCBL player quality was in no way D3 juco. I would agree that Watertown’s roster was awful but the Explorers had 6 or more players with affiliated experience and the Surge sent up a bunch of players so the quality of play can’t be that bad. And Mike J I went to a game at Watertown and pretty much everything you said isn’t true. In order for Indy ball leagues to run well they need to bring in business people to the business and baseball people to do player opps. A lot of these leagues are started by persons with bad business reputations. Look a Cummins he was already a joke before he started the ECBL. People need to hire professionals to vet these “owners”. If someone did that with Cummins they would never have gotten in business with him. Does anyone know he Cummins is going to face charges for what he did?

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