The Reality of Lower Level Independent Baseball

Today, the President and General Manager of the San Rafael Pacifics of the Pacific Association, Mike Shapiro,  reached out to me through email.

In the email, he highlighted some of the struggles that the league as a whole has gone though in their now five years of operation. It is a harsh reality that independent leagues face, but one that I feel should be heard on this site. It’s not new information to most. In fact, last year I covered the story of the San Rafael Pacifics seeking donations for the 2016 season, but it is still something that is eye opening when the information is put forward.

Shapiro was honest and gave a little insight on what goes on behind the scenes in a lower indy league such as the Pacific Association.

pacific association

 I wanted to share his message with the readers:

I read Indy Ball Island and applaud you for your support and passion for independent baseball. Ours is a troubled industry with financial pressures that threaten it’s existence but leagues such as ours, the Pacific Association, persevere because we love offering overlooked or under appreciated players a chance to play professionally and hopefully get to climb the ladder and we love offering our local communities with low-cost family entertainment and a commitment to doing valued community service as only baseball can provide.

However, it’s a very difficult and challenging endeavor. The financial model is hard to sustain in small markets where, paradoxically, it’s most needed. Our league’s model is based on playing in small, municipally-owned ballparks in the San Francisco Bay Area within driving distance of one another so as to eliminate travel costs, compensating players under a fair but manageable salary cap, maintaining a team controlled league structure to avoid the administrative overhead of a league office, and supporting small but dedicated full time front office staffs of two or three people to maintain year round marketing and sales efforts.

As a model this all makes a great deal of sense and should be viable but it remains quite difficult to assure continuity because historically indy teams haven’t been run as businesses but rather as “General Manager Fantasy Camps”. This business is not about wins and losses on the field but rather in creating an engaging fan experience that will attract fans, local sponsors, and community and business groups to choose coming to our games instead of going out to dinner or going to the movies instead. We believe that we need to offer fans what amounts to basically a street fair wrapped around a ball game with great food options (not just a cold hot dog and a beer), entertainment for kids (whiffle ball fields, between inning games, etc.), engaging and irreverent promotions (we’ve had players wear dresses in support of breast cancer awareness, we’ve had a computer call balls and strikes, we’ve given away a free funeral) and doing a great deal of community service work supporting local non-profits and charitable causes. All of this is no different from what any minor league club does but as an indy ball survivor league we have to do it with small attendance (our team averages about 550/game and our league average is below 300) and scant resources.

We’ve been able to do it now beginning our fifth season because we have truly dedicated, wonderful partners among the four teams in our league and because we have been able to adapt to the realities of our business scale. But, like all of indy ball, we remain on shaky ground. Each year we struggle to assure a four team league let alone executing on our plans to expand the league throughout the Bay Area. Each year at least one of our teams has undergone ownership changes because of the financial difficulties maintaining a full time staff to sell sponsorships and market the teams during a nine month offseason when revenues are not generated. Each year we struggle to assure at least a “break even” model that would give our owners hope that there will be a next year.

Yet somehow, remarkably, we’re now starting our fifth year of play. Despite our troubles and challenges we’ve got a league of determined owners who have taken risk, lost money and faced tough questions about their sanity but who’ve also courageously honored the game by giving these young players a last chance, supported their communities and along the way made baseball history – this league has featured the first openly gay player, has the oldest pitcher ever to win a professional game (Bill Lee), has had the first game where a computer called balls and strikes, has had a woman pitch, and so many more firsts. We, along with the other indy leagues, are the heart and soul of baseball and need to survive. Despite all the obstacles and tough issues we face we remain determined to keep independent baseball alive, but we need more people such as ourselves to invest time and money into assuring there are well supported and well operated franchises. We hope that the other existing and proposed leagues will operate with financial prudence so our industry maintains credibility and continuity. The Pacific Association, too, hopes to assure its own sustainability in a very difficult but ultimately rewarding endeavor.

Mike

Shapiro is exactly right… If independent baseball wants to stay alive and relevant, all leagues must work together to boost the credibility of playing and working in indy ball. Every owner in every league has a responsibility to keep up the level of integrity of the sport as a whole.

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2 thoughts on “The Reality of Lower Level Independent Baseball”

  1. Incredible insight from Mr. Shapiro. Independent baseball continues to provide MLB and MiLB with a larger pool of talent while increasing interest in the sport. It’s existence does nothing but benefit MLB and MiLB. In turn, these larger organizations provide little in the way of assistance or accommodation to the various independent leagues.

    What I would propose, is that the MLB and MiLB form a program that would offer limited resources to independent leagues. Perhaps the MLB and MiLB could sponsor a low-cost annual nationwide conference where staff from any independent league team, as well as league staff, could meet to network and learn from speakers who have experience with the operations of successful minor league franchises. Topics could include ticket sales, sponsorship sales, community outreach, promotions, facility operations, merchandising, and various topics pertaining to ownership and team executives. This could be accomplished to a lesser extent with a series of free webinars produced by MLB Advanced Media.

    I have a few years experience in sports management as well as a degree in it, along with some time in an American Association front office.

    Just like Mr. Shapiro says, there’s no reason that independent baseball couldn’t be the success that it once was 60+ years ago. Hopefully educated and dedicated individuals like Mike will never give up on making that happen.

    Like

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