One of the numerous reasons that the affiliated minor leagues have long shunned independent professional baseball over the last 20 years is the instability of so many of the leagues. An endless stream of haphazard startups and failure-to-launch leagues has and continues to tarnish the “independent” label.
So many folks out there observe the success of leagues like the American Association, Frontier and Atlantic and get the idea that they, too, can get in on the action by merely setting up a website and announcing a launch. Or worse yet, they actually do put a product out there that is clearly inferior and not worthy of the “professional baseball” label.
And by “product” I don’t just mean the product on the playing field. Ironically, there have been some leagues which actually can put forth a good product on the field. While truly talented players may indeed be hard to find, good quality athletes who have played the game at the collegiate and minor league level are out there and can be found.
What so many of these wannabe baseball moguls don’t understand is that the product is not just baseball players on the field, it is the total experience that will result in revenue to make the venture successful. That revenue is generated by creating fan interest.
Simply announcing that we have a team and we’re going to be playing a schedule of games at the local ball yard this summer, will not make a professional independent team or league successful. In order to succeed, a business plan designed to generate fan interest and thus, bring in revenue, must be in place.
So many startups have failed because they have not done their homework. They have seen the fabulous successes such as the St. Paul Saints, Long Island Ducks, Winnipeg Goldeyes, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, Sugar Land Skeeters or even the summer-collegiate Madison Mallards, and they have heard the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come”.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As American Association Commissioner Miles Wolff has said many times, there are four key elements that must first be in place for an independent professional team to have even a remote chance of business survival. They are: 1) Adequate population base from which to draw fans, 2) Professional quality playing facility, 3) Adequate financial resources and 4) Experienced quality operator. Failure to have any one of these four important elements will virtually assure that the team will not be successful.
Once it has been determined that all four of these elements can be obtained, a rock-solid business plan must be put in place. The business plan for a successful professional baseball operation at any level centers on the ability to put people in the stands. The lower level, small budget teams may require fewer people than say, the higher level leagues like the Atlantic or American Association, but even the most basic operation will need to have respectable crowds in order to pay the bills.
Attendance is not only important as it relates to ticket revenue, which is the most important revenue stream without a doubt. Attendance and ticket sales are the key to all other revenue streams. Without crowds, corporate sponsors are not as interested or willing to pay top dollar for stadium signage and promotional sponsorships. Without crowds, there is no solid food and beverage revenue stream. Food and beverage revenue is critical to the success of every team from the mightiest major league franchises to the lowest minor league teams. Ticket sales are critical to all other streams as well including souvenir merchandise, parking and any of the other miscellaneous ways that the truly successful teams create revenue.
Now for the all-important fact of life that every good team operator knows. That is the fact that these things don’t happen without a strong, year-round sales effort. Companies have already put advertising budgets together for 2014. In order to fill the outfield wall signs, sell program advertising, and find sponsors to pay for the fun giveaways and promotions, the teams must be on the street right now. It is important to meet with potential sponsors and get presentations into their hands at this time of year if we want to be included in their plans for the upcoming year.
The same goes for ticket sales. Decisions about a company group outing or purchase of season tickets for the upcoming year must be included in the company’s budget. These budgets are set before the year begins. If the ticket sales reps wait until spring to call on clients, they will consistently run into the “not in our budget for this year” mantra.
Here in Arizona, where I live, the Diamondbacks launched their 2014 season ticket campaign last month, with more than a full month left in the 2013 season. This is just good business.
Finding the best ballplayers for independent professional baseball is a hard job and needs to be the job of the field manager or baseball operations personnel. But getting fans in the stands and creating revenue is even harder. Without an effective business plan and solid off-season sales effort there will be no money with which to pay the baseball playing personnel.
All this to say that if a startup team or league does not first have the four basic elements needed to qualify a market for a team, and does not have staff in place and on the street NOW, it is doomed to failure in 2014.
John Dittrich is a veteran of 40 years as an executive at all levels of professional baseball, including both affiliated and independent teams. He has been a leader in the development and launch of successful venues and professional baseball franchises around the country. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org follow him on twitter @johndittrich.