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Summer College Leagues: Different Thoughts

06/24/2004 11:01 AM

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Summer College Leagues use Different Schools of Thought

In Texas, that's true. Ownership groups paid $100,000 each for franchises in cities in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. Teams sell ballpark advertising and season-ticket packages. Kids tickets sell for $2 and the highest adult ticket is $8.

Two, and maybe three, new ballparks could open next season.

"This product," Texas League Chairman Gerald Haddock says, "deserves to be enhanced."

The Texas league is the third for-profit league, joining the Northwoods League in Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Coastal Plain League in the Carolinas and Virginia.

The Northwoods League has exceeded expectations. Since its first season in 1994, the year major league baseball canceled its World Series because of unresolved labor problems, attendance has gone from 64,000 to a projected 600,000 this season for the 10 teams. That includes 1,800 season ticketholders in La Crosse, Wis., home of the Loggers.

The Coastal League, where ticket prices average $5.50, has doubled to 12 teams in two years.

Franchise values have gone from $250,000 to $750,000, says Northwoods President Dick Radatz Jr.: "We had somebody offer us $2 million for the whole league, and I say I wouldn't take $5 million.

"This is really a good business concept. I sometimes pinch myself and ask, 'Who would have thought?' I don't know if we are going to eliminate not-for-profit leagues, but I think they will have to change their ways in some respects or get left in the dust."

Better days ahead in Texas?

     The Texas Collegiate Baseball League averaged an estimated 450 to 500 fans a game through its first 40 games — an average that could be better with quality weather conditions.

     Rain forced the rescheduling of seven of eight opening games, and 11 of the first 12 games were washed out, according to league spokesman John Blake.

     The Graham Roughnecks were the only team to play a scheduled opener, and they drew 1,000 fans. The McKinney Marshals drew 1,100 fans and turned away another 200 for their rescheduled opener.

     "If we could get 800 a night to a game, I would be thrilled to death," league President Wayne Poage says.

     The Texas Collegiate Baseball League has a 54-game schedule with eight teams in divisions named for Hall of Fame players from Texas.

     The Rogers Hornsby Division has the Roughnecks, Granbury Generals, Mineral Wells Steam and Weatherford Wranglers. The Tris Speaker Division has the Marshals, Highland Park Blue Sox, Coppell Copperheads and Colleyville-Grapevine LoneStars.

     Four teams make the playoffs, with two best-of-three rounds. The All-Star Game is July 12 in Graham and the Futures Game — each team will be selected by pro scouts — will be at Ameriquest Field, home of the Texas Rangers.

     All the teams are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Because teams are so close, there is no overnight travel.

     Poage, an athletics administrator at Dallas Baptist University, came up with the league idea five years ago.

     "It'd be an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as Cape Cod or Alaska," Poage says. "We think there's room for one more premier league."

     Gerald Haddock, the league chairman, thinks the league will be profitable in three seasons and expects expansion in 2005. He says the league is more than just a business.

     And, he says, it will "make people in the communities feel good, and it will motivate kids to play baseball."

     Haddock, former minority owner of the Rangers, is a tax lawyer and a founder of a real-estate equities firm. He threw the first pitch for the league's first game in Graham.

     "I've done real estate and law, but nothing compares to the excitement of throwing out the first pitch," Haddock says.

By Mel Antonen, USA TOD 

The people who run the Cape Cod League, which was founded in 1885 and has been in its current 10-team, 44-game format since 1963, don't seem to be worried. And they have no plans to change their mode of operation.

"The Texas league is going to increase the competition for players, but I can't imagine for-profit anywhere on the Cape," says Sue Horton, general manager of the Orleans Cardinals. "It's one of the things we are trying to avoid. We want baseball to be in its purest form. The focus is what's good for the kids."

When recruiting players, Cape Cod will continue to push the experience of first-class competition, simplicity, tradition and breathtaking scenery. Texas will push its handy location to players from the South and West, big-time facilities and its small-town, minor league atmosphere.

The Northwoods League tells players that for-profit leagues are similar to a minor league internship.

Who will win? It's too early to tell.

"Just because you run like a minor league operation doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get the best kids," says Baseball America editor Allan Simpson.

Simpson ranks the Cape Cod as the No. 1 league followed by Alaska, the Northwoods and Coastal leagues in the second tier and the Texas league below that. About 35 of the 200 players in Texas are from the Big 12 Conference.

Baltimore Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio isn't sure players will automatically abandon Cape Cod for glitz: "Remember, they are kids. It's important for them to have fun and get away from the pressure of college programs."

Coaches aren't sure big-time surroundings will make or break a decision about where a player might want to go. "The competition is important, but you can't send everyone to the Cape," says Ken Knutson, University of Washington coach. "It's important for the players to have fun while trying to improve their skills."

In the 1980s record attendances sent minor league franchise values soaring. In the 1990s six independent leagues — with reject players from the minor league establishment — mushroomed.

In one, the Northern League, which stretches from Winnipeg to Kansas City, Mo., and from Fargo, N.D., to Schaumburg, Ill., the cost of starting a franchise rose from $50,000 in 1994 to the $1 million each that ownership groups in Edmonton and Calgary are going to pay to join the league next season.

With the cost of big-league tickets constantly on the rise, summer college leagues could be baseball's next financial frontier. The lure is quality baseball at cheap prices, says Keith Moreland, a former big-league player and now a Texas Longhorns commentator. He says fans are tired of dealing with ever-increasing prices at the big-league level and want to be close to the game.

"It's all about discretionary income," Moreland says. "It's so expensive to go to a major league game, a family can't just say, 'Let's go to a ballgame.' That's the appeal of this. Lots of kids play baseball. They want to see others play it, and they want to go more than once."

Which is good news for owners in Texas.

By Mel Antonen, USA TODAY

The McKinney Marshals opened a 1,030-seat ballpark this season in the upstart Texas Collegiate Baseball League.

But in Texas, there's always room to grow. Next season the Marshals will move into a ballpark that has 6,000 seats, a high-tech sound system with Jumbotron and a spacious trainer's room — all part of a $23 million project that includes movie theaters, soccer fields and a water park.

"It's going to be the granddaddy of them all," says Mike Henneman, former big-league pitcher and Marshals co-owner.

"We are stepping up the competition with a top-notch facility. We figured, 'Let's do it right. Let's do it first-class.' Texas is a big baseball state and doesn't have anything like this."

Summer college baseball conjures images of the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts, where fans pay pass-the-hat admission, eat chocolate chip cookies and watch from lawn chairs at high school fields.

That image is changing. The Texas league is the third since 1994 to operate as a business venture. The baseball passion in Texas could redefine the landscape by challenging the tradition of the Cape Cod League and fueling the competition to attract blue-chip players. College players, who swing aluminum bats during the season, use summer leagues to make adjustments to the wooden bats used in the majors.

"Whenever there's a new league, it's going to affect talent availability," says Terry Cox, general manager of the Anchorage Bucs in the Alaska Baseball League. "College leagues are getting out of hand. They are becoming businesses." partners:: USA Weekend | Sports Weekly  | Education | 
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