The Reported Premature Demise of the American Association
American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier debunks a recent article questioning the long-term health of the league in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Frivolous Conclusion the American Association Is in Trouble
Mark Twain once quipped after it was erroneously reported that he had died, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Even 150 years ago, there were reporters who were more interested in being first than getting things right. This appears to be the same with one newspaper as a recent story in the Winnipeg Free Press has greatly exaggerated the passing of the American Association, making its demise extremely premature.
In the interest of full disclosure, on the most recent edition of This Week in the Association, Kevin Luckow and I discussed this story in detail, but I realize that not everyone listens to the show, and this is a story that is important to debunk. The current state of our media repeatedly proves that truth quickly becomes whatever one believes, and I want to ensure that this form of “truth” dies quickly.
‘The Sky Is Falling!’
In the story, written by Mike McIntyre, the reporter discusses the COVID-19 pandemic and how this could very likely wipe out the 2020 American Association season. He begins by discussing the impact the virus is having on the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Sadly, 15 employees have already been furloughed and 300 people in the area who would be working as part-time employees may not have a job at all this summer. That part is sad.
McIntyre addresses the possibility that there will not be a 2020 season. I find this highly doubtful, but a legitimate case to be made that there will be no independent baseball this season. However, my feeling is that by mid-June we will hear the crack of the bat in Sioux Falls, Grand Prairie and in the other 10 cities across the league. However, I do see that it is possible that we will not hear these sounds again until 2021, but mark my words – we will hear them again and in all 12 cities currently in the league, if not in additional ones.
A Splash of Cold Water in the Face
McIntyre could very well be right in his article. The 2020 season may be awash, and if he would have left the story there, he would have written a solid article. However, he decided to go a step further, concluding that a wiped out season would likely be the “final nail in the coffin for a few fledgling franchises.” To this point, he could not possibly be more wrong.
Let’s start with the obvious. There is not a single owner or ownership group in the American Association that is living off the revenue they earn from their team. That includes the St. Paul Saints, probably the highest earning team in the league in terms of revenue generated. Marv Goldklang and Mike Veeck are making a lot of money from their other revenue sources, and Bill Murray could likely earn the entire Saints payroll with one cameo appearance in a movie.
If you look across the league, the story is the same. Sioux City Explorers owner John Roost is a highly successful Harley Davidson dealer, who actually loses money every year supporting his team. Gary Southshore RailCats owner Pat Salvi is one of the top attorneys in Chicago, Donnie Nelson (Texas AirHogs) owns two other minor league teams and is an executive with the Dallas Mavericks (NBA). Shawn Hunter and Steven Gluckstern (Chicago Dogs), Mike Zimmerman (Milwaukee Milkmen), Bruce Thom (Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks), Tom Garrity (Sioux Falls Canaries), Jim Abel (Lincoln Saltdogs) and Daryn Eudaly and John Junker (Cleburne Railroaders) are all highly successful businessmen. Just as an example, Abel owns one of the largest concrete building companies in the country, and that is just one of his business ventures.
I am not mentioning everyone here, but what is important to realize is that all of these men have a great deal of money already. They do not own these teams for the revenue, but do so because it is cool to own a baseball team. Roost is a great case in point.
If the 2020 American Association season is not played, the Explorers owner will have his best year financially since he became owner of the team. He loses hundreds of thousands of dollars on the team every season and accepts that. Why? Because he gets to own a professional baseball team and he loves doing something for Sioux City. They may be the child who he spent $200,000 on to send to college who wound up working for minimum wage as a waiter, but he loves them and will keep supporting them because they are his baby.
In addition, McIntyre does not consider the situation of three owners in particular – Zimmerman, Eudaly, Junker, and Mark Brandmeyer. Eudaly and Junker bought the Railroaders before the 2019 season. The Milkmen became a franchise last year. Brandmeyer just became the new owner of the Kansas City T-Bones. None of these guys are throwing in the towel on teams they just got.
The cases of Eudaly, Junker, and Zimmerman are ones that need to be addressed more fully, because McIntyre concludes that these are two of the four franchises that are in serious trouble (Sioux City and Texas are the others) because of low attendance. This is a great example of how pure numbers don’t tell the real story and also how a guy who doesn’t spend much time covering the league shouldn’t be writing articles like this.
It is true that Milwaukee had the second lowest attendance in the league last season at 51,618. That is just over a thousand people per game. However, they were a new franchise whose stadium was not ready until a month after the season began. That meant they played roughly 20 games in Kokomo, Indiana, where the attendance was in the double digits for many of those contests. Take out those contests, which probably drew a combined total of about 1,000 people, and the team drew nearly 2,000 per game once they were in their new ballpark. A pretty solid number for a team that didn’t get to benefit from the hype of being a first-year team.
This does not even consider the fact that Zimmerman is in a brand new ballpark. Does anyone really think that after just two seasons he is throwing in the towel if the 2020 season is washed out? If you do, you really know nothing about Mike Zimmerman.
Cleburne drew 78,624 fans last year, ranked ninth in the 12-team league. That was an increase of 14,000 fans over the previous year. That may not seem like a lot, but that is about $200,000 of additional revenue to the club, covering the entire salary cap of the team.
Plus, this franchise has been in existence for just three years. They are in a new ballpark that is going to be the centerpiece of a development project of Eudaly and Junker. Their goal is to create a development site much like the one surrounding the T-Bones ballpark and having a stadium with no team doesn’t help create the right image for such a project. The two bought the team specifically because they intended to showcase the Railroaders as part of the development. They are not throwing in the towel on a team they just bought.
This is a team where attendance does not matter. The AirHogs have been paid by the Chinese government to teach their players how to play professional baseball, and so the team is making a lot of money even if they were playing in an empty stadium. They still have a year left on their three-year contract, and that will be in effect when the season does get underway, whether that is this year or next.
In addition, both the AirHogs’ and Railroaders’ owners understand that the American Association is expanding in the next few years, and that will mean two, if not four teams will be joining the league and playing in the Lone Star state. With a set of natural rivals about to enter the league, it would be stupid for these owners to walk away, and no one is going to accuse either Daryn Eudaly or Donnie Nelson of being stupid.
Sioux City Explorers
I have already talked about John Roost’s love for his team and how this will keep him in the league. Yes, it is true that the Explorers had the lowest attendance last season. Sad for a team that made it to the championship series, but there is one other factor to consider with this team. Over the last three seasons, Roost has poured a lot of money into Mercy Field at Lewis & Clark Park on renovations, and he didn’t do that to simply fold the team if they didn’t play baseball for one year. He is invested in this team, this ballpark and this city. Anyone who has been around the league understands that.
Reality Check Time
I get that we live in an age where the media loves the doomsday scenario. Donald Trump is an existential threat to the country, maybe even to the world. This virus is going to be worse than the 1918 Spanish Flu. Sports leagues will not survive the lingering effects of COVID-19. None of that is true.
Baseball has survived two world wars, previous pandemics, and a huge betting scandal, and is stronger than ever. The 12-teams in the American Association are all doing fine because the owners of the teams are committed to the league and to their franchises. So, this league is not going anywhere, and neither are any of its 12-teams. In fact, should the league be shut down for a season, we will likely enter 2021 with 14 or even 16 teams in the league. So, let’s get a grip on reality and prepare for the day when we will all hear “Play Ball!”
By Robert Pannier
Note: An update was made to this story on Saturday at 2:51 PM. I did not properly name John Junker as one of the owners of the Railroaders and I amended the story to fix this oversight. My apologies to John.