Bob Lipp Has Arizona-Mexico League Reboot Destined for Success
It is a year away from the Arizona-Mexico League making a reboot but league President Bob Lipp has been spending much of the last few months on the road working to get six cities on board to join the league in 2023. Bob is no stranger to the area or the Arizona-Mexico League. He was part of a group that brought the league to life in 2003, only to watch it falter after just 16 games. However, Lipp has learned, grown, and developed a business model that has given the reboot a clear pathway to thrive in an area starving for professional baseball.
Every Year, A New One Springs to Life
It seems like every year a new independent baseball league pops up somewhere. The Atlantic League, Frontier League, and American Association have established themselves as the standard. The leagues have done so well that they have joined the newly designated Pioneer League in becoming Major League partner leagues.
The Pecos League and Empire League are now the only true independent baseball leagues with any longevity. Thanks to the dedication and vision of Andrew Dunn, the Pecos League has been thriving, adapting, and expanding since 2011. The Empire League has been in business since 2015, with four teams taking the field in 2022.
That leaves just five leagues with any type of proven track record. (The Pioneer League was established by Major League Baseball in 2021 and is funded by MLB. It is hard to consider them in this category as they have the top tier support that will keep this league in business.) However, that does not mean that there is not an owner or a group of owners who are buying in the “Field of Dreams” mentality. Those who believe that if they build a league, find ballparks, create a schedule, and play baseball each night, fans will come.
This season, the Coastal Baseball League gets underway. They have the advantage of being closely aligned with Dunn and the Pecos League, and so they have the exterior support that should help them to succeed.
However, there are many leagues who have not been so fortunate. In fact, since 1993, there have been 32 major independent leagues that have formed only to fail. That includes the Arizona-Mexico League in 2003. That does include those who put a plan together, but never quite got off the ground.
The odds seem to be against those who want to start a league. Nearly 40 independent leagues started and only six are still thriving. The odds seem stacked against you, like a high school shortstop trying to hit a Julio Urias fastball, but that has not deterred new Arizona-Mexico League President Bob Lipp, who is looking to reincarnate the league for the 2023.
However, what makes this version of the league different from the previous model is that Bob is not looking to build off what was done before. That was version 1.0 and Lipp learned through that initial “beta test” that model does not work. So, it is the 2.0 version of the league he will bring to life in June of 2023. With a more educated and seasoned Lipp, a better developed business plan, but the same love and commitment to the game, the league President knows that things are going to be a lot different this time around.
A Pedigree Built for Success
Bob Lipp has built a successful career as a businessman. Lipp has started businesses since 1986, turning to owning a car dealerships in the Wichita, Kansas area in 2001. His dealerships have been quite successful, as he has taken his abilities to lead a staff, sell himself as well as his product, and to trust his instincts to become a very successful entrepreneur.
That may seem impressive, but the truth is that there have been hundreds of successful business owners and executives who did not make it as owners in the sports world. Men and women who made millions, maybe even billions from their ventures, but failed miserably as sports owners.
It seems that success in the one area would carry over to the other, but that is clearly not the case. Owning a sports team is a lot different, and this is what separates Lipp from many who would seek to start a professional baseball league. As he puts it, the reason things will be different is because he “has been there and done that.”
It starts with the fact that Lipp has a host of business experience at all levels of the game. He started out in 1973, working various jobs, including as part of the National Baseball Congress’ NBC tournament event that is hosted in Wichita every year. Bob was a part of the front office of the Wichita Wranglers, the former AA team of the Kansas City Royals. He had done everything from ticket sales, to promotions, to corporate sales, to game operations, and much more.
The 1.0 Model and Its Bugs
In 2003, Dick King and Joe Ryan talked to Bob about joining a new league looking to get underway. Arizona had a long-established history of professional baseball. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the state was part of the Arizona-Texas League, a Class D minor league level that was once where former Major Leaguers like Billy Martin once played.
The league had played on and off from 1928 until 1958, playing in 13 of those 31 years. However, in 1954, the league formerly ceased to exist. Professional baseball in Arizona was relegated to spring training only until 1998 when the Arizona Diamondbacks began play in the National League.
However, this seemed to make no sense. Arizona was made for baseball. Not only can it be played year-round, but there is a hot bed of young talent who have made this a great source for professional talent and, with Mexico right on the border, there was a huge population group who loved and supported the sport in their country. The area seemed ripe for an independent league.
In 2003, the Arizona-Mexico League jumped into its first season. With two teams in Arizona (Bisbee-Douglas and Nogales) and two in Mexico (Cananea and Tecate), the league was geographically built for success. Things seemed like they were right in place, and it was looking like his vision for being a part of a professional league was going to continue.
All the plans were in place for success, but you know what they say about the best laid plans? Each team had its own ownership group, and not all the clubs were run with the same level of economic restraint. By June 17, the league was in serious trouble, and it was on that date that all four ownership groups informed Bob that the season was over. The grand experiment had come to an end almost before it got started.
A Rebuilt Model
Bob Lipp faced the reality that the league he helped to create had come to an end. However, that did not mean that it sat well with him. Three years later, Bob became a part of the Centennial League, but made the “mistake” of letting two other men purchase stakes in the team he owned. One immediately created legal difficulties for him and soon he was forced to give up his dream of owning a team once again.
It is these failures and challenges that have helped to make Bob Lipp the right guy to put this league together once again. Many may question how a person who has admittedly made such mistakes should be trusted to get things right this time, but this is the great thing about baseball. Baseball is a sport that is all about failure. The successes of the best players in the game are less than 35% of the time, yet they learn, adjust, and mature. This is what Bob Lipp has done.
Starting with the Business Model
Bob Lipp has learned a great deal in his five decades in baseball, starting with what it takes to fail. Most approach building a business by starting with what one must do to thrive, but Bob is starting with what dooms a team or league to fail.
“The typical person that runs a league or a team does not have any business experience. They have never owned a business before, and I always ask, ‘Do you know how to write a profit-loss statement or balance sheet.’ The answer is almost always ‘no.’ ”
This is an essential part of why the new league is destined to be a success. The failure to find the right owners is the reason that why the Arizona-Mexico League 1.0 failed. “I recruited four ownership groups and I didn’t do the best of choosing the right groups. I showed a plan on how to create the revenue and how to be diligent with your money and conserve it to make it through the season, and two teams didn’t follow that.
“The average independent team owner just doesn’t have enough experience to run any type of business. They all think they can create these teams and bring players to the ballpark and fans will just come rushing. 90% of the time not enough people come to a ballpark. I’ve talked to a lot of leagues over the years where the impetus isn’t on sponsorships drives and preseason revenue and those leagues never seem to last.”
Like a hitter who has struck out the first two times he faced an opposing pitcher, Bob has made the necessary adjustments to ensure success. It starts with the fact that the league will be the official owner of all six teams. In essence, Lipp will own them. That is by design, as he has learned what an independent team must do to succeed and laying the right foundation is the cornerstone of the league’s success.
“We have the money necessary to run this league for two years without making any revenue at all. We are going to make revenue, but we can pay salaries and hire staff and do all the things that are necessary even if we do not. We have a firm financial foundation and a plan in place that is going to make this league successful.”
Drawing the Right Talent, Choosing the Right Cities
When Bob Lipp was helping to put the Arizona-Mexico League together in 2003, he visited over 50 cities from Texas to Arizona and down to Mexico to find the right choices for the league. While not stretching as far to the east with the new league, Bob is using his experience from scouting these cities in making his selections for the reboot. That has narrowed his search to six cities to start.
“This is a hot bed area for baseball and we want to start off using existing infrastructure. Teams need to be in previous cities. There are about 20-25 cities that fall into that category in the area. So, we start with things like ballpark availability, if the ballpark needs too much work, the community, if the business setting is good. We want areas where we know they can host professional baseball.
“We also would like our flagship team to be in Mexico. They are the biggest driving force for me, which keeps motivating me. It’s a great motivator. We will have the one team there to start and see how things go from there, looking ahead to getting more teams started there.”
The final negotiations have not been completed for the six cities, and there could very well be some within the group who do not join the league. At least not initially. However, Bob’s vision goes beyond ballparks and host cities. His goal is to help those who wish to pursue their careers of playing professional baseball, but who may have been missed by affiliate or partner league teams. According to Bob, there is a lot of talent out there.
“In ‘03, we had majority of Division I players. Half the rosters, two thirds of the rosters were former affiliate players. We had players from the Marlins. The Pecos League is good with guys coming out and finding a lot of those guys, so I think there are a lot of Division I guys who do not want to go to the Pecos League and would fit perfectly in our league. I want to try to fill that void like the Pioneer league is doing right now.”
I Get by with a Little Help
While Bob Lipp has a clear idea of what he needs to do to be successful, that does not mean he feels like he has all the answers. The President has sought the advice of other league executives to help ensure that he is prepared for any obstacle that may come his way.
“I talked to Andrew Dunn and the Pioneer League. I am a big fan of that. With independent leagues, especially startup leagues, you try to gather as much information and take as much advice as you can get. Give me all the advice you can. I know I do not have all the answers and I am not embarrassed to ask others for advice.”
This is why the reboot of the Arizona-Mexico League is set for success. Bob has spent the last two decades thinking about what went wrong in the previous version and what changes he needs to make. He has sought to make strong connections with local communities, pursued the advice of other sports executives, and developed a strategy that is prepared for almost every obstacle and challenge that may arise.
There is still a lot to accomplish over the next 12 months. There are ballpark leases to finalize, players to sign, and a lot of logistical issues to resolve. That would have some quite nervous, but not Bob Lipp. He has already endured the beta test, figured out the bugs that needed to be fixed, and reprogrammed his plan to make this league a success. There is still a lot to overcome, but Bob Lipp looks like he has made all the moves so that a year from now in Arizona and Northern Mexico they will be hearing “Play Ball!”
By Robert Pannier