Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Death of Triple-A baseball in Canada

The final nail was driven into the coffin of Triple A baseball in Canada Monday afternoon when the Ottawa Lynx completed their 15th and final season losing 5-3 to the Syracuse Chiefs before slightly less than 7,500 fans on a picturese late summer day made for baseball. Monday’s attendance of 7,468 was the largest crowd in three years. In the organizations last 11 seasons the Ottawa Lynx averaged less than 3,500 fans per game, less than 2,500 fans per game the last five years – the Lynx were bottom feeders in terms of attracting baseball fans to games in Canada’s capital 11 straight seasons.

The Lynx (the Phillies Triple-A affiliate) will call Allentown, Pennsylvania home next summer. The Lynx managed to win a Governors Cup in 1995 (emblematic of winning the International League title) and established an IL single season attendance record in their inaugural season in 1993 (since eclipsed). Terribly poor ownership (the first ownership group) killed professional baseball in Ottawa long before Vermont businessman Ray Pecor purchased the team in 2000.

The Lynx first summer in Ottawa was magical. Formerly known as JetForm Park, Lynx Stadium was built for the start of the 1993 season to coincide with the arrival of the Class AAA Ottawa Lynx. In its inaugural year, the club broke the 47-year-old league attendance record of 693,000.

Professional baseball was brought back to Ottawa by Howard Darwin. Darwin who also owned the Ottawa 67’s (major junior hockey, the last step before hockey players sign professional contracts) took his unique management style from the years of owning the 67’s to the Lynx. Darwin believed all you needed to do in promoting a sports franchise was to open the doors and people would buy tickets. After Ottawa had been without professional baseball for 39 years Darwin’s philosophy seemed to have worked. However, at the end of the day it was at least in part Howard Darwin’s belief system that led to the ultimate demise of the Lynx. Darwin was a successful junior hockey team owner in Ottawa and enjoyed promoting boxing and wrestling events. Almost from day one despite the Lynx establishing an IL attendance record Howard Darwin and professional baseball were simply not a good mix. Darwin’s intentions were always headed in the right direction, but his lack of understanding and foundation for how minor league baseball is sold hurt Darwin and ultimately doomed the Ottawa Lynx to failure.

A hallmark of minor league baseball are promotions. A good minor league baseball owner is prepared to invest in their business by working with the local business community in creating a series of promotions. A great minor league baseball owner offers their fans a promotion at every game. Howard Darwin was none of the above. One of the few promotions the Lynx offered when Darwin owned the team was a ‘grand slam fourth inning’. If in the fourth inning of any Lynx home game the first three batters reached base (and a run hadn’t yet scored) and if the fourth batter hit a grand slam home run one lucky fan would win $10,000. While nothing is impossible, it’s likely the scenario has never taken place in the history of professional baseball.

An event that took place during the teams’ fourth season in Ottawa in 1996, took the Darwin Theory on baseball promotions to a new level, a subterranean level. Henry Rodriguez was hitting homeruns as a member of the Lynx parent club, the Montreal Expos. Expos fans (yes there were Expos fans in 1996) pelted the field at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium with O’Henry chocolate bars whenever Rodriguez hit a homerun. The Expos traveled to Ottawa for an exhibition game against the Lynx in May.

The Lynx had a policy that didn’t permit any food from being brought into the stadium. Lynx security and ticket takers checked everyone’s bags as they were entering Lynx Stadium, confiscating hundreds of O’Henry bars. Meanwhile at the concession stands inside the stadium, O’Herny chocolate bars were being sold. The next day, former Montréal Canadien Murray Wilson, retired and working with the Lynx as their marketing director resigned as did two other members of the teams’ front office staff.

The Lynx had won the Governors Cup a year earlier. The organization had an opportunity to build momentum. In one decision that defied logic, taking candy away from children, any goodwill the Lynx had in the community ended. Professional baseball in Canada is always facing an uphill battle for recognition, what the Ottawa Lynx didn’t need was a negative image in the community. L’affaire O’Henry proved to be the catalyst that directly led to the Lynx attendance problems. In five short seasons the Lynx went from establishing an International League single season attendance record, to the bottom on Triple A attendance. Since 1997, ten years, the Ottawa Lynx have had the worst attendance in Triple A Baseball. Before Sunday night's home game against Buffalo (the last of the teams' two remaining home games) the Lynx were averaging 1,860 tickets sold per game. The next lowest in the International League is Richmond (4,731) and Charlotte (4,752).

Never one to shy away from an issue, Darwin made a veiled suggestion before the start of the 2000 season (the Lynx and their parent club the Montreal Expos were the only MLB and Triple A baseball franchises without radio broadcast agreements), he was fed up, he was ready to sell the Lynx and if the franchise moved out of Ottawa so be it. That despite he had signed a long-term lease after taxpayers paid for a stadium for Darwin’s team.

“I am paying an exorbitant rent and I have since Day One," Darwin told Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail. “I wish the city would reconsider the structure it's under now. That's the big obstacle [to a sale]. People see the lease and won't have any part of it. They say 'it's crazy what you're paying.'”

While Darwin did pay a $5 million expansion fee to bring Triple-A baseball to Ottawa in 1993, the city of Ottawa agreed to build an $18 million stadium at taxpayers’ expense (Darwin was responsible for 25% of the stadiums cost. When he sold the team to Peacor, $3 million remain unpaid on the debt Darwin owed to the City of Ottawa). Darwin claimed the city had made the money back through rent the team has already paid, advertising and the sale of luxury suites.

City officials begged to differ. "When he says he wants to restructure the deal, we can only assume that means pay less, and when that happens there's just one body left to foot the bill and that's the taxpayers. We're obviously sensitive to how that would flow through," said John Burke, chief administrator for the City of Ottawa in the Globe and Mail report. "The unfortunate part is that the city has committed itself to this deal by borrowing a lot of money to do it. He [Darwin] is doing a lot of talking about how he can't live with the current deal, but I have never seen a proposal from him about what exactly he wants."

One of the biggest concerns Darwin had was his relationship with the Montreal Expos. "There's been so much uncertainty in Montreal the last three or four years, that hasn't helped us at all," he said. "We haven't been able to keep the players we should have had and, if they did come here, they only stayed for a short time and then moved on. We had 147 player changes in 144 games last year. The Expos are well aware that I am in the last year of my agreement with them. And if we don't see a great improvement over last year I'm afraid we'll be with another organization next year."

Darwin sold the Lynx to Pecor after the 2000 season for $7 million. Pecor owned the Vermont Expos. Pecor’s first (and best) decision was to move Kyle Bostwick his young Vermont general manager to Ottawa. Nine years after Ottawa was awarded a Triple A franchise not only did the team have a general manager who understood the importance of the game day experience for minor league baseball fans, but Bostwick would be provided the tools he needed to work with. The Lynx had outstanding general mangers each and every year Darwin owned the team. Each general manger faced insurmountable challenges before Pecor took over the team.

Determined to ‘get it right’, Bostwick introduced a series of game-day promotions, added a family fun zone, reducing the price charged for parking and introduced fan-friendly aggressive ticket pricing and policies. Bostwick wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel, he was going to try and introduce the joy of minor league baseball to a market that had a minor league baseball franchise for eight years, but hadn’t been offered the minor league baseball experience. It was too little too late, the team couldn’t be resurrected.

Bostwick hired a full front office staff (another missing element during the Darwin era). The biggest challenge Bostwick faced was only the sorry shape the franchise had been left in, it was also the evolution of the Ottawa sports market. The Ottawa Senators first made their first Stanley Cup playoff appearance in 1997. A year later the Senators won their first ever playoff series. Minor league baseball offers fan friendly pricing. Bostwick introduced a ‘weather guarantee’. Season ticket holders could miss any games in April and May and turn the tickets in for games in June, July and August. The dye had been cast – Triple A baseball wasn’t among the living in Canada’s capital.

Given the history of Triple A baseball in Canada (once the Ottawa Lynx leave that will be the end of Triple A baseball in Canada), the death of Double A baseball (in the 1970’s the Eastern League featured four Quebec based franchises, along with a team in London, Ontario) all too many Single A Canadian baseball failures, one can make a strong argument minor league baseball has failed in Canada.

There are those who point to the Winnipeg Goldeyes as a ‘success story’, and the team has enjoyed success since they moved into their current facility in 1999 (Canwest Global Park). The Goldeyes remain an aberration (and the City of Winnipeg deserver’s credit for their support for professional baseball) but at the end of the day they are the exception to every rule. The Winnipeg market lost its NHL franchise more then a decade ago. Minor league baseball has failed in Canadian cities that are home to NHL franchises.

While Darwin failed to establish the base the franchise needed to build a solid foundation, when Ray Pecor bought the team from Darwin seven years ago he did so with the belief he could resurrect what had been lost. Pecor didn’t believe the organization would return to its first few seasons of selling out games but Pecor had a reasonable expectation the team would average between 4,000 and 5,000 fans per game. The hand Pecor was dealt ensured that was never going to take place and the City of Ottawa bears full responsibility for Pecor’s investment being short-circuited.

The Lynx original lease with the City of Ottawa called for 1 parking spot for every four seats in the stadium, or approximately 2,600 parking spots. Over the last seven years the City of Ottawa effectively killed Triple-A baseball in Canada by first selling a portion of the stadium’s parking lot to a hotel and then hammering home the final nails in the Lynx coffin when the city sold the stadium’s auxiliary parking lot to a ‘big box retailer’. According to the language in the teams current lease (the number of parking spots has never been changed) the city of Ottawa is in default of the lease with the stadium only able to accommodate parking for 600 cars.

On Saturday, April 16, 2005 the Lynx opened their home schedule playing a doubleheader on an early summer like spring day. Lynx management turned away hundreds of cars that fateful day – thousands of people interested in connecting once again with the Lynx discovered there was no place for them to park. Pecor is currently involved in an $11 million lawsuit against the City of Ottawa. Expect the city of Ottawa to release Pecor from the remaining four years of his lease in a settlement that will benefit the city more than the damage the city accomplished in murdering Triple A baseball in Ottawa. City leaders will argue fans stopped going to games, but Pecor will point out the city made a complete mockery of the lease he had accepted and lived with in good faith.

Canadian baseball history is littered with good ideas managed by the wrong people.
The Canadian Baseball League, an eight team independent professional baseball league only operated from May 21 to July 23 of 2003. The cost of buying airtime to broadcasts a weekly game on national television also contributed to the league's demise. The Jenkins Cup was awarded to the team with the best record (the Calgary Outlaws) after the All-Star Game in Calgary on July 23. The All-Star Game was won by the West Division, as the game was tied 5-5 after 10 innings, and the West had won the Home Run Derby.

While the league had publicly vowed to regroup and return in 2004, the remaining assets of the League were quietly auctioned off on December 1, 2003 in Vancouver, British Columbia and the league never returned. The league had eight franchises, four located geographically in Western Canada and four in Eastern Canada. How badly was this league managed? The Montreal Royales didn’t have a home stadium, playing all their games on the road.

The Can-Am League owned and operated by Miles Wolff, currently has eight franchises, including one Canadian team in Quebec City. Wolff is very interested in putting a team in Ottawa in 2008, and reportedly has an unnamed interested Ottawa based ownership group. The Can-Am League begins their season in late May and ends just after Labor Day. Wolff has also talked about a Montreal franchise. A Montreal based short-season independent league baseball franchise has the same challenge the ill-fated Montreal Royales did, the only professional baseball stadium in Montréal is the former home of the Expos, and the 55,000 seat Olympic Stadium. Developers are looking at building a 5,000 seat minor league baseball facility in a Montreal suburb, but that remains nothing more than “talk” at this point and time.

As for Ottawa, the 2,000 to 2,500 fans prepared to support professional baseball likely couldn’t care less whether the team has an affiliation with a Major League Baseball team. It makes more sense given how uncertain the Ottawa climate can be if baseball team operated from late May until September.

Wolff, the commissioner of the Can-Am League, has said, "It won't cost the city anything to let us in." and making even more intriguing Wolff wants to create a synergistic partnership with Baseball Canada whereby Canada’s national baseball team(s) could train and play games in Ottawa’s baseball stadium. There are other plans being discussed but those plans are short on reality. The Can-Am League had a traveling team play their entire 2007 schedule on the road, those players would likely love to call Ottawa home next summer – a likely and workable short-term solution to the stadium that hosted Canada’s final Triple A baseball game Monday afternoon – the day Triple A baseball died in Canada.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom.

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