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A Whole New Ballgame: Summer Baseball Undergoes Uneasy Transition

  • Jason Szafarski coaches the North Division team from the third-base line under the lights at the New England Collegiate Baseball League's All-Star Game in North Adams, Mass., on July 30, 2017. Szafarski has been the Upper Valley Nighthawks coach this season. (Caroline O'Connor photograph)

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks players Al Molina, center, and Luke Reynolds line up for the singing of the national anthem before the start of the New England Collegiate Baseball League's All-Star Game in North Adams, Mass., on July 30, 2017. The player at left is unidentified. (Caroline O'Connor photograph)

  • From left, Quintin, Jamie and Gary McIntire, of Bennington, Vt., chat while they wait for the New England Collegiate Baseball League's All-Star Game to start in North Adams, Mass., on July 30, 2017. (Caroline O'Connor photograph)

  • North Division bat boy Hayden Barrett watches players practice their swing before stepping up to the plate at the New England Collegiate Baseball League's All-Star Game in North Adams, Mass., on July 30, 2017. (Caroline O'Connor photograph)

  • Major League Baseball scouts Jim Bretz, of the Detroit Tigers, center, and Ron Vaughn, of the Oakland Athletics, clock a pitcher's throw during the New England Collegiate Baseball League's All-Star Game in North Adams, Mass., on July 30, 2017. (Caroline O'Connor photograph)

  • Clipper Cohen, 4, of Newburyport, Mass., sits in a tug-along wagon while watching the New England Collegiate Baseball League's All-Star Game in North Adams, Mass., on July 30, 2017, with his father Joseph Cohen and sister Amelia Cohen. (Caroline O'Connor photograph)

  • Al Molina, of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, gives fellow Seton Hall player Ryan Ramiz, of the Mystic Schooners, a hug at the end of the New England Collegiate Baseball League's All-Star Game in North Adams, Mass., on July 30, 2017. They have been playing baseball together since they were about eight-years-old and have been good friends since. (Caroline O'Connor photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 05, 2017

White River Junction — Upper Valley Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane is concerned about the future of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

Crane admits some of his anxiety is a matter of self-interest. His team belongs to a league that, in the last 10 years, has had to adapt to a changing summer baseball landscape. More leagues exist now, meaning more teams are grabbing for the finite number of collegiate baseball players available.

There’s also the changing mindset by college baseball coaches who shut down their top-tier talent out of potential injury concerns. Additionally, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, a for-profit venture in some of New England’s bigger markets, competes with the NECBL.

“I really don’t know” where the NECBL will be in five or 10 years, Crane said last week, as his first-place team prepared for a midweek game against the Sanford Mainers at the Maxfield Sports Complex. “If we continue to keep the status quo, I think we’re going to be in trouble. If we finally get it and start doing things differently, I think we have a chance. I think we have some great franchises. We have some great teams. We have a wonderful history and a huge alumni base that we can leverage.

“That’s a concern of mine every year,” he added. “What does this league look like if we lose two teams?”

As a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the NECBL and summer leagues like it do not require profit to continue operation, only a sufficient cash flow to pay the bills. Operating costs for the league’s 13 franchises average about $150,000 a year.

The Valley News previously reported the Nighthawks’ operating costs are $135,000 annually. The Winnipesaukee Muskrats, Crane’s former team, run on a budget of about $120,000 a year, according to Winnipesaukee general manager Kristian Svindland.

The NECBL has not lost a franchise since the Saratoga (N.Y.) Brigade failed to pay its bills and ceased operation before the 2014 season. The league came close to losing the Plymouth Pilgrims at the end of last summer before former athlete Kevin Plant and his father, Peter, took over the team. Other franchises, such as Winnipesaukee, continue to sit on the lower end of the financial totem pole.

“I think our league is fine financially. There are enough teams that do well,” Svindland said. “There are always going to be, just like in the major leagues, a couple of teams that struggle. We’re near the bottom in terms of attendance and revenue, but we’ve seen an uptick in the past two years, so we’re confident we’re going to get to where we need to be financially to keep this sustainable.”

Crane has said that the Nighthawks lost money in its first season, mostly due to higher-than-expected startup costs. Upper Valley’s Internal Revenue Service Form 990, a financial report required of all nonprofits, covering its first fiscal year is not yet public.

Other teams, like the Valley Blue Sox in Holyoke, Mass., do very well. Valley general manager Hunter Golden said the Blue Sox, averaging a league-high 2,121 fans for 20 regular-season home dates, make $125,000 at Mackenzie Stadium every summer and bring in close to $250,000 in advertising.

The NECBL is built in a way that keeps each of its teams independent. The NECBL has no league-wide sponsorships, offers limited financial assistance and enforces little oversight on league-wide policies. Major League Baseball provides some money, but not much.

“There’s an old saying that you’re as good as your worst franchise,” Golden said. “We’ve got work to do. We need to rely on each other more and each other’s areas of expertise. I think some of the teams that struggle on the baseball side do very well on the business side. I think some of the teams on the business side struggle on the baseball side.”

League-wide cohesion could start with a front office-led initiative to provide financial assistance. The NECBL adopted a $250 player registration fee this year, opening a revenue stream that many other leagues have taken advantage of for years.

Connor Hood, Upper Valley’s infielder from Seton Hall, said he did have to pay a registration fee when he signed with the NECBL. That $250, he said, was on the less-expensive end of what some summer collegiate leagues charge for the right to join and are almost exclusively paid out-of-pocket by the players.

Funds collected via registration fees go directly to the teams to offset costs.

“The league doesn’t pay for our bats; the league doesn’t pay for our umpires; the league doesn’t pay for stats; the league doesn’t pay for our website, the league doesn’t pay for insurance. Nothing,” Crane said. “Every cost that’s associated with your franchise is borne by your franchise. That’s not the way other leagues operate.”

Rob Sitz is the commissioner of the six-team Florida Collegiate Summer League and executive director of the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball, a union of 12 nonprofit summer baseball leagues including the NECBL that collectively promotes and negotiates with the NCAA and Major League Baseball. He said league-wide sponsorships are vital to the growth of his franchises.

“I would say the biggest challenge of it all is financially,” Sitz said. “Baseball is an expensive sport to play, and it costs a lot of money to provide umpires, fields, balls, wood bats. There’s a lot that goes into it to provide all that to the players. … We do have some league-wide sponsors that are very important to bring in revenue. We also have an offseason fundraiser, a celebrity golf tournament, that brings in about $80,000 to $100,000.”

To Crane, that kind of money, whether from a league-wide sponsorship or a fundraiser that benefits the NECBL’s 13 teams, can go a long way.

“I think that we have credibility to go out and sell league-wide sponsorships. Pick somebody to give the league some capital,” he said. “Pick a number, $50,000 a year. Cut that up among 13 teams. It’s not a ton, but if you can pay my bat bill, that helps.”

Added Svindland: “I think a third of the group (of NECBL teams) is like, ‘We’re fine. We’re good. We don’t want to shake up the apple cart.’ There’s a third that can use any (financial) help it can get. Then there’s a third that’s like, ‘Well, we can use the help, too.’ Those (latter) two-thirds really need to push.”

Financial success is driven, in part, by the quality of talent teams offer their fans.

Summer leagues, in general, measure success based on how many of their former athletes are selected in the MLB draft and how many secure playing time at the major league level. The NECBL is no different, using its former players as a marketing strategy to sell fans on the experience, essentially saying, “Come see a MLB superstar in the making.”

One problem: That future superstar is becoming harder to find.

More leagues mean more teams, which means more general managers fighting over the same crop of college baseball players. Meanwhile, college coaches are more conscious of injuries — particularly with pitchers — and are less inclined to send out their top talent to summer leagues out of fear that a player might injure himself and not be available in the spring.

“It’s definitely a trend, that it is harder and harder to find quality pitching with so many guys getting shut down,” Sitz said. “It trickles down to every level. That being said, with the top pitchers getting shut down, a lot of players, good pitchers, just need that opportunity.”

Promotional material handed out last weekend at the 2017 NECBL All-Star Game in North Adams, Mass., made a point of emphasizing the league’s history of helping create future pros. The 2016 MLB draft, according to the pamphlet, featured 97 NECBL alumni, the most in five years, and it noted 57 alumni who played in the majors last season. The group included former Red Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan (Lowell All-Americans), Cincinnati’s Adam Duvall (Sanford Mainers) and Washington’s Stephen Strasburg (Torrington Twisters).

“If you have your ace, your Friday night starter, and you send them to Sanford, Maine, and he blows out his elbow, and all of a sudden you finish third in your conference and you don’t make it to the NCAA tournament, you get fired,” Crane said. “It’s not one-to-one, but it’s a possibility. So coaches are terrified.”

For college baseball players, more leagues mean more teams to populate. Three NCAA divisions of college baseball, plus junior colleges, supply athletes for more than 40 summer collegiate baseball leagues across the country, meaning any athlete can pretty much find a roster spot. New leagues continue to pop up; the Exhibition League is set to open with 10 teams in the Midwest in 2018, according to the Scottsbluff (Neb.) Star Herald.

For leagues like the NECBL, which regards itself as a more desirable place for top-tier talent, that distinction is becoming harder to define.

“I really don’t believe, other than the Cape (Cod League), that kids go, ‘Oh I want to play in the NECBL,’ or, ‘Oh, I want to play in the (Midwest-based) Northwoods League,’ ” Crane said. “That might happen at a D-III school that doesn’t typically put people in the Cape or the NECBL … but if you’re an elite-level college baseball player, you can take your pick.

“We pride ourselves on talent and community. We do the community well, but if we start to lose the talent, then who are we?”

The NECBL, and leagues across the country, still provide a platform for athletes in need of exposure or for underclassmen trying to improve their games. It’s one that college coaches such as Upper Valley’s Jason Szafarski, the head coach at Saint Michael’s College, still consider important.

If the top draft-worthy talent is being held back, leagues such as the NECBL provide a playing avenue for others. Redshirt athletes returning from a year away from the game, like Southern Mississippi’s Luke Reynolds, and underclassmen seeking more repetitions, like Hood, populated the Nighthawks’ roster this summer. A top pitcher from a baseball powerhouse, Golden said, is less likely to get sent to summer ball. That’s changed the Valley Blue Sox GM’s approach for recruiting his roster from going to brand-name (Power Five conference) schools to sell tickets to simply searching for good baseball players.

The Blue Sox, in working with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found that the average hitter coming off his freshman year in college hit .222 in the NECBL since 2006, according to Golden. Keene Swamp Bats general manager Kevin Watterson echoed the fact that he’s seen more upperclassmen in the league in recent years.

“I don’t even bother with Power Five rosters at all anymore, because some of those players aren’t ready to compete here,” Golden said. “There are 58 Power Five hitters in this league, and 28 of them are unqualified and hitting below .180. If that’s what (general managers) want to continue to bring into this league, freshman hitters that are hitting .222 on average because they want to see the (school) name on their roster, then they can keep doing that. They’re going to fail.”

But pitching, Golden said, is a different story.

“Noah does this, too, getting those mid-major guys that throw 80 innings and are past the big innings jump,” Golden said. “You might be risking the draft with them but, more often than not, you’re not. They’re going to throw, they’re going to pitch and they’re going to want to be here because this is their chance.”

Added Crane: “The hitters (overall) are still very good; you get a lot of high draft picks out of the hitters that come out of this league. But the pitchers? Nope.”

The notion that Major League Baseball would invest in summer collegiate baseball makes a lot of sense.

Last Sunday’s NECBL All-Star Game was packed with close to 30 scouts and even more analysts, whose jobs are to study potential prospects. The NECBL and other NACSB leagues provide a service to MLB clubs by putting athletes in unfamiliar territories, surrounding them with unfamiliar people and asking them to perform to the best of their ability — much like in the show.

And yet MLB’s contribution to individual clubs is minimal. Sitz said MLB doles out money on a league-by-league basis. Crane said he receives about $4,000 a year from the majors.

“Which is nothing, given what we’re providing Major League Baseball, in terms of training these guys and giving scouts an accurate representation of. ‘are these kids good enough to play?’ ” Crane said. “We do a very poor job, as a league, of selling that to them because, every year, we get the same check.”

The Nighthawks GM is a proponent of letting MLB use the NECBL as an incubator for some of its more groundbreaking ideas, such as bringing in international players from countries where it wants to grow or automating ball and strike calls with a computer to let MLB see just how it might work at the higher level. MLB, in exchange, would pay the league for its services.

“They can use us as their testing ground,” Crane said. “All kinds of things that we can do that are initiatives that MLB has, they can pilot with us.”

For Crane, frustrations come from a league that seems stagnant in the face of an ever-changing landscape. As MLB tries to evolve and appeal to a younger generation, summer collegiate baseball faces similar challenges.

Those challenges, he said, can’t be handled on a part-time basis. NECBL commissioner Sean McGrath works full time as the director of the parents fund and athletics giving at Williams College. Chris Hall, the Futures League commissioner, works full time, as does Dick Radatz Jr., the son of the 1960s Boston Red Sox pitcher who is in charge of the 20-team Northwoods League.

“We need a full-time commissioner,” Crane said. “You can’t do this job part time. If you do, this is what you get. Every team fends for themselves; we’ll cobble this together every single year. We’ll just bump along, not innovate, not do anything new, not do anything different.

“That’s why we’re in the shape we’re in, whereas the Futures League is doing really well and the Northwoods League teams are worth a couple million dollars each and draw 7,000 a night, because those guys work at it. For us, it’s a mindset of, ‘Well, this is how it’s always been done.’ ”

McGrath, who was re-elected to another two-year team at the NECBL’s GM meetings in the fall, did not return phone calls for comment.

Hall, who has been the nine-team Futures League’s only commissioner in its seven-year history, has every right to be pleased with the progress his league has made since its inception.

For starters, it has moved into three markets where the NECBL has failed — Lynn, Mass., Bristol, Conn., and Pittsfield, Mass. — by using a for-profit business model that focuses less on athletic talent and more on the fan experience.

“We have some great ballparks, and we have some great organizations,” Hall said. “Teams and leagues take chances on locations, take chances on communities. It takes time, takes money, to build a program.”

The Futures League focuses on beer sales and attendance to build a profit for its ownership groups; many of its teams, including the Nashua Silver Knights, play in refurbished minor league stadiums that seat thousands. It is careful to put teams in minor league-caliber stadiums surrounded by highly populated communities that can draw more fans.

It also forces teams to reserve 10 of their 30 roster spots for athletes who play on New England collegiate teams. Futures League teams play a 54-game schedule into early August before the postseason begins.

“There are plenty of good baseball players,” Hall said. “They’re good kids, and they deserve to play at a high level.”

Hall’s focus on the fan is a contrast to the philosophy of the NACSB and its member leagues. The numbers say it may work: Six Futures teams average more than 1,000 people a game, something four NECBL teams can claim. The Futures League averaged 1,198 per game across the league this season; the NECBL came in at 797.

With as many leagues as there are nationally, consolidation may have to take place. With the NECBL and Futures League operating in each other’s backyard, a merger could be the answer.

“Every year, I get asked the same question about (a merger),” Hall said. “We’re a forward-thinking league. We’d be interested.”

Added Crane: “I’d love to see us merge, create a super league and just dominate the landscape in New England, really do this right, do it well. It would give us a lot of leverage with companies and MLB to give us money. I think there’s a way to make that happen.”

Part of the NECBL’s magic is its ability to survive. The league has been around since 1994, with teams emerging and folding over its 23-year history. It’s a small reason Crane is cautiously optimistic about the state of summer baseball.

It’s also a reason he’s invested, twice now, in the NECBL’s future.

“I want to see this league be the best league in the country,” Crane said. “I want all of our teams to be doing well and making headlines and doing interesting things. I want to be the best franchise here, but it doesn’t help me if I’m drawing 5,000 a night and everyone else is drawing 50.”

“It’s self-interest. If the league is more viable, my investment is more viable. My time is more valuable because we have something that’s good and that people want to be a part of. I want what’s best for the league.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.