A year ago I wrote a column welcoming the Golden Baseball League (GBL) into the pitiless predatory jungle of sports capitalism. The GBL, an independent Class A baseball league headquartered in Pleasanton, California, opened for business with eight teams, one of them in San Diego, the Surf Dawgs.
I liked it that they put a team in San Diego. I liked the story of the GBL, mindful that it is a story, a product of writers and paid publicists, and could not possibly be true in that all the sweat and lies and fear and boredom have been stripped from the public version. Still, what was left had a good feel, how Dave Kaval, Stanford University graduate student and his bud, Amit Patel, both in their 20s, decided to put on a Broadway play, make that, decided to draw up a business plan for their class project. (They might have used a fancier term than "class project"). The pair went on to reel in investors, raised $5 million, and boom, on May 26, 2005, the GBL began playing baseball.
So, a year has passed. How did they do?
First, we should keep in mind that corporate catacombs are rancid with the stink of failed professional sports leagues. In football, let us recall the passing of the Continental Football League (1965--'69), World Football League (1974--'75), USFL (1983--'85), XFL (2001), and in baseball, the Golden State League (one week in June, 1995), Continental League (folded in 1960 without playing a single game), Western Baseball League (1995--2002), not to overlook the American Basketball League, World Basketball League, World Hockey Association, International Hockey League, North American Soccer League, Major Indoor Soccer League, United Soccer League, National Lacrosse League, World Team Tennis, World Hockey Association, for openers.
All of the aboveformentioned examples were failed attempts at major sports leagues. The body count for defunct minor sports leagues is an order of magnitude higher. The body count for individual teams within minor professional sports leagues is a number too large to count without using machines. If the Golden Baseball League makes it, they will be muy especial buckaroos.
Okay, what do we have after one year? First, the GBL has high-end sponsors. Safeway signed on early, $1 million over three years. This year's new sponsors include Spalding, Easton Sports, Farmland Foods, and Wallstreet.com. Respectable.
The Golden Baseball League decided on the league-owns-all-the-teams business model, which has been used, at one time or another, by Major League Soccer, XFL, WNBA, Women's United Soccer Association, American Basketball League, and the National Lacrosse League. Basically, this eliminates labor problems and owner problems. Makes folding or moving franchises as easy as telling an underling, "Make it so."
The league doesn't want to own real estate. They only went into cities that had existing stadiums, often on college campuses. In San Diego, that means Tony Gwynn Stadium on the campus of San Diego State. In Reno that means Peccole Park on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. In Fullerton that means Goodwin Field (Cal State Fullerton). A 2007 expansion franchise will be placed in St. George, Utah, and that means Dixie State College. (By the way, if you, like me, wondered how in the hell a thing named Dixie State College wound up in Southern Utah, Dixie is the name of the plain next to the Virgin River, which is reasonably close to St. George or so Dixie defenders claim.)
The GBL had their cost under control from Day 1. In fact, it's hard to see how they can cut costs any further. Except for a few stars (Rickey Henderson), the GBL paid it's players around $1,100 a month. If you were working a 40-hour-a-week job, $1,100 a month rounds out to about $6.87 an hour. The minimum wage in California is $6.75 an hour.
If the league is going to increase revenue, it won't come from squeezing payroll or rent. They'll have to sell more hot dogs and beer, that's where the money is. In order to do that, they'll have to entice more hot dog eaters and beer drinkers into their stadiums. Here's the money-making-life-giving question. How do you do that? What do you have to offer customers this year that you didn't have to offer last year?
The GBL says the 2005 count was 451,505 attendees, which sounds like a lot until you divide that number by eight teams (deduct the Samurai Bears, which was a traveling team), and factor in a 90-game season.
After the 2005 season the GBL folded two teams and moved the Mesa (Arizona) Miners to Reno. It's been reported that only one team made money last year, the Chico Outlaws. The league is playing an 80-game regular season this year as opposed to 90 last year. Play begins June 1 and runs until August 28.