Canadian Minor League Teams Seek Different Revenue Streams
For minor league baseball franchises, Canada has become a different field of dreams. With the exception of Vancouver, the old business model, where major league clubs supplied players – and more importantly, paid their salaries and travel expenses – has disappeared like Shoeless Joe into an Iowa cornfield.
Early has written extensively on this topic so forgive me if there is any overlap.
Last year’s departure of the Ottawa Lynx to Allentown marked the final out for Triple-A ball north of the 49th parallel. Gone are the days when Canadian clubs including the Vancouver Canadians, Calgary Cannons, Edmonton Trappers and Ottawa served as top farm teams for Major League Baseball clubs.
Vancouver is the only Canadian team still affiliated with an MLB franchise – the Oakland Athletics – albeit at the A level, where many players are rookies and have limited pro experience. Franchises in other cities are playing under new names and owners, including Winnipeg and Quebec City, in fledgling independent leagues – where hopes are high but attendance figures are low.
With the exception of Vancouver, the old business model, where major league clubs supplied players – and more importantly, paid their salaries and travel expenses – has disappeared. Currently Canadian clubs must pay all of their own bills as they serve up a bare-bones brand of baseball.
“I don’t think there’s any difference in operating an independent or unaffiliated franchise. In Calgary, there’s considerable wealth and it’s just trying to win back fans that are still disillusioned because they lost their Triple A team”
-Peter Young, President and CEO of the Calgary Vipers of the Golden League
Parallels can be drawn to NHL teams that have moved on from Canadian cities.
“I was in Winnipeg when the Jets left, and it took 3-5 years before anyone started supporting the Manitoba Moose” – Young
In most cases, ballparks in Canada are many years old and clubs must spend millions upgrading them. Vipers owner Jeff Gidney has spent $3 million on Foothills Stadium and the Vancouver Canadians have spent $2 million.
Calgary will likely break even on its $1.4 million budget, while the Canadians will make a slight profit on their $2 million expenses. Winnipeg, however, stands to benefit the most, having recently exceeded the two-million mark in all time attendance. Yet the Goldeyes have an uncertain future as the Northern League is in shambles and seeks to merge with the American Association.
Calgary and Edmonton defected to the Golden League last year citing high travel costs. Unlike most teams, Calgary and Edmonton fly to most road games. The Vipers will spend $80,000 in travel costs this year compared to $220,000 last year because of better scheduling and flights through Los Angeles instead of Chicago.
Vancouver is currently in a stable relationship with the Oakland A’s, who provide all ballplayers and coaches which allows them to concentrate on running the stadium.
In addition to an indifferent fanbase, the tough racket of finding ballplayers, there is also inclement Canadian weather to deal with. With all of the adversities these teams must face, they must get creative when it comes to drumming up interest in the teams, and conversely, revenue. Teams make a modest income from broadcast and concession deals, as well as sponsorships and advertisements. Where they get creative is wacky promotion nights. Last year, the Calgary Vipers held a Vasectomy Night. This year the Vipers traded pitcher John Odom for 10 maple-wood bats valued at $650. Although the baseball purist would scoff at these moves, it is the reality Canadian Minor League franchises must face. The Vipers received international media coverage and $10,000 from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not after they purchased the bats for their museum.
Clubs like Ottawa and Winnipeg try to generate other revenue by staging concerts and other events in their parks on non-game days, or immediately post game. I remember one MUD.com outing where I attended a Buffalo Bisons game with Kman and Early and we were treated to a Cheap Trick show post-game. The Vancouver Canadians are putting on a symphony concert next season.
Much like every other team though, winning matters in all markets. Last season the Vipers had 3,200 walk up fans for a playoff game last season which helped them turn the corner towards profitability.