Canadian Minor League Teams Seek Different Revenue Streams

Canadian Minor League Teams Seek Different Revenue Streams

Canadian Minor League Baseball

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

Calgary Vipers 

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.

Winnipeg Goldeyes

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.

Vancouver Canadians

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 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.

Cheap Trick Buffalo Bisons

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.

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12 replies on “Canadian Minor League Teams Seek Different Revenue Streams”
  1. says: Early

    Were you able to find out if owning an unaffiliated team is more profitable than running an traditional affiliate? Is pro baseball in Canada’s second teir markets going to work?

    When everyone of the Canadian AAA teams relocated they moved and saw an attendance spike but that came down. Were ML teams moving Canadian clubs just to save on the overhead travel costs?

    The thing is Edmonton and Vancouver, and to a lesser extent Calgary and Ottawa, there was a long standing franchise which was supported and successful. Now they only have low level indy ball to watch. Ticket prices are high. There were many common issues in operating any one of these clubs and it resulted in the failure of them all at the AAA level.

    If Calgary and Edmonton can save over $100,000 each by moving to a west coast league instead of a mid-west league I don’t think I would consider that a “New Revenue Stream” it is merely stopping the bleeding and probably the same course of action that ML teams took when travelling from these baseball hinterlands became too pricey. Is the anwser to keeping these teams afloat is having Vacetomy Nights? Was their noticable attendance spike for Vacetomy Night?

    They spent $3million on Foothills Stadium, I would have loved to see it before. You and I were there and the place was pretty old and bare boned and dumpy. Maybe the field and players quarters were upgraded. I would figure you could built Foothills’ for that much.

    Is there a future in Canada for any MiL revival? Or just rich guys in the secondary markets owning toy teams?

  2. says: Callum

    Again, it depends on the market. In theory it would be more profitable to run an affiliated team with the parent club footing the bill for the majority of costs, but if fans don’t show up, noone buys merchandise and there are no sponsors then it won’t be a profitable venture.

    As a baseball fan, I prefer to follow affiliated teams rather than independent. Sure, out of curiosity I would like to see how former Jays player John Hattig is doing in the international league, but I feel more of a connection with say… the former London Tigers franchise as I would have watched Rico Brogna, Travis Fryman and Bobby Higginson mature into Major League ballplayers (not to mention the party zone when an MLB player gets sent down for a rehab stint).

    I don’t agree with you that ticket prices are high. Tickets are $10 for reserved grandstands in Edmonton, I assume G.A. to be lower. That is good entertainment value for 2.5 – 3 hours, and it costs less than a movie. Vancouver sells them for $11, G.A. in Calgary is $9.

    Teams defecting to other leagues to save on travel costs is obviously not a new revenue stream since revenues are not affected. Clearly, this is strictly a cost-saving measure.

    Vasectomy nights are not the cure-all, but as part of a team’s marketing mix along with having Cheap Trick nights, it can help a minor league franchise’s bottom line.

    Personally, I do not expect any sort of MiL revival. However, there is the opportunity for rich guys in secondary markets to break even, which isn’t such a bad thing.

  3. says: Early

    I would rather see an affiliated MiL team too but with an Indy team there is much more stability in the players. Maybe this is why they have been popular with the fans in the last 15 years. However, the overhead costs are crippling and then affects the profitability a la, good attendance in the NoL for a AA level circuit but dwindling profits.

    I cannot see the teams in Canada that exist now sustaining themselves. Only Vancouver who plays teams within busing distance from its Seattle area opponents and is supported by a ML team.

    I should have said that ticket prices are high compared to other entertainment sources. When Ottawa went from AAA to a short-season Indy League the ticket prices did not make a similar drop. Yes a $10 GA is your least expensive ticket and gets you to a Indy League game. $10 also gets you into Batman Movies, it also is your cheapest access to Major Jr. Hockey. $16 gets you into a CFL game and $20 is the cheapest way into an NHL game in Edm, Calg or Ottawa. So, comparativley the cost is high. Even though I find it good value and would go every night.

    The travel kills baseball teams. Even hockey teams are getting crushed by travel costs. Minor League hockey used to be popular across eastern Canada but all those teams have moved to markets that are a short bus trip to. The St. John’s Maple Leafs played infront of a full house everynight but the Marlies are more profitable playing infront of 80% less in Toronto every night. Even junior hockey teams, with no real salary, avoid long travel and those remote Jr. Hockey teams struggle if they are not super strong at the box office (which they usually are).

    The key to saving MiL baseball in Canada is either limiting teams to Lower Mainland BC where they can bus to Pac NW centres or having teams in Southern Ontario where they can play in the NY Penn League or Eastern League. I think we will just see fewer and fewer rich dudes supporting a ballteam that depends on 3200 walk up fans for a playoff game to keep them from losing money.

  4. says: Callum

    Foothills Stadium must have been in absolute shambles before the renovations. In fact, one of the main reasons for the Cannon’s relocation to Albuquerque was the state of Foothills Stadium.

  5. says: RC

    Very ‘Cheap Trick’. It was the duty free rye and hand written field passes from the premier that made the night a success. CharlieH wishes he was that lucky fan 28 years hence.

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