OPINION: Australian Baseball League - where are we headed?
30 June 2016
After six seasons of a resurrected Australian Baseball League there seem to be ominous signs emerging for the future of the competition – and by extension, for the capacity of baseball to forge a legitimate national presence in a crowded sporting market.
While the first incarnation of an Australian national baseball league had its moments – and its years, considering that it lasted for an often tumultuous though always entertaining decade towards the end of last century – there were ownership, funding, facilities issues and various other factors that conspired against the project.
Those of us who were around at the time were saddened and disappointed by the demise of a competition that offered and delivered so much enjoyment, excitement and hope for our baseball future.
Several years in the making, a revamped Australian Baseball League was launched in the summer of 2010/11, with great fanfare and with a serious injection of substantial funding and human resources from Major League Baseball – one of the most recognisable and revered sporting brands in the developed world.
After six seasons, shareholders, sponsors and fans would rightly have expected that the league should have made some reasonable headway as a national competition showcasing one of the most fan-friendly and entertaining sports on the planet.
But it seems that has not been the case for Australian Baseball League. Improvement has been minimal - by most reasonable objective measures including attendances and mainstream media coverage - and the league seems to face the very real prospect of falling far short of the lofty goals that were laid out in its business plan presented to stakeholders seven, eight or nine years ago.
While Western Australia and Canberra have been recent recipients of generous government grants to help upgrade baseball facilities in Perth and the national capital, that appears to be the extent of the recent good news for Australian domestic baseball. Further, even those announcements were politically motivated and not guaranteed in any case – whichever party might form government.
After all, promises, by politicians, are a cheap commodity. Core and non-core.
There has been an abundance of troubling recent rumour surrounding the future of Australian Baseball League. The whispers and scuttlebutt have been in no way diminished by an apparent reticence on the part of the league, and its clubs, to openly – and honestly - inform baseball aficionados and the broader sporting community of what exactly is going on.
Let us cut to the chase. Has Major League Baseball withdrawn its financial support of the league? Has the support simply been scaled back, with Baseball Australia and the state governing bodies now expected to provide greater input? Will Major League Baseball continue to provide interns to assist in administration and day-to-day operations of the league?
Will the ABL now be constrained – as it should have been from the start – to locate, to nurture and to compensate enthusiastic and committed local people to help deliver and build the league?
Is there a genuine bid by any party to take on ownership of the league? Will clubs be privately owned? Can we expect the entry of more clubs, especially along the eastern seaboard or even from New Zealand?
What should we make of announcements, over the past couple of days, that Lismore in northern New South Wales could be recipient of government grants – and potentially other funding - that would enable it to become an elite high performance and training facility well-placed to host major national events into the future?
If MLB is indeed involved in discussions, perhaps including financial support for upgrades of the Lismore facility (and bless the baseball hearts of the local baseball people by the way, for they do a magnificent job), what does this imply for future funding of the Australian Baseball League?
Is MLB funding likely to be focused on one or the other? Or neither. Continued support of Australian Baseball League? Or investment in a training facility that may be a more efficient and productive way of identifying and developing playing personnel likely to have a shot at making the grade at MLB level?
While development of the Lismore facility would be a great thing for the local community – and for our national under-aged championships – are we simply being used by MLB for its own pragmatic purposes?
Or can everyone be a winner?
When will we know the answers to these, and to many other questions? Late June – and the end of the financial year – has been touted as the time for major announcements. Let us hope that those announcements are forthcoming, and that they will be positive in nature.
In 2015 there was an ABL competition draw available in late May. By the end of June this year, all that we appear to getting from the Australian Baseball League in the way of communication is news feeds, vacuous posts of birthdays and updates on achievements of former players in the league. Players we are unlikely to ever see again in this league anyhow. A pointless exercise, some might argue.
Window dressing. Procrastination. Claytons news.
So what is really going on? Does anyone know? Is anyone allowed to say?
Will the Australian Baseball League continue for the 2016/17 season? If so, will it be its in its current form, or in a reduced game format?
If Major League Baseball scales back its financial involvement – as it has every right to do - where do we go from there? Do we place the onus of responsibility on Baseball Australia and the state associations to somehow stump up the funds to finance a meaningful season? Would the governing bodies be in a position to do so?
Do we revert to a Claxton Shield style format of less games conducted over a shorter time span?
The revamped Australian Baseball League was funded and resourced largely by Major League Baseball and some generous sponsors over the past six years. If we have not been able to make a go of that organisational and corporate support – as appears to be the case, under admittedly challenging circumstances - then accountability surely has to be sheeted home and accepted somewhere.
Have we blown it again? Has a golden opportunity to create a genuine national baseball competition again fallen by the wayside? Is baseball destined to ever remain a minor sport in this country?
Let us hope not. There are so many great things happening at all levels of Australian baseball that renders it imperative that we should have a healthy, flourishing and high-standard national competition - as successful team sports do. The optimists among us would dearly love to be enthused, blown away and energised by positive and constructive developments over coming days and weeks.
But not too many days - and certainly not weeks.
Time has now become of the essence.
DISCLAIMER: The above opinion piece is in no way reflective of the views or the assessments of any other person involved with Australian Baseball Alumni. It expresses personal reflections for which I take full responsibility as one of those many with an intense interest in the development and the betterment of Australian baseball. Kingsley Collins (June 2016)