The future of the Australian Baseball League
27 February 2018
Demonstrably the strongest club in the eighth season of the resurrected Australian Baseball League, Brisbane Bandits won its third successive Claxton Shield title to the delight of its supporters and to the plaudits of a diverse baseball faithful dearly hoping for the long-term viability of a national league.
While there has been much discussion and some genuine excitement generated over the prospect of the Australian Baseball League expanding to eight clubs under franchise arrangements for the 2018/19 season, all is clearly not plain sailing as the league struggles to gain mainstream media traction and continues to draw just modest crowds to the majority of its games.
Talk the league up as much as they might, governing bodies surely realise that they face serious ongoing challenges to expand the competition and offer exciting opportunities for our emerging players whilst being able to attract hard-headed franchise ownership that will be well aware of shortcomings that will need to be addressed.
Total attendance for regular Australian Baseball League games in the 2017/18 season was 98,397, according to statistics posted in Minor League Baseball International. This compared with 87,475 from marginally less games in the 2016/17 season. While the figures might sound half-decent, their breakdown into averages at each venue is telling.
During the 2017/18 season, Perth averaged 1144 people at each regular season game. Canberra averaged 892, while Melbourne was 701, Brisbane was 637, Sydney 636 and Adelaide a paltry 474.
By contrast, in the inaugural 2009/10 season, every venue was averaging over 1000 people at regular season games, with some especially high numbers in Perth and at Melbourne Showgrounds.
Despite what people might argue about the location of certain grounds – pointing especially to Blacktown in Sydney and Altona in Melbourne as being “user-unfriendly” venues – it is patently obvious that the Australian Baseball League has not expanded its supporter base over the past eight seasons as it would have liked, or even as was projected by Major League Baseball at the outset. Crowd numbers have in fact diminished – despite enthusiastic and substantial crowds being attracted in Brisbane, Canberra and Perth, who filled the top three placings in 2017/18.
While Canberra, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide (to a lesser extent) receive substantial mainstream media coverage, both Sydney Blue Sox and Melbourne Aces are finding it difficult to gain any traction whatsoever. Australian Baseball League generates very high quality baseball – we all know that – but if there are poor crowds and if there is minimal mainstream media support then we are quite frankly going nowhere pretty quickly.
Bums on seats in any sport equates to far greater opportunities for sponsorship support, government funding in the shadow of potential Olympic games participation and for vital interest being expressed by mainstream media.
There are many well-credentialed people around the land who have observed the progress of the revamped Australian Baseball League who may be excited about the possibilities of a national competition and its projected expansion but whose expectations remain tempered by the structural constraints of Australian baseball and the incapacity of the new league – thus far – to have made serious inroads into a crowded Australian sporting market, even after eight seasons.
Kingsley Wellington is a Baseball Australia Hall-of-Famer, a legend of South Australian Baseball who represented his state for twelve years and who managed the state side to seven Claxton Shield titles – earning him accolades as the most successful Claxton Shield Manager in our history. He is a man who took a lead role in the establishment of the original Australian Baseball League and he remains convinced of the need for a national baseball competition, which he strongly believes can be made financially viable.
“Children who play sport are exposed to a community-like structure,” he wrote in a recent submission to Baseball Australia and Baseball South Australia. “They are taught to respect authority, made accountable and are judged by their peers. They are encouraged and taught to help achieve common and individual goals.”
“It is often said – and I agree – that parents who encourage their children to play sport are making a sound time and financial investment in their children’s future. The same applies to government funding – the more kids who are kept off the streets in their formative years, the more likely they will become responsible adults.”
“Which sport they initially select can depend on may factors – the school they go to, the cost, their parents, sporting heroes just to name a few. However, as the child gets older – particularly for the more gifted athletes – there is no doubt that media coverage which relates directly to a sport’s popularity is a major factor.”
“Therefore,” Wellington says, “for any sport to be a success in the international arena, it must attract as many of these gifted sportspeople as possible, and to do this the sport must be financially viable, able to attract and retain considerable spectator interest with resultant media exposure and sponsorship, to enable players to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport.”
To achieve this requires an infrastructure that allows the right training, at the right time, under the best possible conditions possible, Wellington argues.
“Amateur sports are dependent to a large degree on governments to provide funding for clubrooms and facilities, but the rest is left to past players, parents and club supporters to give of their valuable time and money to minimise the costs of participation for players,” he said. “Without this infrastructure, no sport nor its national league could exist. But are these people acknowledged and given all the support possible by the hierarchy?”
“I don’t believe so. Are parents struggling to find membership fees to allow their children to play given considered and due recognition? I don’t think so.”
Wellington recently presented a proposal to Baseball Australia and Baseball South Australia to recognise club administrators - together with coaches and parents of junior players - by providing passes to attend Australian Baseball League fixtures.
“Not only was this proposal rejected – it was not even acknowledged,” Wellington said.
“This proposal would at least have been recognition of these people’s importance, it would have increased attendances at ABL games and any effect on gate takings – which are virtually non-existent anyway – would have been more than compensated by increased profit from on-ground refreshment sales.”
“What would this achieve, besides giving struggling parents a relatively cheap night out?” Wellington asked. “First, it would recognise and encourage reasonably knowledgeable people to attend these fixtures. It would acknowledge in a practical way the importance of parents and officials who provide the feeding grounds and vital infrastructure essential for the game to grow. Last but by no means, it would increase spectator support, the foundation for any sport looking for a place in the international arena - and it would ultimately assist in generating the essential finances to succeed.”
Now living in Canberra and retaining an active interest in the Australian Baseball League through the involvement of his grandson Mitch as a player with Sydney Blue Sox, former Victorian Claxton Shield player and Australian Under 19 representative Russell Edwards – like Wellington - has serious concerns about stagnating crowd attendances at ABL games.
Russell Edwards proposes a radical realignment of baseball seasons across the nation as a potential solution to the problem of Australian Baseball League attendances.
“The latest incarnation of the Australian Baseball League is now eight seasons old and our two biggest cities continue to struggle to get fans to their home games,” he wrote just this week. “As someone who would like to see the league continue to grow and expand, I would respectfully suggest consideration of a few outside the box suggestions that just may get people to our games.”
Edwards feels strongly that the current scheduling conflict with local competitions needs to be resolved - sooner rather than later - if the Australian Baseball League is to have a future.
“The ABL clubs are currently owned by the various state and territory associations,” he wrote. “I know that may well change if the league is privatised, but at the moment I don’t see the local competitions and the ABL as being compatible.”
“For instance, if the Aces are playing a Thursday night game, the local clubs want their members at club training - not at Altona. On Friday nights, clubs want all hands on deck for umpiring, coaching, working in the canteen, marking out grounds and so on for junior games.”
“Saturdays see the clubs wanting their members playing or helping out at their women’s games and of course Sunday is the busiest day by far for all clubs - with juniors and seniors playing games all day.”
“Quite simply, “ Edwards said, “clubs want their members devoting their time and energy to club activities and not attending ABL games – as much as they might support the concept of a national league.”
“In my adopted ACT competition this season, playing numbers have dropped alarmingly. Baseball ACT has two paid “in the field” staff members and both just happen to be Cavalry players. I can’t find any evidence of their positions ever being advertised and the territory’s Baseball Development Officer spent thirteen weeks of 2017 on fully paid leave - playing for and travelling with the ABL team, playing for Australia, attending the ABL Academy, travelling with the Under 23 National Team to North America and so on.”
“Giving him a job was undoubtedly great for the Cavs but - quite rightly - fee paying club members are entitled to question how he is developing the game when he is away for at least a quarter of the year. Once again, what is good for the ABL franchise is not good for the local baseball community.”
Russell Edwards argues that there is a way to overcome this problem that might help enable the local baseball community to support its ABL team – and thereby help build a base for continued development. He proposes a radical overhaul with the alignment of baseball seasons.
“All states – and Australian Capital Territory - currently run a Summer League competition and, additionally, most states conduct a separate winter competition,” he wrote. “The summer leagues run from late September to February/March and all - with the exception of Adelaide - have approximately a one-month break for juniors and most seniors over the Christmas/New Year period.”
“Speaking as a former Coach and Club President, the Christmas break was always extremely disruptive and invariably - when games resumed after the break - we would have great difficulty fielding junior teams for the handful of games remaining in the New Year. A quick check of results on the Baseball NSW and Baseball Victoria websites demonstrates clearly that this is still an issue, with many junior games recorded as forfeits when competitions resumed a few weeks ago.”
“I see no reason why we need to have summer and winter Seasons,” Edwards argues. “Why not spring and autumn leagues that leave the period from mid-November to the end of January completely free for the ABL Season?”
“The Sydney Summer League runs for twenty weeks - including finals - and the Victorian Summer League runs for twenty-one weeks. The summer season could be re-branded as the Spring League, commencing around 8 and 15 July in Melbourne and the home and away season would conclude around 11 November. Two weeks of State League Finals could be conducted as curtain raisers to ABL games if the Aces or Blue Sox were playing at home.”
“The ABL season could begin around 17 November and the playoffs could conclude around 2 February,” he said. “The Autumn League could schedule its season from early February to late June.”
“With no local competitions on, the state bodies could conduct a four-team All-Star competition on Monday and Tuesday nights, featuring imports and the best local players. This might even provide more incentive for MLB and Asian teams to send prospects to Australia if they know they will be playing six days a week and getting an extra 50% at bats during their time Down Under.”
While Russell Edwards can envisage an number of reasons why this alignment might be problematic – such as ground availability and players being committed to other sports – he believes that a radical approach is required if we want to seriously engage baseball families with their Australian Baseball League clubs.
“I am old enough to remember when Victoria moved its main season from winter to summer in 1976,” he wrote. “There were plenty of naysayers who declared it would be the end of the game as we knew it - with all the cricketers giving the game away and grounds being unavailable because of cricket use.”
“But the change of seasons still worked out OK.”
“You could give a free ABL club membership to every fee-paying member of the Spring League. If a Victorian Spring League player, say, has a photo ID membership of the Melbourne Aces included as part of his club fees he would almost certainly attend games and he would hopefully bring paying fans with him.”
“Juniors would feel a part of the ABL club if they received a photo ID membership and they would probably drive their parents mad to take them to Games.”
Like Baseball Australia Hall-of-Famer Kingsley Wellington, Russell Edwards is a passionate believer in the principle of enabling emerging younger players to have every possible opportunity to play at the highest possible levels available to them – both for their own personal development and for the betterment of the sport.
“As someone who has been involved in the National Junior Championships over a number of years, I wonder whether they really achieve much for our young athletes,” Edwards said. “Parents pay $3500 for a ten-day tournament that often sees kids throw just a few innings and have a handful of at bats. It is not unusual for parents to have their sons in state/territory teams for four years of the Under 16 and Under 18 Championships. When you add the cost of parents attending these championships to the bill, the honour of representing your state is a very expensive exercise.”
“How about it,” he proposed, “if all the ABL Clubs had Under 17 Teams that travelled with them for the ten weeks of the ABL Season? The Under 17s could fly in on Saturday mornings, play two games on Saturday, another two games on Sunday - and fly home Sunday night. They could play at club grounds or at the ABL grounds - depending on the ABL team’s schedule.”
“So the young men would get to play a 40-game season. You would need to limit starting pitchers to, say, six starts and four minor appearances in the ten-week season to develop more pitchers - and you may need to allow Canberra Cavalry to include perhaps six 18 year-olds in their team to make up squad numbers. But it could be worked out.”
“Under this proposal or something similar, each team might have a squad of twenty-two players - with each player having to pay say $4000 to be involved. $4000 for 40 games is far better value for money for parents than $3500 for a handful of innings or at bats over the ten games of the Nationals.”
“If this exercise was costed out, I suspect $4000 would easily cover all airfares, accommodation costs, mini buses and the like,” he said. “The Heat squad would need to spend two nights on the road for away games, while teams travelling to Perth would need to stay there for two nights because of the travel times.”
“This would be an extremely radical change but it would certainly help the young men develop.”
Under a revamped structure along these lines – or something similar – emerging young players would be exposed to far more game time at a high level, while the Australian Baseball League clubs would have a far better chance of engaging mainstream clubs and building a stronger supporter base.
Kingsley Wellington believes that a national baseball league is a must, one that can become financially viable given the proper directions and the proper strategies. Expressing little faith in the capacity of current administrators to deliver the changes that are required, he insists that grassroots clubs and their supporters cannot be expected to support a national competition that takes their best players without any practical recognition or support.
“There is no doubt that grassroots clubs need to be compensated for developing and losing their best players,” he wrote. “But it should also be recognised that a successful national league increases the numbers of participants and potential sponsorships for those clubs. It is the administrators of these clubs who deserve all of the help and recognition possible – because without these volunteers we will not have an Australian Baseball League.”
“While we all accept that the main priority of officials and administrators of grassroots clubs should be towards their club, they have a crucial role to play in stepping in to make the ABL clubs and management responsible and accountable for the diminishing attendances that we have seen – a trend that jeopardises the future of Australian baseball and its players.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that the foundation needed for baseball to progress into the future must be built around the concept of getting more bums on seats. To achieve this, baseball has to produce a more entertaining and engaging product to market – with “go to whoa” entertainment and preferably within the current rules of baseball. Current rules are adequate, and all that is needed is to enforce existing rules through the cooperation of coaches, players and umpires.”
“The equation is simple,” Wellington argues. “Bums on seats equates to media interest that in turn leads to sponsorship interest, government support and increased prestige for Australian baseball.”
“All of that adds up, over time, to more natural athletes participating in a sport at a cost that is affordable to players and parent of players of the future.”
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to Kingsley Wellington and Russell Edwards for their assistance in the preparation of this story. Both have delivered a great service to the baseball community by raising issues and proposing constructive suggestions for the potential betterment of the Australian Baseball League and its relationships with the sport at grassroots level - especially as the league seeks to embark on expansion into Asia and the Pacific region.