Tuesday, August 23, 2011

North American League In Trouble?

The North American Baseball League is looking shaky as it nears the end of its inaugural season, but will it fold?

While the Edmonton Capitals have had a pretty successful run so far, sitting in a tie for first place heading into the final week of the season, the same can't be said for teams like Orange County, Lake County and Maui. The problems being had by those clubs, especially the last two, has some people wondering about the future of the league itself.

The OC Flyers weren't even on the schedule at the start of the season, because they were forced to "go dark" for 2011 when they couldn't find a place to play for the year. When it comes to the Lake County Fielders and Maui Na Koa Ikaika though, the problems run much deeper than a venue.

The Fielders made headlines last month when play-by-play guy Qumar Zaman aired out the team's dirty laundry in a post-game rant that ended in him announcing his resignation from the broadcast booth. As it turned out, the owners were a little slow when it came to handing out paychecks and players weren't getting "meal money" on the road...which doesn't sound too bad, until you realize the team started the season on a six-week road trip!

The situation in Lake County turned ugly in a hurry - the coach was sacked after complaining about going months without getting paid and a bit of a protest was staged the next night, with some guys refusing to play and the interim coach using everyone else out of position. That didn't go over too well with the big wigs and Pete LaCock was fired, while 23 players were either released or traded in the following days. Lake County's problems didn't end there though...

The difference between the NABL's North and South divisions, in terms of travel expenses, is massive and that is what eventually did in the Fielders. In the North, there are teams in Hawaii, Alberta, California and Illinois, which seems a bit silly when you consider the South division resides solely in Texas (four teams) and Arizona (one team). When it came time for Lake County's third trip to Maui, which is two more than everyone else, they just couldn't afford it.

The team was forced to cancel a four-game series in Maui and the eleven-game homestand that followed was also canned, while the team tried to figure out what to do next. They are now playing a "modified schedule" to round out the season, which means they will end the year with a series against a newly-formed team called the Kenosha Kings. Apparently it's not going all that well though, as Lake County only dressed nine players for a game last week that was played in front of about 125 fans!

As for Maui, that no-show by the Fielders led to an early end to their season as well - Lake County was fined $100,000 for missing that four-game series ($25,000 per game) and the Maui brass said they couldn't "in good conscience" send the team to Illinois while they were trying to collect that money. The owners say they'll be back and are looking forward to a championship season in 2012, though I would assume that a lot has to happen between now and then for them to be back in the NABL.

With almost half of the North Division closing up shop for the season, the league was forced into making another move last week that puts its future somewhat in doubt. They have decided to cut the final week of the season and start the playoffs a week early, citing the "ongoing impact of the distressed economy." So, the season ends next Sunday and the playoffs will be expanded to a seven-game series for the Divisional Championship and the League Championship.

Will the NABL fold? I don't think so - but they do have some real challenges ahead, namely figuring out a way to cut travel costs for teams in that North Division. It just doesn't seem logical for an independent baseball league with an average attendance of about 1,700 fans per game to have a team way out in Hawaii, one down in California, two in Alberta and then one out east in Illinois...all in one division. I wonder how the travel costs in the North stack up against those in the South!

If they can rustle up some more interest in Canada and add a couple of teams, maybe they could form a Canadian division that makes a couple of trips down to the US each season. Otherwise, the league is setting itself up for failure.

What do you think: Will the NABL fold?

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