There are 14 minor league baseball clubs within a 90 minute drive of anywhere in the New York area, all with various promises of affordable family fun and entertainment. However according to an announcement that came very quietly on the day after Thanksgiving, that total for 2014 at least will only be 13 with the demise of one of the clubs that started the buzz for minor league baseball in the area, the Newark Bears.
The Bears, with a myriad of ownership groups and affiliations over the years, brought great promise to a city with a long baseball tradition, and helped re-energize and relaunch the careers of a host of former MLB players, along with giving work experience to scores of young people entering the growing sports business field from sales to marketing to game operations throughout their history. They were seen by some as a unique mix in a triangle of sports and entertainment possibilities in Brick City, with the Prudential Center off to the right of Bears and Eagles Stadium and Red Bull Arena across the Passaic River in the distance. The Stadium, when it first opened, could also be an entertainment compliment, some thought, to the revitalized New Jersey Performing Arts Center right down the street, helping bring families and fans back to merchants who had long struggled for business. All of those plans, along with a stadium in need of repairs, appear to be gone for the summer now, along with some jobs and opportunities for young people looking to carve their own niche in sport.
Now it is not the first time that the Bears have been left for dead. Debt-ridden former ownership groups have looked to pull the plug before, only to have a savior with great intentions come along to re-start the club again. However this time without any ties in either the Minor League Baseball affiliated system or with any of the struggling independent leagues (The four team Can-Am league has merged with the Midwestern American Association to keep all their clubs still functioning) the outlook for baseball in Newark appears to be bleak once again.
The demise of the Bears appears to once again call in to question how much is enough in minor league baseball in a major market. Affiliated teams like the Lakewood Blue Claws, the Trenton Thunder, the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Staten Island Yankees do well because of the bottom line support of their parent clubs. They also have consistency of brand and a steady flow of professional staff to keep the books balanced and find every way to effectively sell and market what essentially is a small to medium size business year-round. Their facilities are pristine, the talent level on the field is professional and developing, and the best practices off the field help define success for the industry. The independent clubs in the area, from those in the Atlantic league to the Can Am, have much bigger challenges. They don’t have the marketing or financial support of Major League Baseball, so they go it alone. Some, like the Somerset Patriots, have found a strong and consistent ownership group who support the community and have a solid enough sponsor and fan base to continue to move along. Others like the Jersey Jackals, have the benefit of playing in a college-run facility at Montclair State University that help offset some bottom line costs and provides entertainment to a diverse community. The Rockland Boulders, just north of the New Jersey state line, have tried to position themselves as a comer, with a state of the art facility close by a vibrant and affluent Bergen County fan base while serving what is the smallest and in some ways most underserved, county in New York State, with another affluent community in Westchester County not far on the other side of the Hudson River. The Indy teams also point to the fact that their level of play on the field is higher than any of the affiliated teams in the area, whose players are under very tight controls from the MLB parent clubs. Only in Indy ball, they maintain, can you see a former MLB name, like a Bartolo Colon or even a Rickey Henderson, given a shot at returning to the majors late in a career. So in addition to the promotions you get an occasional falling or shooting star. The Indy teams also maintain an ability to bring back local heroes, ones who excelled in college or high school but never got that shot at the majors, and they maintain, that their proximity to the bright lights of New York make them more of a draw for those former stars whose agents can remind teams from New York and Philly where they can watch those players a bit more closely.
Still even with all that promise, Indy teams continue to struggle with both identity and dollars. The advent of social media and digital technology, not to mention the growth of marketing savvy, has given the affiliated teams a chance to expand their borders virtually, reaching fans of their parent teams and drawing them just a bit further than usual to come to games in gleaming ballparks with slick promotions. Fans can follow minor league clubs online much easier than ever before, and the parent clubs are now using partnerships to better connect the dots between the minors and the majors than ever before. The Yankees for example, expanded their popular “Hope Week” program to include all their affiliates in 2013, reminding not just fans, but local brands, that they not only support Trenton and Staten Island and Scranton-Wilkes Barre, they support and are part of the big team in The Bronx as well. That type of subtle reminder is invaluable, and something which Indy teams lack, despite their promises of quality value. That is not to say Indy teams do not have their place, as the successful Somerset team and others like the Long Island Ducks have proven with promotions that are maybe a little more edgy, or game innovations like quicker innings (tried by the Atlantic League last year) a little more progressive than what affiliated leagues and teams can do as well. The question is how much, or how many, are enough for the consumer and for supporting brand partners?
Would it be great for teams like the Newark Bears to be successful? Sure. Inner-city youth needs jobs, and the continued growth for sport for business is a natural fit for some who may not find their way elsewhere. The Stadium that now sits along McCarter Highway will serve as another dark reminder that times are still tough in many of America’s cities, and even “The National Pastime” cannot provide a respite this year for some. However the expansive growth of digital marketing combined with the fight for discretionary income, may mean that although we would like to have 13 vibrant and fun minor league teams in a certain geographic area, maybe there is not the need to run these high functioning and somewhat expensive businesses at this time. Maybe the market is 10 or 11, not 12 or 13 or even 14, and maybe those dollars, if there is a sports business interest, can go into better marketing of local colleges or even high schools or youth sports, who also have some seats to fill with affordable and fun entertainment.
There was certainly a time for the Newark Bears, and the lives the franchise impacted over the years is probably immeasurable. However for now, it seems like the idea of Indy baseball en masse in New Jersey as is the case in many regions across the country, at least seems to be on the slide. No doubt minor league baseball continues to thrive as a business and as a fabric of hundreds of communities nationwide. Whether that number has reached a critical mass is probably up for debate, with a club and a stadium that were once seen as a harbinger of growth now gone, at least for the forseeable future. Even in the business of baseball, sometimes the best intentions don’t make for good business.