Collegiate league gets pro results
by Will Lingo
September 1, 2003
If your city can?t make it in Organized Baseball or independent baseball, it just can?t make it, right?
Wrong. Several teams in the upper Midwest?in a summer college league, no less?are thriving after professional baseball left them behind. Most notably, the Madison Mallards are thriving in a market that lost both a Midwest League franchise and a Northern League franchise within the last decade.
The Cape Cod League is the unquestioned leader among summer college leagues?on the field, at least. But the Northwoods League, with teams in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, may be the best on the business side, and in fact is comparable to short-season minor leagues.
The three-year-old Madison franchise has become the league?s showcase team. In their third season, the Mallards drew 136,751 fans in 31 home dates, an average of 4,411. That doubles last year?s average, which itself was double the approximately 1,000 fans a game the team drew in its first year.
As a point of comparison, the Midwest League franchise drew 69,060 fans in 1994, its last season. The Northern League jumped in in 1997, assuming the market would be a great one for the league, drew 64,485 fans in the first season and never got to that level again. The team moved after the 2000 season.
In came the Mallards, and the success was immediate. Vern Stenman started as marketing director for the team and became general manager midway through the 2002 season.
?Madison has resolutely not supported professional sports of any sort,? Stenman said. ?But the University of Wisconsin has no baseball team, so I think we?ve served as the college team for the city. Our players play without pay, and I think people here like to see guys playing for the love of the game and an opportunity at pro ball.?
Making It Work
The Mallards have also astutely chosen to make the best of Warner Park, a home park that the professional teams quickly came to regard as a problem.
?I think the professional teams saw the ballpark as subpar, and to be quite honest they were probably right,? Stenman said. ?If you?re looking at the standards of a professional ballpark, it?s not quite there. But it?s a pretty cool little ballpark.?
Warner Park is close to the Wisconsin State Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus and bordered by Lake Mendota. It was built in 1982, toward the end of a generation of minimalist minor league ballpark construction. So it doesn?t feature modern amenities like skyboxes that are now standard in minor league parks.
The Mallards made the best of the ballpark and have pumped money into improving it as the franchise has become more popular. For example, they moved in the fences in the left- and right-field corners to make the dimensions more favorable for college hitters using wood bats and to make room for more fans. In the left-field corner they have overflow seating, and the right-field corner features a six-tiered deck that they call their ?open-air luxury boxes.?
?The other teams that came in here almost immediately started talking about wanting a new ballpark, and the people in Madison were turned off by that,? Stenman said.
In a nice twist, the city is now going to sink about $500,000 into improvements at Warner Park now that the Mallards have shown a commitment to the city and had some success.
The Mallards also put a lot of effort into their promotions, even more than the professional teams that played in Madison.
When the Northwoods League?s Alexandria Beetles came to town, for example, the Mallards worked out a promotion sponsored by a local Volkswagen dealership. Fans got toy VW Beetle cars, a member of a local club brought their vintage VW Beetles to the park, and a Beatles cover band played after the game. And on what is traditionally a slow night, the Mallards drew 4,500 fans.
?I would put our promotional schedule against any minor or major league team in the country,? Stenman said.
Of course, the success of that night pales in comparison to the team?s fan appreciation night in its last home game, which drew 7,500 fans to a park with a listed capacity of 3,900.
The success of Madison, while on a larger scale than that of other teams, is not an anomaly in the Northwoods League. League president Dick Radatz Jr. has overseen tremendous growth, both by adding new teams and moving into new markets. The league?s list of 10 teams is full of former minor league cities, and only Alexandria (a city with about 9,000 residents) has never had a pro team.
It?s clear that along with the business success established by minor leagues and the best independent leagues, there?s a new model out there now: college leagues that operate like short-season professional leagues.
?It?s a great hybrid,? Stenman said. ?You get the best things from summer college and minor leagues. And instead of spending money on players, we can spend it on the ballpark.
?It?s great for towns that have an interest in baseball but can?t financially compete for a professional team.?
Clearly, though, the only thing that isn?t professional about franchises like the Mallards is the team on the field. Everything else is run like any other minor league franchise. That?s why Stenman isn?t worried about professional baseball rediscovering Madison now that someone is having success there.
?Not at this point; we?re committed to this team and this league,? he said. ?We?ve built what?s happening here.?
You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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