Comment of the Day

I’m sick of the 94 strike being blamed for the demise of baseball in Toronto, it is an excuse not a reason. See the reaction in this country to the NHL lockout for evidence. When the NHL returned TV ratings went up significantly and attendance was boffo. The reason? Simple, we missed hockey. We didn’t miss baseball, it was an excuse for the trendy fans to jump off the bandwagon.

Professional baseball is dead and dying in Canada. The Expos died, the Jays are floundering at the gate. AAA has left Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Lower level leagues abandoned London, St. Catherines and Medicine Hat. Indy ball folded in Ottawa and is struggling in Edmonton and Calgary. There just aren’t enough ball fans here.

Pete Toms — Canadian citizen — building off yesterday’s post about the death spiral that is Toronto Blue Jays’ baseball. We can blame Jeff Loria for the Expos, but even he can’t be blamed for Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Medicine Hat, can he?

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  1. MatthewA said...

    Maybe we can blame it on Loria.

    In Ottawa’s case, they were the longtime affiliate of the Expos. And if the Expos were killed off by Loria, is it a stretch to say that interest in the team’s minor league system waned with it? A lot of folks become fans of their local team’s MLB affiliate, and you’d have to think the Expos’ treatment hurt Ottawa as well.

    Oh, and let’s not forget that they were eventually moved because the Phillies joined the march of teams bringing their minor league teams closer to home.

    And Edmonton? Nolan Ryan bought the Trappers and moved them to Round Rock so they could be closer to home for the Astros (and in Ryan’s home state). They weren’t league leaders in attendance but they weren’t an afterthought, either.

    Vancouver? Same. Bought and moved to Sacramento to bring them closer to the As. Attendance was decent.

    Calgary? Ok, point taken.

    The Minor League Baseball argument in Canada is different from the Jays’ dilemma. It’s not that their viability wasn’t feasible (Edmonton and Vancouver showed that it is possible). But Canadian minor league teams faces very unique issues:

    1) weather: The Minors is more about ticket sales – and how many April games would they lose due to snow?,
    2) travel: Edmonton, which played in the PCL, had to travel to New Orleans to play – I can’t imagine that made things economically beneficial,
    3) hockey: it notably killed attendance if a town’s NHL team went deep into the playoffs, and
    4) visas: with the game and players becoming more international, you have the problem of minor league players from different countries constantly crossing the US/Canada border. Minor league teams don’t have the clout that the Majors do to help expedite that process.

    Canadian baseball should be viable, but the problem is that MLB isn’t exactly lending a hand to make that process easier.

  2. Jeremy said...

    I live in Calgary and I go to a fair number of Vipers (Golden League) games. MatthewA is right about the weather and travel issues. Vipers attendance is very much weather-driven. Casual fans and families (who make up most of the fan base for any minor league team) just don’t want to sit out in the cold watching baseball. And Edmonton and Calgary moved to the Golden League from the Northern League last year to cut down on travel costs. And it’s also true that the density of baseball fans is lower in Canada, in part because not nearly as many kids grow up playing baseball.

    There are exceptions, though.  The Winnipeg Northern League team annually leads the league in attendance by a fair margin, drawing over 6000/game (by comparison, Calgary and Edmonton draw 1300/game and 1800/game respectively, which is actually typical for the Golden League). It’s true that Winnipeg lost its NHL team years long ago, but I doubt that’s the only reason why the Goldeneyes draw so well.  After all, it’s cold in Winnipeg just like in the rest of Canada.  Not sure why Winnipeg of all places should be a hotbed for baseball fandom. 

    Victoria now has a Golden League team that’s doing well so far (2100/game, third in the league). Perhaps they’ll turn into another Winnipeg given the relatively warm weather there and the lack of NHL competition.

  3. Pete Toms said...

    Matthew – I live in Ottawa, do you also? (I encounter few true ball fans here).  Anyway, Lynx attendance was headed into the dumper while they were still Expos affiliate.  Yes there has been a shift in MLB with more clubs moving their affiliates closer to the big league club (different reasons for that).  But, the Phillies and As didn’t purchase the Edmonton and Ottawa franchises and move them.  In most cases, the affiliates are not owned by the parent club.  Ottawa’s franchise was owned by a guy from Vermont who sold it to Craig Stein (and some other guy whose name I can’t recall).  The guy from Vermont sold it because it fetched $15-17 million and was worth literally less than nothing opeating in Ottawa.  This is an example of perhaps the biggest factor in AAA franchises leaving Canada, they are worth exponentially more in the US.  While minor league (and major league) baseball in Canada has been in decline in popularity, it has never been more popular in the US.  Ergo, the franchise values have never been higher.  The stadium building boom (see Ottawa to Allentown as an example) is the cause. 

    Jeremy – the attendance figures in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are woeful for cities of that size.  Yes, attendance of 2,000 per game can sustain an indy franchise but that is scant support from a city with a metropolitan population of 2 million plus.  Support for pro ball in Edmonton and Calgary is steadily declining.  Their attendance for AAA steadily declined and has dropped even more for indy ball.  I’ve read reports out of Edmonton that the attendance figures are inflated for baseball and that some games last season drew literally dozens.  (Ottawa’s attendance for our 1 season of indy ball was inflated also, tix distrbuted vs. butts in the seats).

    Winnipeg and Quebec City are the exceptions in this debate.  Winnipeg consistently amongst the minor league leaders in attendance (both indy and affiliated).  Quebec City is one of the most successful franchises in the Can Am League.  I think it is interesting that the two Canadian cities where pro ball is successful are both former NHL cities.  They are both kinda the big fish in the small pond.  If you have an NHL franchise, indy ball looks pretty “minor league” in comparison.

    Anyway, I’m too lazy but I’d be curious to see the total attendance across Canada for minor league baseball say, 10 years and 20 years ago in Canada.  I think we would see there has been a steady and steep decline.  And in Montreal, there is NO pro ball.  3 million plus people in the metro area and there is no popular or political will to build a park to attract a team (affiliated or minor).  And in Ottawa the baseball stadium could be demolished to make room for big box retail.

    Brandon (my old BDD colleague!)- Yes I remember when the Sens were bankrupt and the “small market” Canadian cities were lookin for a handout from the feds.  The dollar isn’t worth sixty some cents any longer though and that has fixed a LOT of problems for these owners.  But that doesn’t change my fundamental point.  We didn’t use the lockout as an excuse to ignore hockey as we did baseball.

    A couple of other points that I’ve neglected in this thread.  TV rating for Jays outside the GTA are crap.  And the CBL stiffed, folded mid season.

  4. Brandon Heikoop said...

    I dislike when people use a sample of three years to talk about how huge professional hockey is in Canada. Have we forgotten earlier in this decade when the Senators were filing for bankruptcy? How about the Oilers who were financially strapped leading into the lockout? Even the Flames have had some trying times despite owning one of the largest growing economies in the country.

    Yes hockey has been on fire in the nation since the lockout, but lets see how long this lasts. Ticket prices have been escalating rapidly and not one of these franchises is a true contender.

  5. MatthewA said...

    @Pete Toms: I’m not from Ottawa nor Canada, so I freely admit that I’m just hypothesizing here.

    That being said, I do think you’re downplaying the influence that the big clubs have on the Minors even if they’re independently owned. Why would anybody buy a team like the Lynx if they didn’t intend to move it? Moreover, the Phillies affiliated with the Lynx because all signs pointed to that franchise moving. With the affiliation, the Phillies could steer that move closer to home (hence, Allentown). It was the specter of the Phillies and Allentown that made the sale and move viable.

    You can probably speak better than me as to why the Lynx failed, but I’m just curious as to whether the parent club being completely neglected and ignored was a factor.

    And I do think the wounds are still fresh in Montreal. Montreal had a long history of baseball predating the Expos (thanks to the Montreal Royals), and MLB effectively said “Screw you” after Loria pulled out. I wouldn’t blame Montreal for not wanting a team for a while after all of that.

    And I’m with you – Minor Leagues in America is absolutely more viable. But why? Because the travel is ridiculous for Canadian teams, the visas are a pain in the neck, and the weather in unreliable. It would take a commitment by MLB to Canada to make the Minors viable there, presumably in the form of an all-Canadian or mostly Canadian minor league.

  6. MatthewA said...

    BTW – I see your Winnipeg and Quebec City, and I raise you Vancouver. They’re doing just as well as Quebec in attendance and respectable numbers for a short-season single-A team.

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