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The Richmond County Bank Ballpark could be one of the 11 stadiums that will house one of the new Dream League teams. (Robert M. Pimpsner)

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Is the Atlantic League Potentially in Staten Island’s future?

It is Wednesday, September 30, 2020. The day that the Professional Baseball Agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball officially ends. No new agreement has been made yet, but we know that Minor League Baseball will be reduced from 160 ticket-selling teams to 120, a reduction of 25%.

The entire Appalachian League will become home to an MLB-sponsored Collegiate Summer Wood-Bat League in partnership with USA Baseball. But nothing is known yet for the teams that made up the NY-Penn League, Pioneer League, and the Northwest League. While it is expected that some of those teams will be retained and moved up in classification, most will be left out of affiliated baseball. One of the teams that may find themselves without a Professional Baseball License is the Staten Island Yankees.

What options does that leave for the Staten Island team? If another parent club does not come in and take over as the parent affiliate, then the only other option for them and the $30 million stadium built with taxpayer funds is independent baseball. Could Staten Island survive as a non-affiliated team operating in the Frontier League or the Atlantic League? It would be tough. So, Let’s look at independent baseball around New York City and what would change for Staten Island if they become an independent team.

New York Independent Baseball

Independent baseball is not anything new for New York or Staten Island, for that matter. In the 1800s, the New York Metropolitans of the upstart American Association played at the St. George Cricket Grounds, where the modern-day Richmond County Bank Ballpark stands.

Modern independent baseball returned to the New York Metropolitan Area in 1998 when the Newark Bears and Somerset Patriots were among the teams in the inaugural year of the Atlantic League. The Long Island Ducks joined them in 2000 and have been going strong since. They were not alone as the New Jersey Jackals began play in 1998 in the Northeast League and now are a part of the Frontier League. Further north, you will find the New York Boulders, who began play in 2011 as the Rockland Boulders in the Can-Am League; they are now a part of the Frontier League and have had their sights on joining the Atlantic League.

What is the difference between the Frontier League and Atlantic League? Well, the big difference is the length of schedule as well as the quality of play. The Atlantic League plays a 140-game schedule like the full-season minor leagues, while the Frontier League has a shorter, 96-game schedule. Both leagues have a level of play that is comparable to full-season minor league baseball. Still, the Atlantic League is on a level similar to Double-A and Triple-A baseball. Former major leaguers routinely find themselves in the Atlantic League if they are cut and provides a lot more star power to teams looking to sell tickets. The Frontier League, though, is considered to be more on par with High-A, with some Double-A quality players.

While the Atlantic League is considered to be a much higher level of play, the league itself has not been around as long as the Frontier League. The Frontier League was founded in 1993, along with the Northern League. Both leagues were formed in response to the 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement between MLB and Minor League Baseball that eliminated teams from MiLB that supplied their own players, creating the modern system of affiliated baseball. It is important to note of the original six teams that launched the Atlantic League in 1998, only one remains and that is Somerset.

Roster Makeup and Salaries

As previously stated, the Atlantic League is at a level of play that is considered close to Triple-A minor league baseball. Teams in the Atlantic League are comprised of 27 players from the beginning of the season in late April up until June 1. From June 1 and onwards, teams field rosters of 25-men similar to upper-level affiliated teams. Unlike affiliated minor league baseball, teams in the Atlantic League are required to find their own players and coaches as well as paying them.

The Atlantic League has a maximum monthly salary of $3,000 per player, which is close to the estimated $2,800/month salary that Triple-A players would make in 2021. Some online estimates have Atlantic League teams spending roughly between $225,000-$275,000 in player salaries per year plus the cost of coaches. Coaches’ salaries can run anywhere between $35,000 to $75,000 per year per coach depending on the position, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most Atlantic League teams have three coaches: a field manager, hitting coach, and a pitching coach plus an Athletic Trainer. Adding everything together, teams could be spending up to around $450,000-$500,000 more than they would as an affiliated minor league team. That is not also getting into the cost of the additional road trips from the larger schedule.

A big advantage of the Atlantic League is the higher level of play but also players may be with the team for several seasons, providing fans the opportunity to build relationships. The teams also have a higher emphasis on winning, which means the play on the field is equally important to the promotions at the gate.

Scheduling and Road Trips

Atlantic League teams play 140-game schedules, almost double the 76-games that the Staten Island Yankees currently play in the short-season NY-Penn League. Home game dates would rise from 38-games to 70-games starting in late April instead of mid-to-late June. This means the team would end up playing a significant number of games in the cooler Spring months and go deeper into the month of September than usual. On average, New York-area Atlantic League teams have 65 home games where they sell tickets due to rainouts and scheduling.

The schedule starts later than affiliated teams for a reason, to give teams a chance to sign players who were recently released from spring training and giving them a week or two of “spring training” to jell as a team. Starting late also means ending late, so Atlantic League seasons regularly end towards the end of September with the playoffs reaching into October.

A longer schedule, whether as a full-season team or as an independent league team, would mean some scheduling conflicts. The stadium is the home of NCAA Division I Wagner Baseball games as well as the annual MAAC Baseball tournament and some local high school games.

The other thing to keep in mind is the location of the competition. The NY-Penn League is relatively close together when compared to the Atlantic League. No team in the NY-Penn League is 500 or more miles away from each other, while the Atlantic League has several teams that are outliers. The Atlantic League is primarily in the Northeast with teams in Long Island, NY; Somerset, NJ; York, PA; and Waldorf, MD; but also have several teams much further away like the teams in Sugar Land, TX; High Point, NC; and the new team in Gastonia, NC. Having to face teams in these far-off cities add a significant amount of expense to a team’s operations, but also could have a solution to scheduling. While the team is off on a road trip to High Point, Gastonia, and Sugar Land, they could host the MAAC tournament.

Attendance, Revenue, and Ticket Price Analysis

Staten Island Yankees struggle to draw crowds even as an affiliated team (Robert M. Pimpsner)

Independent baseball teams across all the leagues that remain and report attendance average 2,551 fans per game, a large difference from the 4,044 fans per game that current minor league teams average. The Atlantic League averages 3,479 fans per game, with the Somerset Patriots leading the pack with 5,385 fans per game and the New Britain Bees in last place with 2,080 fans per game. Stadium capacity ranges from 5,000-7,500 fans in the Atlantic League; this means that Staten Island would be among the larger ballparks in league with a capacity of 7,171.

While teams like the Long Island Ducks and Somerset Patriots have been able to carve out great markets for themselves, averaging around 5,000 fans per game between them, teams closer to New York have struggled.

It could be easy to draw comparisons between Staten Island and the ill-fated Newark Bears who folded after the 2013 season amid declining attendance and rising operational costs. When the Bears folded, they drew only 453 fans per game over 47 dates, a far cry from the 3,612 fans per game they averaged when they opened Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium in 1999. During their final seasons, it was not uncommon to go to games with only 50 fans in attendance.

The Bears struggled to gain an audience when the market became increasingly saturated with the arrival of the Staten Island Yankees and Brooklyn Cyclones. Throughout their 16 seasons, they averaged 2,513 fans per game, having averaged below 3,000 after the 2003 season and under 1,000 fans for their final three seasons. Independent baseball has become a tough sell to fans in the New York City market, where there are two major league teams and two affiliated minor league teams within the city limits and more teams just outside. Within an hour’s drive of New York City, there are 10 baseball teams, including the New York Yankees and Mets. In 2010, the Bears ticket price was at $10 per game, which was 2/3 of what a ticket to a Staten Island Yankees game was during that season.

The New Jersey Jackals are another example of an independent team that is close to New York that struggles with attendance. Playing in a 5,000-seat stadium in Montclair, the Jackals have drawn an average of 2,157 fans per game over 979 games since the 1998 season. While they averaged over 3,000 fans per game for their first three seasons, they have not averaged more than 1,955 fans since the 2009 season.

Staten Island has its own struggles with regard to attendance. Since the team’s inception in 1999, they have averaged 3,882 fans per game in 758 games. Since moving into the Richmond County Bank Ballpark in 2001, the team averaged 3,991 fans per game, but since the 2016 season, they have been unable to crack 3,000 fans per game mostly due to construction and lack of parking caused by the developments in the St. George area. Prior to the 2016 season, the Staten Island Yankees averaged 4,508 fans per game at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark with an actual attendance average (fans physically in the stadium) of around 3,100 fans per game. The 2019 season was by far their worst season with just 1,848 fans per game, and over 11% decrease from 2018 and a 43% decrease since the 2015 season.

Using their 2019 attendance numbers, the Staten Island team would rank 27th out of the 40 independent teams that report attendance numbers.  If they were able to draw closer to their average of 3,991 fans at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark, they would be among the top seven drawing teams, and at the pre-2016 RCB Ballpark average, they would be in the top four in the Indy leagues.

When the Bears folded in 2013, it was estimated that they needed a minimum of 2,000 fans per game to break even. Suppose you estimate the average revenue per fan to be $25, including tickets, merchandise, and concession, that comes out to around $2,500,000 per year needed to field an independent team at a minimum. Using the 2019 attendance numbers, we estimate that Staten Island has an annual revenue of approximately $2,000,000. Adding in over $500,000 in expenses without a significant uptick in attendance or financial assistance would likely mean the team will fold within a few years.

Would the fans come for Independent baseball in Staten Island? That is a difficult task. What we have seen when independent teams are close to affiliated teams is a hard draw for the Indy team. We saw that with the Bears and Jackals when Staten Island/Brooklyn began play even though Newark could theoretically have a higher level of play. Many fans come to the ballpark in Staten Island because of their affiliation and the possibility to see the next Yankee star. It is difficult to determine ahead of time how much of a hit the team would take on their already underperforming attendance numbers.

That brings us to another part of the equation: ticket prices. As an affiliated team, Staten Island already has the highest ticket prices out of all teams in the New York Metropolitan Area, with prices that are around $3 more per ticket than the Brooklyn Cyclones and 70% more expensive than when the team moved into the stadium in 2001. Two teams have comparable ticket prices; they are the New Jersey Jackals and Rockland Boulders. What has seen the more successful independent league teams have ticket prices that are below or equal to that of the affiliated teams in the area. Both Long Island and Somerset have prices that are on par with the Cyclones.  All three teams average around 5,000 fans per game versus the 2,000 fans per game that Staten Island, Rockland, and the Jackals averaged in 2019.

Conclusion

Staten Island would be a great addition to the Atlantic League. If the Boulders were to also join, they would form a great rivalry with the Long Island Ducks and maybe the Somerset Patriots. The proximity would provide ease of regular game travel, but those outlier teams do provide a large additional expense would be difficult to make up even with the additional home dates. Playing in the Atlantic League could also provide Staten Island fans the chance to see some former Yankee players. In 2019 six former Staten Island Yankees played in the league, including catcher Isaias Tejeda who was third in the league in home runs in 2019.

It would be a tough sell to the market, especially considering Brooklyn is expected to jump to Double-A classification. Without the Yankees affiliation, there is no guarantee that the average attendance would rise or even stay even. The additional home dates will come during the colder parts of the year, and while school is in session, further hurting the team’s ability to draw. You also have to ask would the management be willing to put the extra money into the team each year for scouting, coaching, and player procurement. There is no guarantee yet that MLB, or Minor League Baseball, would provide contracted teams with any financial assistance if they were to go into the independent leagues. Without that, we cannot estimate the chances of success; after all, baseball is a business.

 

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