Blogger’s note: Portions of the following article appeared at inyork.com and the Daily Record/Sunday News.
For once, the expansion of the Atlantic League doesn’t appear clouded with questions about its current stable of teams. Asked if all eight teams are on solid ground and expected to return to play in 2010, league executive director Joe Klein responded: “Of course.”
The Loudon County (Va.) Board of Supervisors passed zoning changes by a 6-2 margin Tuesday to allow the construction of a baseball stadium. The plan had some support from the public. An Atlantic League expansion franchise is expected to take the field there in 2011. If the Northern Virginia franchise begins play when expected, Klein assumes the league will bring back the Road Warriors. The league needs an even number of teams for scheduling purposes, so suddenly the Atlantic League could be looking at a 10-team setup in two seasons.
“My understanding of the situation … there needs to be two votes to make this deal fully happen,” said Peter Kirk, the Revs owner and one of the Board of Advisors in the Loudon County project. “The first vote was today and I’m told this was a really significant one. It was to grant a special exception to allow a baseball stadium at this particular site. That was a big vote. There will be a second vote in September that will detail a 400-acre development.
“But I’ve been told even if the second vote runs into obstacles, the baseball stadium can move forward.”
The last few years have featured mixed signals on the league’s future. So it came as good news a new franchise is on the verge of building a stadium, and the current franchises appear on solid footing.
“You’re always going to have teams that make less money, but that happens in the major leagues too,” Klein said. “The new ownership in Bridgeport has stabilized that organization, and it’s on its way back up — not only in attendance but I think Frank (Boulton) is very happy where things are going.
“Our new group in Newark did a great job in hosting the All-Star Game this year. They also sold a number of luxury suites, and last year I think that number was zero. It’s a work in progress there, but I think they’re satisfied where they are.”
Franchises like Lancaster and York joined the league with strong showings in attendance, but some of the league’s founding members appeared on the verge of collapse.
The Nashua Pride left after the 2005 season.
The Atlantic City Surf left after the 2006 season.
The Bridgeport Bluefish needed to be saved by league CEO Frank Boulton in the offseason, and the Newark Bears filed for bankruptcy before a new ownership group bought the franchise.
“The league has probably never been healthier,” said York Revolution general manager Matt O’Brien, who also worked in the Somerset Patriots‘ and Long Island Ducks‘ front office during his career. “The ownership groups all appear strong and well funded.”
Kirk added: “It’s part of the natural growth of things. I remember when the Eastern League dwindled down to six clubs in the early 80s. These things tend to come and go with the economics. But today there’s a real effort for teams to help each other. Nobody’s going to let teams breaks leases and go out of businesses.”
And on the surface it appears Loudon County is ahead of schedule. Demolition on the site for York’s Sovereign Bank Stadium continued through September. But Kirk, who along with Brooks Robinson has served as advisors for the project, points out the Loudon County ballpark will need substantial construction on the surrounding infrastructure which crews in York and Lancaster did not have to worry about.
“We have a lot of work to do until (2011),” Klein said, “but it will be interesting to see whether it’s a Lancaster situation — where everything is basically done — or a York situation — where … they don’t get it done (on schedule).”
The Revolution remain a middle-of-the league draw this season. Average attendance trails last years complete-season average of 4,351. York has averaged 4,026 fans in its first 40 open dates of the season, and it ranks fourth in the eight-team league. But the front office staff is attempting to sell tickets for the leagues worst team. York went 24-46 and at one stretch this summer recorded a winning percentage that ranked among the 10 worst in professional baseball.
“I’m still a believer that as long as your team is in the middle you win, you lose you’ll be fine,” O’Brien said. “And if you win a ton, it helps. I’m not going to say (the Revs record) helped. Its a heck of a lot easier to have fun and entertain fans with a winner.”
But O’Brien believes the difference in attendance between Year 2 and Year 3 can be made up easily, perhaps with a few large crowds in the second half.
For instance, the Revs pregame ticket sales for Saturday is about 4,500, O’Brien said. And an Aug. 15 game, featuring a Diaper Derby promotion, has already resulted in the sale of close to 5,000 tickets. Add in a near-sellout crowd expected for the Revs home finale Sept. 16, and the Revs could come near or surpass last seasons total. But that might not be an easy task if the Revs continue to struggle to stay competitive.