Possible team in Waco
Sunday, August 05, 2007
By John Werner
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Growing up in Waco, Rick Clark often heard his father talk about the sights and sounds of Katy Park.
Before TV became a national obsession, Katy Park was a social hub in Waco for decades. Dick Clark loved to relate tales to his son of the old ballpark that fielded minor-league baseball for more than a half-century before the Waco Pirates played their last game in 1956.
“A whole generation of Wacoans grew up at Katy Park,” Rick Clark said. “The Waco Pirates had a real history, and I’d love to revive that spirit again.”
Clark and Jason Becker want to bring minor-league baseball back to Waco, and they’ve met with American Association commissioner Miles Wolff about the possibility of starting an independent league franchise here. Wolff, who visited Waco last year, believes the city would be a natural location for the top-tier independent league that already has Texas teams in Fort Worth, Robstown and El Paso and is adding a franchise in Grand Prairie next year.
“We’ve looked at Waco, and we believe it would be a good market for us,” Wolff said. “With a metropolitan area of over 100,000, you’ve got a chance to be successful. Of course, the biggest problem is getting a ballpark. I don’t know of any real movement in Waco right now, but the guys who want to be a part of it (Clark and Becker) have done a lot of homework.”
The American Association isn’t the only independent minor league interested in a Waco franchise. United League Baseball co-founder Brad Wendt hopes to meet with Waco city officials this fall to discuss putting a team in Waco. The six-team United League is in its second year of operation with Texas teams in Amarillo, San Angelo, Harlingen, Edinburg and Laredo.
“We want Waco to be on our short list for 2009,” Wendt said. “We think it’s a fabulous baseball community.”
The Continental Baseball League, which opened this year with four teams, is targeting Waco as a potential market as early as next year. The league operates on a much smaller budget than other minor leagues and is currently using high school and municipal stadiums in the Metroplex and Houston areas.
Though Waco hasn’t fielded a pro baseball team in 51 years, city manager Larry Groth believes a new franchise has a chance to be successful because baseball is so popular in the community. He looks at the local interest in Little League, high school and college baseball and sees a lot of potential.
But the biggest obstacle is building a ballpark — a venture that could cost $8 million to $15 million. A partnership with Baylor to lease Baylor Ballpark is unlikely because minor-league revenue depends heavily on beer sales. Groth said the city of Waco currently isn’t in position to fund the construction of a new ballpark because it has so many other issues.
“Stadium construction would have to be private,” Groth said. “We’ve got so many other pressing issues that it would be difficult to publicly fund a stadium. You’d need somebody to come here with the passion and resources who can put everything together and market the team to make it work.”
Clark, a Waco attorney, said he has talked to potential investors but hasn’t received dollar commitments. He believes a combination of private and public funding and corporate sponsorship are necessary to build a quality ballpark that would seat about 4,000 people.
“If you’re going to build a minor-league park, you have to do it right, and it could cost $15 million,” Clark said. “We’ve talked to the city about getting on a potential bond package, but the timing just wasn’t right. I think you’d definitely need public support and it would also help to have corporate sponsorship that would also involve naming rights.”
Becker, who publishes Texas Baseball News, and Clark would prefer to build a downtown ballpark across from the Suspension Bridge on the east side of the Brazos River.
“It would be a great place for people to see Waco,” Becker said. “When the Waco Pirates were here in the 1950s, they were a center of commerce, and I think a new team would have that kind of potential.”
Carl Bell, the owner of the American Association’s Fort Worth Cats, has been thrilled by the reception LaGrave Field has received since opening in downtown Fort Worth in 2002. He thinks Waco would have a similar reaction to a new ballpark.
“A ballpark near the Suspension Bridge would help revitalize the whole area and boost downtown development,” said Bell, a Baylor regent. “With the population of Waco and McLennan County, I think the community would support minor league baseball.”
With a trip to a major league ballpark costing a small fortune, minor league baseball is experiencing a resurgence around the country. Families can attend minor league games at a fraction of the cost and don’t have to drive far to see good baseball.
Currently, there are 17 minor league teams in Texas, including five affiliated with major league clubs and 12 independent teams. The Round Rock Express is the only Triple-A farm club in Texas, while San Antonio, Frisco, Corpus Christi and Midland have Double-A franchises in the Texas League.
The American Association is one of the most successful independent leagues in the country, averaging more than 2,700 fans per game. The 10-team league, which was formed in 2005 from teams in the Northern and Central leagues, stretches north to St. Paul, Minn., east to Pensacola, Fla., and south to Robstown, Texas.
While the St. Paul Saints average a league-high 5,818 fans and the Fort Worth Cats average 3,955, Clark believes a Waco franchise needs to average at least 2,500 fans per night to be successful. That would be comparable to Baylor, which averaged 3,180 fans last spring at Baylor Ballpark. Like all minor-league teams, Waco would have to sell the game as family entertainment with a lot of promotions.
“While fans of college baseball divide their allegiances among different teams, this would be the whole city of Waco’s team,” Clark said. “Independent league baseball is a real selling point because winning is the main job of these players. The main job of organized baseball is to develop players for the major leagues.”
Wolff doesn’t believe there would be much competition for fans between Baylor and a minor-league team, since the American Association’s 96-game schedule runs from mid-May through August. The Lincoln Saltdogs share Haymarket Park with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and are averaging more than 3,900 fans per game this season.
“They don’t compete because they’re on totally different schedules,” Wolff said. “We’ve got teams that do great where there are also college teams. Just look at Lincoln — the Nebraska Cornhuskers have a great baseball program, and the Saltdogs are one of the best franchises in our league.”
While American Association teams depend heavily on private investors, United League Baseball owns its teams in a holding company. Wendt said the United League, which opened play in 2006, uses a combination of newly built stadiums and older ballparks that have been upgraded to league standards. Before the United League will agree to build or upgrade a stadium, Wendt said it must secure a long-term lease with the city.
“We’ve really got a unique business model for minor league baseball,” Wendt said. “Our funding is already in place when we go into a city. It’s hard to make all the pieces work otherwise. It’s not always easy to find rich people in town who will finance a stadium. Once we get a lease from the city, we’ll build the stadium and become the stadium operator. But we can only succeed if we partner with the community.”
Next season, the United League is expanding to Brownsville, where it will build a new 3,500-seat stadium beginning in September. Wendt said the league, which plays a 100-game schedule, is trying to land the Wichita (Kan.) Wranglers franchise and is targeting Waco for 2009.
“We’re averaging about 2,000 per game across the league, and there isn’t a franchise we’re thinking about closing,” Wendt said. “I haven’t had any formal talks with city officials in Waco, but I have driven around the town a couple of times and I can see it’s a good baseball community with the kind of population base we’re looking at.”
Though Waco would be closer to a major league city than any other United League franchise, Wendt doesn’t see the Texas Rangers or Houston Astros as competition.
“We’re not competing against the major leagues,” Wendt said. “The consumer dollar we’re going after is from local people deciding whether to watch a movie, play couch potato or go to a ballgame with the kids and have a good time for 40 bucks for the whole family. We do everything we can to make it affordable with $5 to $10 tickets.”
Continental League president Ron Baron said he has talked to potential investors for a Waco team and hopes to speak to city officials soon. He said the four teams currently in the league — Lewisville, Tarrant County, League City and a traveling team based in Lewisville — each have a salary cap of $25,000 per team compared to other independent leagues which often have salary caps of $100,000 or more.