The United Shore Professional Baseball League, hoping the COVID-19 pandemic and all the corresponding financial uncertainty soon is in the rearview mirror, has restarted expansion discussions in recent weeks.
Andy Appleby, founder, owner and chairman of the USPBL in Utica, said there are active discussions with “two or three” communities in the Midwest — including one that is quite promising, though nothing is imminent.
Appleby declined to identify the cites in an interview with The News on Wednesday, but said any likely expansion would take place out of state.
“We needed to navigate through all our challenges, and building another ballpark has been sort of secondary for the last 18 months, 24 months,” Appleby said. “Just recently, we’ve actually had some really good discussions with communities. I don’t know if I’ll have an announcement in the next three months.
“But I’ve kind of got the bug to build another ballpark. It’s just a matter of if we can find the right community for us.”
The four-team USPBL, which is made up of players just out of college who might’ve been overlooked in the Major League Baseball Draft or former professional baseball players looking for a career revival, begins its sixth season Friday, May 28. Appleby started the league as a three-team proof of concept, and the proof has been impressive.
The league has been a huge success at the box office, because of its affordability and family friendly entertainment, with 62 sellouts two years ago and 61 three years ago, out of a 75-game schedule.
Last year, though, COVID-19 struck, and the USPBL played a shortened season with only 100 fans allowed per game. Season revenues were down by 75%, a hit in the millions of dollars.
Appleby is optimistic the financial picture will strengthen significantly this year. The league lost no sponsors last year, and already has added 10 for this year. Attendance restrictions haven’t yet been set, but he’s hopeful Jimmy John’s Field, at 4,500 capacity, could start the season with at least 1,500 fans a game. By comparison, the Tigers are being allowed 20% capacity; under that measure, the USPBL would get about 900.
“I just miss all the happiness and the smiles and all the young kids getting the autographs,” Appleby said. “That’s as good as it gets for me.”
But expanding the league’s outreach would be even better for Appleby. The USPBL began floating the idea of expansion in the fall of 2018, with a tentative goal of having a new stadium by Opening Day 2020. At one point, Appleby was talking to 20 cities, including those in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Colorado, before they slowed. And then the pandemic came, shutting down talks altogether, until recently.
Any expansion effort would be an extension of the USPBL, and not a new league altogether, Appleby said.
Multiple communities have been intrigued by the business model — six years after local sports fans and media snickered at the idea of the viability of independent minor-league baseball setting up shop just 25 miles from the Tigers and Comerica Park. The USPBL employs more than 300 during the season. It also has stepped up its broadcasting business, an essential given the fan cap of 2020.
Aside from the successful business model, the USPBL has proven there’s legitimate baseball talent to fill its rosters — with 38 players signing contracts with major-league organizations, including right-hander Randy Dobnak, who’s now pitching for the Minnesota Twins on a new five-year, $9.25-million contract. He’s the first USPBL alumnus to make it to the major leagues, and already has pitched in the playoffs.
“We know that we have quite a big budget, an expense budget to be able to put on the games that we’d like to,” Appleby said. “But because of that, you need a certain amount of people, businesses, etc. It’s not a no-brainer (to expand the league), even when a community wants to build the park for you. That’s one thing that has become more abundantly clear, and of course really clear in this pandemic.”