Will the Heat survive?

As attendance declines, WBL officials assure that all is fine

GOOD SEATS STILL AVAILABLE <br>Though paid attendance was listed at more than 2,000 fans on this July 25 mid-week game, this photo shows that number is a bit deceiving. In fact, fewer than 1,500 fans came to the game that night.

Though paid attendance was listed at more than 2,000 fans on this July 25 mid-week game, this photo shows that number is a bit deceiving. In fact, fewer than 1,500 fans came to the game that night.

photo by Tom Angel

For love of the game: The teams in the Western Baseball League have a salary cap of $25,000 per month. On a 20- to 25-man roster, that means rookies are paid about $650 a month and more-experienced players from $1,500 to $1,800 per month. The players are here not for the money, but for that slim chance of making it to the majors by signing with an affiliated minor-league team.

After four years, is the love affair between Chico’s professional baseball team and its fans finally over?

Whispers of doubt are making the rounds as the fan-team relationship of the most successful team in Western Baseball League history begins to show signs of wear and tear.

Attendance is down. Here at the News & Review, the company tickets that once were distributed via lottery because of their popularity can hardly be given away this year. Even Chico’s ever-loyal TV sportscasters are now forced to acknowledge the fan drain at Heat home games when the videotaped footage scans empty row upon empty row of seats in Nettleton Stadium.

They say familiarity breeds contempt. Could it be that Heat fans have become just a little too familiar with the dizzy bat race, the Sumo wrestling or the crazy antics of Heater, the bloated team mascot?

Actually, things aren’t going that badly for the Heat, at least on paper, reports part-owner and Vice President Jeff Kragel.

“Paid attendance,” he said, is down only about 3 percent from last year. But “paid attendance” does not reflect the actual number of tickets being used and, by extension, how many people are attending the games.

The Heat is the dominant team in the WBL. The Chico club has led the league in attendance since its first year in 1997, when it miraculously won the league championship and the admiration of local baseball fans, who’d long waited for a professional baseball team to come to town.

Plus, it is no secret that coming to Chico to play for the Heat, well financed as it is by majority owner and former grocery store magnate Steve Nettleton, is the aspiration of many WBL players. (Realistically, playing in Chico is the average WBL player’s second-highest priority—signing with a team affiliated with the major leagues is first.)

Further Heat dominance of the WBL is evidenced by the fact that one of the team’s former owners, Bob Linscheid, is now the league’s general manager, meaning corporate headquarters are in Chico. One of its current owners, silent partner Robert Sharp, serves as league attorney.

All of which raises the question: If the Chico Heat, the WBL’s most robust team, is listing a bit, what about the rest of the league? After all, a sports league is only as strong as its weakest link, which in this case is the Long Beach Breakers, a first-year team managed by former Los Angeles Dodger catcher Steve Yeager.

The Breakers are the poorest-drawing team in the WBL. Of course, in that Southern California city—home to a new aquarium, the Queen Mary and miles of sandy beaches—there is a bit more competition for the entertainment dollar than in towns like Marysville or Chico.

And for baseball fans, the Dodgers and the Anaheim Angels are only a 30- to 45-minute drive away.

Jeffery Parenti, executive sports editor at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, says the team has been limping along at best.

“Well, generally speaking, they say they will be back next year,” he said. “But I don’t know.”

Attendance at home has averaged only about 400 to 500 per game, he said. The official paid-attendance average as listed on the WBL Web site is 1,141.

“In our marketing department here, we have a whole stack unused of tickets left over,” Parenti said.

In a phone interview from his downtown Chico office, WBL President Linscheid audibly bristled when the subject of trouble in the league was broached.

“Rumors,” he said flatly. “Look at the California League or the Northwest League [both affiliated with the majors]. Attendance there is not as good as it has been per game.

“Our league attendance is almost the same as it was last year,” he said. “I won’t know the financial aspect of each team until the end of the year. But I’ve gotten letters from all six teams saying they’ll play next year. This is the earliest that’s ever happened.”

As league president, it is Linscheid’s job to put a positive spin on WBL conditions, and for a veteran promoter of economic development, that task comes easily. And, while it’s true that attendance numbers in the official box scores remain relatively high for both the Heat and the rest of the league, the fact is those numbers do not accurately reflect, as Linscheid puts it, “the actual number of butts in the seats.”

For instance, on Wednesday, Aug. 1, the official paid attendance for the Heat-Long Beach Breakers game was 2,030. That figure was announced at the game and included in the box score in the Enterprise-Record the next day. But the turnstile counters, according to a Heat employee, recorded fewer than 1,500 fans. Paid attendance accounts only for the number of tickets sold. Linscheid says on average between 70 and 75 percent of tickets sold are actually used each game.

Staying ahead of the curve
Change is constant in minor-league baseball, particularly with the country’s six non-affiliated leagues, of which the WBL is one. Those leagues include the 14-member Northern League, which is broken into two divisions stretching from New Jersey to Iowa and up into Canada; the eight-member Atlantic League, which covers the Eastern Seaboard; the 12-team Frontier League that spans the Ohio Valley; the Texas-Louisiana League; and the just-formed, six-member All American Association, which snakes down the country from Albany through Baton Rouge to Fort Worth.

A number of independent leagues failed in the 1990s, but through adaptability, successful marketing and no shortage of good luck, these six leagues have survived. That is no small feat when you consider the competition: There are 16 leagues—triple A, double A, single A and rookie leagues—affiliated with the majors accounting for no fewer than 182 minor-league teams in North America.

Currently in the WBL, three team operating licenses are not being used. Those franchises are in a sort of hibernation, looking to start play again in the future, under new ownership or in a new city or both. League membership is down to six teams from its original eight, and only one team, the Sonoma County Crushers, remains from the league’s creation in 1995.

For an example of the turmoil that can upend a WBL team, consider the plight of the Grays Harbor Gulls. Right at mid-season in 1998, the Gulls’ owner bailed and the team lost its right to play in its stadium. From the first week in July, it became a permanent road team, operating under the moniker the Western Warriors with its bills paid by the league. Even under those circumstances, the team made it to the league championship, where it lost to Sonoma County.

The team’s license was purchased the following year by an Arizona businessman, who moved the team to Scottsdale, where it played the 2000 season as the Valley Vipers. But it lasted only one year and now is one of the three licenses, along with the Tri-City Posse and the Feather River Mudcats, that are not being used.

The story of the Feather River Mudcats is a rather sore subject to folks in Yuba County. The team came to Marysville last year after a couple of seasons in Reno, where it was difficult to compete with the casinos and their attendant distractions in luring fans and their money into the stadium.

After a fairly successful initial season, the Marysville team owners, Sacramento businessmen Gary Matranga and Scott Mendonsa, filed for bankruptcy, in part because they fell behind in payments on a $1 million loan from the city’s Community Development Agency fund.

“The owners renovated an old baseball field that was last used in the early 1960s for a semi-pro team,” said Eric Vodden, sports editor for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. “The new field was ready just in time for the 2000 season, and the team actually drew pretty well that first year. But it was hard to track actual attendance in Marysville because there were no turnstiles.”

The owners sank $1.8 million into the renovation of Bryant Field, but when they tried to defer on $43,000 in past-due payments to the city last fall, they were denied. A few weeks later they were evicted from the stadium when they failed to answer a three-day notice from the city that ordered them to either come up with half the payment by Oct. 31 or quit using the stadium.

At the same time, the WBL team owners revoked Matranga and Mendonsa’s operating license. There was also another $300,000 owed to local contractors. The owners filed for bankruptcy the following spring.

The city now owns the franchise license, which has a face value of $500,000, but chances of realizing full value upon its sale are remote, Vodden suggested. Recently the Marysville City Council put out requests for bids on the license, and while there have been a few inquiries, so far there’s been nothing of substance to report.

“There was a feeling that the people were let down,” Vodden said of the Mudcats’ demise. Bringing in a new team, he said, will be a hard sell to the spurned fans.

We will survive
“The general rule across the United States,” said the Heat’s Kragel, “is, if after four years or more you can get 70 to 72 percent [of paid attendance into the seats], then you are doing well. We’re at about 74 percent.”

He agrees that some of the novelty of minor-league baseball in Chico has worn off after four years.

“There is no doubt that you can never recapture that first and second year,” he said. “That is the business of baseball, especially in the independent leagues. Still, you wonder, for every 100 tickets sold, where are those 30 missing people?”

There are four sources of revenue for the Heat: tickets, concessions, merchandise and advertising—the signs on the fences, on top of the dugouts and the ads in the programs.

“While we are dropping 3 percent in attendance,” he said, “our per capita spending is up—people are eating more. We want a $5 average spent on food and $1 for merchandise. You can have 2,000 people spend an average of $5 or 1,800 spend $6.25. And you know what? You’re ahead with the 1,800.”

Half the teams in the WBL, he said, run their own concessions. The others contract out and gain only a percentage of the concession sales.

Long Beach had a team the inaugural year, but because it received only 4 percent of the concession sales, which were operated by the Associated Students of Cal State University at Long Beach, the owners could not make ends meet and moved the team to Mission Viejo.

“It was a rotten deal, and any time you have a team move, it leaves a rotten taste for the fans,” Kragel said. “And that is hard to overcome.”

Won’t that be the case in Marysville should it get a team next year?

“Marysville is an excellent market; they came in third in total attendance last year. It’s a tragedy that ownership failed,” he said.

The Heat, he adds, will survive.

Linscheid echoes that sentiment for the league

“There are three cities within the California League that have contacted us and said that, if the affiliated club leaves their community, they want to have a Western Baseball League team there," he said. "So I’m pretty bullish on the potential of what’s happening with the league."