As Spring Explodes, The Business of Affiliated Baseball Takes Its Swings…

There was a time not long ago when baseball below the Major League level was kind of like the “wild West.” There were a host of affiliated teams that had direct relationships with MLB clubs, there were college player leagues in various forms, there was Winter Baseball and the Arizona Spring League, and then there were these teams who were called “Independent,” operating as businesses without any acknowledgement by MLB. To the contrary, the relationship with MLB at times was very acrimonious. Some of these teams and leagues flourished, some as renegade businesses in markets small and large (think Newark, Camden and Atlantic City, N.J. alone), promised the riches of professional baseball to communities, and left in shambles (think Newark, Camden and Atlantic City).

A good deal of that has changed in recent years, as MLB announced a significant realignment of Minor League Baseball, and with it a contraction of teams from what existed prior. Into the mix came best practices and solid markets for teams that were good businesses who were now acknowledged and encouraged by MLB as part of the regular business of baseball.

In the Northeast, the Atlantic League created a position as first mover of the best of clubs that were existing in the region, while the American Association took a revamped model of success and cooperation to markets ranging from Chicago and Kansas City and greater Milwaukee to smaller outposts where the business of baseball was working, like Gary, Ind.; Lincoln, Neb., Fargo, N. Dak., Sioux Falls, S. Dak. and even north of the border to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The goal was pretty clear–to build smart community affiliated organizations with a P and L that made sense. The result under Commissioner Josh Schaub, himself a former team owner, is a business that keeps the traditions of the game and family affordability more than alive, while looking for innovative ways to drive attention, relevance and revenue in marketplaces big and small.

As Opening Day approaches, we asked Schaub to give us the first pitch.

Gotham Baseball: How has the American Association of Professional baseball grown and adapted with MLB as a partner?

Josh Schaub: MLB has provided the American Association access to programs which the American Association previously had not had access. This includes COPA, Play Ball weekend, MLB Winter Meetings, coverage, and general marketing resources. We have also put systems in place to create equity and transparency for teams and players when transitioning from the American Association to MLB clubs.

Is it hard to lose the title of Independent baseball? Has it been more of challenge to explain and why or why not?

Losing that title was likely over due. That title was created in a different generation for our league. We have been working with MLB much more frequently even in the years leading up to the official MLB Partner League status. Even though we took great pride in being “independent,” we truly are a part of “One Baseball” now and that required a new moniker. The explanation has been really simple in that we are now working hand in glove with Major League Baseball and Commissioner Manfred’s office to grow the game. That should be recognized in in our title.

The American Association has a long history. How is it different from rivals like the Frontier League and the Atlantic League?

The American Association in fact has a rich history. We love our MLB Partner League brethren, but with respect, I must state that our product is more appealing for sponsors, fans, and consumers alike for numerous reasons. These include the average attendance, the markets in which we play, the amount of players we transfer to MLB, the amount of people we reach through our broadcasts, our participation in Baseball Champions League, the American Association’s sponsorship portfolio, and in general the power of our brand both within and outside of the industry.

Tell us more about the Baseball Champions League and how that may play out?

Baseball Champions League was a brain child of Horacio De La Vega and myself when discussing play between the American Association and Liga Mexico Baseball. What started as potential post season play against our leagues, turned into a discussion about a world wide event after we gained buy in from Riccardo Fraccari of WBSC. The American Association’s 2022 champion, the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks defeated the champions of Cuba, Columbia, and Mexcio’s Major Leagues to be crowned the first champion. This year, the Kansas City Monarchs will represent the American Association as our 2023 champion. This year’s event will also expand to eight countries major league champions and also kick off play on other continents. The end goal is that each continents champions come together for a world tournament in Japan.

There is always talk of expansion with affiliated clubs?  You are a Midwestern league, is there a benefit or an opportunity to expand east?

I think the days of expansion for affiliated clubs are likely over. Now, affiliated clubs worry about contraction. We in fact have announced four work/live/play projects anchored by stadiums in our footprint. One of those is Clarksville, Tenn., pushing our footprint east. If there is a market that fits for our league, we’d love to explore the opportunity for growth.

The clubs in your league seem to be taking to this new idea of work/live/play communities. How has that played out and is it a growing idea in cities on the growth path?

As stated, we have already publicly announced four projects. We are in talks with five other cities about the same. Some of those deals will come together and some will not. However, it seems have unlocked a reasonable solution for funding stadiums that does not include general obligation bonds.

What should we be looking for as opening day approaches from the league, talent wise and business wise?

We have already made announcements regarding the American Association becoming the first professional baseball league to have games broadcast for free. We also announced today an innovative content partnership with Baseball America, the first of its kind. Going forward, fans can anticipate further announcements around our broadcast distribution, new sponsorship partners, and announcements regarding Baseball Champions League.