2020 Vision

By JOE McFARLAND

Mother Nature owes Kevin Kvame a decent year of baseball weather. Or two.

As interim league president of the Canadian College Baseball Conference heading into the spring, Kvame could only watch as the weather either led many games to be less than ideal, if not postponed, moved or cancelled all together.

Then the Western Canadian Baseball League president could only watch as sunny days were few and far between most of the summer, replaced by wind, rain and thunderstorms. Even the league’s All Star festivities in early July had many looking skyward as a storm made its way around REMAX Field in Edmonton.

When the games did happen, Kvame was pleasantly surprised to see the crowds gather at stadiums to enjoy a night at the park.

With the summer now behind him, Kvame and representatives from each of the league’s 12 teams met in Weyburn in late-October for their annual general meeting.

The agenda included a look back at the year that was, updates on two Saskatchewan teams that had been on the bubble for a while, a new ownership model in Brooks, an expansion team in Sylvan Lake and a look ahead to 2020.

We chatted with Kvame after the meeting in Episode 62 of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

Q: When you look back on the summer of 2019, how will you personally remember it?

A: You know, I think that at our annual meeting, the one thing that came through was how much of a difference we have achieved in the last 10 years. Our attendance in 2010 was just over 105,000 and we went over 300,000 in 2019. I think that just shows the level of baseball that we’re providing the fans of Alberta and Saskatchewan and their maturity over the years in appreciating that level of baseball and going out and attending the games.

Q: This was the first summer where you were under the new brand of the Western Canadian Baseball League. You had a longer season and different schedule as well as an All Star Game. How would you view all the changes and how they progressed on the field?

A: Well, we weren’t very happy with the weather, to be honest. (laughs) That was a common statement at the annual meeting. Teams were frustrated with the weather and the impact it has on your walk-ups and things like that as you go through the summer. June was especially bad and Edmonton seemed to have some storm blowing through it every single night of the summer. It was an ugly summer as far as that goes but the people did still come out.

We did have our All Star Game and we were really pleased with the inaugural one there and can only see bigger and better things down the road for that. The schedule was a little bit bigger this year from a regular season standpoint and less from a playoff standpoint, which allowed us to schedule events into August at all of our franchise locations. So they had a little bit longer of a regular season to put special guaranteed games on through the summer.

Q: Aside from the franchises, which we’ll get to in a second, anything on or off the field you’re expecting to be different as we look ahead to 2020?

A: Well, I think we are going to do a couple of things. One that will be the most interesting to the fans out there is we’re going to the international rule for extra innings. During the regular season only, we will be putting runners at first and second base to start the extra innings. I think you’re going to see more offense and more strategy to end the extra innings a little quicker.

Q: Let’s get into the franchises as a lot has been said over the last few days and start on the Saskatchewan side of the border. Yorkton and Melville have been granted one year leaves of absence. How long have those situations been on your radar?

A: They have been a focus of the Expansion and Stability Committee for a number of years now. I believe Yorkton’s troubles really started a few years ago when they held a lottery and they ended up not selling enough tickets and had to refund all the money for the tickets that were sold. That left them in a precarious situation in that all of their expenses they had put in like advertising, ticket printing and administration costs to do the lottery and you don’t get any of that back. So they were put back financially due to that and I don’t think they have ever caught up.

Melville has been an ongoing small centre where the people in the community really do support the team but again, this year it seemed to be the result of a lottery that they held where they basically sold $350,000 worth of lottery tickets and came away with, what we’re hearing, about $5,000, which is just unbelievably poor. Too much money got spent on expenses and things like that. Those teams need that revenue to operate because they’re not drawing the people to the parks to sustain their operational costs so they have to do that extra stuff. Some of them do very, very well like Regina, Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Weyburn.

Yorkton and Weyburn have just struggled both on the field with their facilities and with their off-field fundraising for a number of years. It was felt by the teams and the league that they need to step back and do a couple of things. One is try to clear their past debt if that’s possible. And two is develop a key business model and plan moving forward where they can possibly come back into the league and be a viable participating member of the league without being strained every single day of the season to keep operations moving.

Q: Is there anything in specific out of that you would like to see when you return to the table in a year?

A: The Stability Committee does have some targets on it. Obviously getting exactly the two things I just spoke of. The long-term business plan and paying off long-term debt. And a facility plan that addresses the community’s needs for drawing baseball fans to the park. Yorkton, in particular, their facility is not good at all.

Q: Were there other options on the table and if so, why go with the leaves versus those other options?

A: It was more of a negotiation with the teams because there were no other real option available. They wanted the opportunity to try to reset their options. The other thing the league could have done was revoke their franchises and say they are no longer part of the league. But we didn’t want to do that unless the team wanted to cease operations and in both cases, neither franchise was willing to state that at this time. I think to give them the opportunity to reset their operations and clear some of their past problems is the most fair way to go.

Q: On the Alberta side of the border, the Brooks Bombers made it official that they will be entering a different structure ownership-wise. How optimistic are you about that change?

A: It really comes down to the desire within the community and that’s been on the table for a while. The ownership situation of the Brooks team changed over the last year with the previous ownership group bringing a new group to the table that was owning the franchise. And they had made a decision in the summer that they were much more interested in a different market than the Brooks market and they were going to invest their energies and attention in that market. Nothing against the Brooks market but just more familiarity and more connections to the other market. So they had a decision to either consider moving the franchise or selling the franchise to a different ownership in Brooks.

That’s when some of the local people that were operating the franchise in Brooks came forward and said they thought the model with the Brooks Bandits, being a community-owned, not-for-profit organization run mainly by volunteers and a staff member or two is an ideal model for us. They would be excited about it and the city would be on board. So we met with them in early-September along with the City of Brooks and they outlined their plans for it and pretty much everything started falling into place after that. We had an agreement in principle to sell the team from the existing ownership to the Brooks Regional Ball Park Association, who will be the operators of the team from this point forward. They have a pretty good business plan in place and ideas on how to make the market work for them and to draw community pride which Brooks is a great community with lots of pride that we think will work for that franchise.

Q: I assume that “other market” would be the long-rumoured Sylvan Lake market. Where are we at with that, as they have made their desires pretty well known?

A: Well, if you check your email inbox in the next few minutes, you will have a press release from the WCBL that has announced that Sylvan Lake has been granted an expansion franchise for the 2021 season. We’re really, really excited about that and you are correct, that is where the ownership group that was with Brooks is going. They have purchased the expansion franchise in Sylvan Lake and the league approved it at the meeting and just in the last day, we signed the documents confirming everything and we’re able to make that public for the first time today.

Q: That is fantastic news. What excites you about the opportunity to move into Central Alberta?

A: Obviously, your key words are “Central Alberta.” It is a Central Alberta team with a great population base and lots of history in baseball over the years. Sylvan Lake and the location of the ballpark and the type of park they are developing is going to be awesome for the area and for the league. We just think it will be a venue that baseball fans will want to go to and enjoy another WBCL team in that market. Whether they’re coming from Sylvan or Red Deer or Stettler or Innisfail or Rocky Mountain House or wherever, it’s a great area that has lots of history, like I said. We think it will be awesome and the ownership group is committed and dedicated and invested in the area and in making the team a huge success for the coming years.

Q: Are there other expansion plans on the table, as we speak?

A: There are always individuals out kicking tires. I wouldn’t say anything right now is imminent because the biggest thing that has to happen, and it shows with Sylvan Lake, is that you don’t just put a WCBL team in Sylvan Lake unless you have a park. And there aren’t a lot of venues around Alberta or Saskatchewan that are ready for a WCBL team that are going to be able to put 500 or 1,000 or 1,500 fans in the park.

Q: Any issues on the scheduling front with moving Medicine Hat to the East Division and having two fewer teams in Saskatchewan?

A: Not really. The Medicine Hat move isn’t that impactful for too much. The distance they will be traveling in 2020 is very, very similar. In fact, about a couple hundred less than what they did in 2019 so for them, it’s a modest change. They will get to play Swift Current more. We also did some regional games where they’ll see Lethbridge and Brooks a little bit more than the other Alberta teams. The other move we made is that every East team will travel to every West team and every West team will travel to every East team. All of the rivals that Medicine Hat used to see will still see in their community and, like I said, they will see Swift Current and Moose Jaw just a bit more.

Q: There’s been a situation percolating in Edmonton as well with the lease at REMAX Field. Where are we at there and what’s the latest on the Prospects front?

A: That is a great question and I wish I had a more definitive answer for at this time. In fact, we’ve reached out to the City of Edmonton for a comment. We were led to believe in September that there was an agreement in principle in place and we now understand they want to rethink that. They have made overtures they definitely want the Prospects playing there but until there’s an actual agreement and what the terms of that agreement are, it really puts things in a holding pattern, both for the league schedule and for the All Star Game. So we’re trying to deal with that as quickly as possible and get that resolved. Hopefully, the City of Edmonton will realize that there are a number of other franchises in the league that they’re affecting by their actions and delays.

(Editor’s note: our conversation with Kvame happened on Wednesday afternoon and by Friday evening, the Prospects were touting that the 2020 season would be happening at REMAX Field.)

Q: How happy are you with the situation in the other Alberta markets heading into 2020?

A: Yeah, obviously Okotoks has been drawing extremely well for a long time now and they continue to do so. The fans in that community have embraced it. Edmonton was drawing very, very well last year and we hope the City of Edmonton and the Prospects can come together and keep baseball moving in the right direction in the Alberta capital. Fort McMurray and Lethbridge have great facilities with the renovations at Spitz Stadium and the new facility in Fort McMurray. You know, Fort McMurray was right there in the mix for the playoffs. That was a great playoff race last year coming down to the last weekend of the regular season and Edmonton just went on a roll at the right time to sneak past Fort Mac to get that last spot. Obviously it was very disappointing for the Giants but in the end, it was a great playoff race coming down to the wire. In Brooks, they have a new enthusiasm, new leadership and new ideas, so they’ll be working hard to put a competitive product on the field. And we still have Medicine Hat in Alberta, even if they’re not in the West Division, and they always put a good product on the field. And we’re excited to see what they put on the field in 2020.

Q: If we were to sit down again one year from today and have a similar conversation, where would you like to see the league headed?

A: I think we want to continue to move forward and continue to see more and more fans embrace the level of baseball that’s available. I want to see that 300,000 number continue to tick up. I want to see the All Star Game become a prominent Canadian event in the league. And ideally, I would love to see twelve franchises competing again in 2021 because twelve is a nice number to work with.

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