The 2023 Western Canadian Baseball League season hasn’t even started yet and some prairie baseball fans already have their sights set on 2024.
After more than a decade, the WCBL is returning to Saskatoon with the March 29th announcement that the Sask Entertainment Group (SEG) had made a successful pitch for a team.
The organization behind the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades and National Lacrosse League’s Saskatchewan Rush will usher in the first summer college team to the community since the Yellow Jackets left in 2014 following years of declining attendance and increasing financial pressure.
WCBL president Kevin Kvame says Saskatoon was a top priority when the league started looking at expansion, noting it’s the largest city in Saskatchewan and a big part of a growing baseball province.
It’s also welcome news for the league, which will expand from 10 teams to 12 in 2024, as the Edmonton Prospects are also expected to rejoin the circuit after a year hiatus to get their new facility in Spruce Grove built.
The news also allows the league to shift its focus in terms of future expansion, and Kvame is hinting at a few possibilities, with an overarching goal of becoming a 16-team league.
The Okotoks Dawgs have become the fixture of summer baseball in the greater Calgary area, and Kvame says a regional rivalry there might be the next big priority for the WCBL.
With the City of Calgary dragging its heels on demolishing Foothills Stadium, and no real successor being talked about, he says they are looking outside city limits like what’s happened in the south with the Dawgs.
“Airdrie has a really nice size community that would be a great rival to Okotoks,” Kvame told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “They have some work to do on a facility, as there is no facility that could house a WCBL team at present.”
Sources say one potential ownership group has been asking around Alberta’s fifth-largest city, which doesn’t have a major sports team to call its own.
It will be up to that group, along with the City of Airdrie, to come up with a plan for a stadium.
The lack of existing stadium space is a common theme for Kvame as he talks about potential franchise locations.
Grande Prairie is seen as another spot with a great local sports scene, but just doesn’t have the infrastructure right now.
While many know it as the home of the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Storm, Grande Prairie is also the hometown of baseball players like Lars Davis and Dane Tofteland, as well as the relatively new Northern Lights Baseball Academy.
Kvame says while Fort McMurray serves the northeastern portion of the province, it would be great to have a northwestern Alberta team which could also pull crowds from a number of surrounding communities.
DOTS ON THE MAP
A few other spots are on Kvame’s radar as of right now.
He says if the conditions are right, a second team in the Edmonton region might work in the future to become a regional rivalry for the Prospects.
When it comes to smaller centres, Kvame says Drumheller would be a strong contender with its tourism background, especially in the summer.
He adds Lloydminster has a great baseball and slo-pitch community that could sit in either of the league’s two divisions, being right on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.
“It’s a thriving community and could be a formidable location for a team if they could get a ballpark that would bring in 1,500 to 2,000 people every night,” Kvame said.
SASKATCHEWAN AND BEYOND
One of the things Kvame would like to see at some point is more balance between the Alberta and Saskatchewan side of the border.
When the 2024 season hits, the league will have seven Alberta franchises and five in Saskatchewan, with the Medicine Hat Mavericks playing in the East Division.
Kvame says North Battleford could be a possibility, especially as a stop between Edmonton and Saskatoon, while Prince Albert could watch what happens in Saskatoon as a blueprint for how to marry the WHL and WCBL properties.
When asked about a return of either Melville or Yorkton, who both left the league following the 2019 season, he says neither community has brought a proposal forward, adding the league gave both “every opportunity” to save their clubs, but they just couldn’t deliver.
Kvame also hinted at heading one province over, to Manitoba, where Brandon might be a possibility.
“They have had some iterations of summer college ball that haven’t necessarily worked that well,” he said. “There is potential there.”
KEEP ON GROWING
While there seems to be plenty of potential around the prairie provinces to grow the league to Kvame’s 16-team dream, the bottom line is simple: you need to build it first.
“All of these places – the ballpark is the building block,” he said.
“You have to have it in order to have a team and there’s not a lot of communities out there building multi-million dollar ballparks to get to this level of ball, which is what it takes now.”
Until he sees something more formal, Kvame is looking forward to the 2023 WCBL season, which is expected to build on what was a strong 2022 with the return of all teams following the pandemic.
From a league business perspective, he says the league’s governors are hoping to capitalize on that excitement by building more stability in the front office.
They haven’t come up with the official title for a new potential person at the top, but it could be commissioner, chief operating officer, or executive director.
He says it will help the league connect with the corporate world and help what is a part-time executive with the league, who is passionate about the baseball side of the game but might not have the time to build out the business side.
Whether it’s expansion on the field or off, Kvame says the goal is always to look forward.
“We’re just going to keep growing,” he said. “Every year is going to get better now as we put some of these pieces in place and try to continue to grow the game of baseball.”