Startup baseball league’s solvency questioned

Kevin Wilson

A startup independent baseball league hoping to tout Clovis as one of its host cities is facing allegations it’s not solvent.

On the evening of Feb. 18, just hours after speaking with Freedom New Mexico, Southwestern States Baseball League Operations Director Brian Ramsey sent an e-mail to announce the formation of an online forum, www.ssblf.info.

Two days later, however, a website poster who identified himself as Ramsey said he was leaving the league because an $800 payroll check from the league did not clear the bank.

“I cannot be part of a product that I do not have full confidence in,” Ramsey said on the forum, which is no longer available, “nor can I present something that I do not feel is genuine.”

Online comments have spilled over into other websites, including the Minnesota-based Ballpark Business blog (ballparkbiz.wordpress.com), which follows the business side of baseball franchise operations.

Nathan Snyder, who handles the league’s media relations, said Ramsey is an “irate employee” who overstepped his duties and is retaliating with accusations.

“We’re more focused on getting our schedule put together,” Snyder said. “Whatever he chooses to say and do will be dealt with at a later time.”

Attempts to contact Ramsey were unsuccessful. Among other accusations, he said Snyder is actually the league’s president and is passing himself off as only the media relations representative.

Steve Maddock, director of baseball operations for the Arlington-based SSBL, said he never actually created a title for Snyder, so it wouldn’t matter if he called himself the president.

“I run the league,” Maddock said. “Once we’re going, (Snyder is) going to be running the Kingfisher (Okla.) team. Once the league gets going, it’s going to be basically on me.”

He denied Ramsey’s allegations of a bounced paycheck.

“I know all of my bills have been paid,” Maddock said. “My salary every month has been met. I know the league’s fine, we’re ready to go.”

The league announced Jan. 18 that the Clovis Rhythm would join the Kingfisher Pioneers, Brenham (Texas) Bulls, Elk City (Okla.) Wranglers and Blackwell (Okla.) Broncos, with play starting in May.

However, the team had not signed a lease to use Bell Park, which is owned and maintained by Clovis Municipal Schools.

When contacted for comment, CMS Director of Operations Gene Bieker said he would have no comment on the league because it’s not the school’s business to get involved in the online dispute, and the league has every right to use Bell Park if it can meet contractual demands, including an upfront payment.

The league had previously sought two divisions, and announced Feb. 11 it would add teams in La Grande, Ore., and Meridian, Idaho for the North Division. But the league announced a week later it was shelving the SSBL North until 2012.

Garrett White, recreation coordinator for Meridian, said the announcement of a team was premature, as the city still had details to work out, including bleacher improvements and potential ordinance changes to allow more than 14 games (regarded as special events) in 90 days.

“Meridian’s all for having a team,” White said, “but there are other factors that go into it. We’re still in the very first stages.”

Meridian Parks and Recreation Director Steve Siddoway said there are no talks for 2012 as far as his office is aware.

“We were contacted by a representative of the league regarding use of one of our fields,” Siddoway said. “We expressed interest in the idea of having the team play here if we could solve some of our current issues related to bleachers. We would have also needed an agreement to allow them to charge a fee for tickets, but discussions did not get that far.”

The SSBL entered negotiations after the Pecos League said it was interested in adding the Clovis Pioneers to its league, but halted efforts in mid-January. League Commissioner Andrew Dunn cited the inability to sell alcohol at Bell Park, a high lease charge at the school-owned park and an inability to play elsewhere due to youth leagues receiving priority.

Dunn said, “I want the Clovis Pioneers to play there in 2012,” and is still looking to schedule a Pecos League series in Clovis for 2011. But if the Rhythm took the field, he’d end any negotiations with the city.

The league’s website, southwesternstatesleague.com, includes standings, but no team schedules or purchase points for tickets or merchandise.

Clovis would have been one of the smaller cities in the six-team Pecos League, which also includes Las Cruces, Roswell and Carlsbad. But it’s the biggest SSBL team by far. According to 2009 U.S. Census estimates, Clovis’ population (32,863) is roughly 80 percent of the combined populations of the other four cities with teams (39,226). The second largest city is Brenham, with 16,148 residents.

Maddock said population statistics can be misleading, and noted that Kingfisher (4,358) is within a 25-mile radius of 35,000 people.

“It’s tough to put a team in a town of 5,000 if you don’t have surrounding cities,” Maddock said.

Based on the league’s previous estimates — an $80,000 salary cap per team, $7 tickets and an 80-game season — the league would need 286 fans per game just to make payroll, and would need more fans or revenue streams to cover travel costs and ballpark leases.

“Sponsorships are a big part of it,” Maddock said. “It’s not a make-or-break, (but) the marketing’s going to have to be big.”