The North American Baseball League formed with the merger of three Independent Leagues: Golden Baseball League, Northern League and United League.
The collaboration is more than the financial constraints and difficulties that one way or another contributed to its inception.
There is more to it than that; the NAL is now the largest, in number of teams and geography, professional Independent baseball league worldwide.
Those unfamiliar with the Indy game should really make a point of viewing the websites of the six majors:
The Indy’s represent that last chance for many players looking for their shot at glory; on the other end of the spectrum, the leagues represent an opportunity for players who believe they were skipped over in the draft and deserve that one opportunity.
Every team is faced with obstacles that are, at times, impossible to overcome.
When the goal is to be successfully financially and at the same time producing a quality product, it's tough when the city they plan in is surrounded by popular metropolitan areas each with their own big four franchise: MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL.
How can a team with a limited budget and resources expect to survive when competing against corporate conglomerates?
Grass roots marketing at its most basic level is likely what each franchise is reduced too. All lack major corporate sponsorships, limited opportunities to be seen on television and all without that one personality who can attract the masses.
My two month foray into professional Independent baseball was more or less what I had expected it to be. The game at any professional level is a business, something I grudgingly accepted after the fact. When you are a big fish in a small pond and thrust into a situation where hundreds are attempting to do the exact same thing as you, it really puts the situation into perspective.
And while I was no one special, the talent on any of the teams could rival that of a High single-A or Low double-A minor league affiliate (obviously depending on the league).
My teammates on the Gateway Grizzlies had played in every class of professional ball from single-A with the now defunct South Georgia Waves (affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodger), up to triple-A with the Sacramento River Cats (affiliate of the Oakland Athletics).
With all that experience and after preparing my piece on the birth of the NAL, I started thinking about how and if one ultimate Independent Champion could be crowned.
On the surface, it seems pretty simple: At the end of the year, all league champions meet up in a winner take all tournament to finally lay claim to the true Independent Champion.
Puncturing the surface of the issues at hand, sooner or later exposes the real issues, leaving hopefuls disappointed at the amount of work needed to see this through.
The length of time to complete this would be well beyond the capacity of everyone involved.
If we were attempting to crown one winner, all league champions would square off in one tournament at the end of the season; one game-sudden death-winner take all style: No. 1 seed v. No. 6 seed, No. 2 v. No. 5 and so on.
Here is where it gets tricky.
Four of the leagues play approximately 100 games a season, while the Pecos League plays only a 68 game schedule and the Atlantic League tops out at 140 games per year.
Upon speaking with Mr. John Kuhn, president of the 2010 Frontier League Champion River City Rascals, one of the main obstacles, in all actuality, would be the time frame that this process would take:
"In someways this could work, however financially it would not pan out for some players, as many of them are trying to finish graduate school, and/or have jobs outside of the game."
Makes complete sense. Keep this in mind though, even if each league cancelled their playoffs, the Atlantic League season runs into mid-to-late September while the Frontier League completes it season near Labour Day.
For arguments sake, let’s agree that in a perfect world all leagues complete their season before school starts and everyone is available for some sort of year end tournament. Is it even feasible to sustain a plan this big with so many moving parts?
After speaking with Mr. Rich Ehrenreich, president of The Lake County Fielders, he noted that numerous areas have to align before something of this magnitude could take place:
"I think it could work with a significant advertising partner, revenue sharing among the participants, and certainly the right location."
Following my conversation with Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Ehrenreich, this proposal shows signs of promise; regrettably, there are many forces working against it.
Ultimately, the collaboration that made up the NAL is what led to me taking on this cause. With that being said, what better person to speak to than Mr. Kevin Outcalt, Chief Executive Officer, North American Baseball League.
When speaking to Mr. Outcalt, there were many questions relating to the new NAL, salaries, structure, the ultimate formation of the league, eventually leading to his thought regarding the Independent Champion idea.
Below is part of my discussion:
Devon: "Mr. Outcalt, with the merger of the Golden Baseball League, Northern League, and United League Baseball, the North American Baseball League is now the largest independent professional baseball league in existence. With the economic struggles facing many sports teams and leagues in general, theoretically the NAL has the opportunity to take Indy ball to the next level.
"It can increase viewership, increase revenue, and open the eyes of many to the calibre of baseball that is played throughout the Independent Leagues. The influx of talent in your organization can comparably rival those of any independent league.
"What would you think of determining an Independent Champion, just for the sake of bragging rights?"
Kevin Outcalt: "It could definitely benefit the state of the game. If you could group the top teams from each league in a tournament style setting in one venue over a three-to-four day stretch, conceivably it could happen and be very successful...
"The North American League is ready to participate in this at the conclusion of this season and would be willing to host the Championship Tournament."
Will the baseball world get to see an Independent Champion in the near future?
I can’t really answer that question. There are positives and negatives to each side.
Different leagues have different calibre of players, some play unrelenting schedules, and various outside factors play a bigger role than we may think.
In any case, it’s worth a second look and perhaps some entrepreneur or an advertising guru is already concocting a proposal that might bring the impossible to a reality near you!
In preparation for this article, I have been fortunate enough to speak to some very generous people who gave their time to benefit this piece. I am very grateful for their contributions, insight and wish them all the very best for the upcoming 2011 season.
I would like to thank John Kuhn, Rich Ehrenreich and Kevin Outcalt for the time and expertise. Without your first-hand knowledge and experience, it would undoubtedly lack the authenticated feel it presents.
Devon is the founder of The GM’s Perspective