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Friday, November 19, 2010

It's morphin' time: North American League

It's official. Three have become one.

As expected, the Golden Baseball League has joined forces with the United and Northern leagues to form the largest independent baseball league in the country, both in terms of number of teams and geography. The announcement came down yesterday. Here's a look at the official GBL press release:

New Professional North American League Formed
Northern and United Leagues Join Forces with Golden Baseball League to Create New Circuit

(San Ramon, CA. November 18, 2010) The Golden Baseball League, Northern League, and the United League announced today that they have joined forces in the creation of a new professional independent league that will be known as the North American League. The league will have 16 - 20 teams in multiple countries and cover many of the major markets in the U.S. and Canada in 2011 with expansion already set for 2012. Except for Major League Baseball, it will be the largest professional league in terms of number of teams and geographies and amongst the top minor leagues in terms of attendance. The existing leagues will keep their names and their baseball operations structure while consolidating and enhancing a number of business activities and will adhere to a single and consistent set of league operating by-laws.

"This is an exciting opportunity for the teams of these three leagues", said Kevin Outcalt, Chief Executive of Diamond Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns and operates the Golden League and will administer the North American League. "This will provide more value to our marketing and business partners, more exposure for our players to advance their careers, and increased excitement and fun for the fans of all of our ballclubs. In addition, the business advantages of league-wide advertising and sponsor revenue, collective/volume purchasing to lower costs, and shared best practices amongst the teams in the league should drive additional profitability for the North American League member clubs."

The structure of the NAL will be set up with the three original leagues covering their respective regions where the teams will play approximately 75% of their games within their region and 25% outside their region/division. This will be followed by playoffs that will conclude with a North American Championship Series. It is anticipated that the league will play a 92 - 100 game regular season schedule that will be determined at the inaugural NAL meetings that will be held in northern California at the end of this month. All of the existing Golden League, Northern League, and United League teams will be part of the circuit, and it is expected that additional teams will be announced in the coming weeks as well. The full slate of 2011 NAL teams and the makeup of each region will be announced following the league meeting. Baseball related playing rules will also be finalized including player classification/eligibility and playing rules (National League or American League).

"This is an excellent move for the Northern League," said Northern League Commissioner Clark Griffith. "By becoming part of this new league, we will enjoy benefits that can't be found anywhere else in minor league baseball and some exciting opportunities that were never available in the Northern League in the past."

Although these three leagues totaled 35% of the professional independent minor league baseball teams in North America in 2010, they were responsible for placing half of the players on the Baseball America Indy Top Prospects list and six of the fourteen players named to the all Independent Leagues First Team by Baseball America. In addition, the three leagues have sold 35 player contracts to major league organizations so far in 2010 and are all recognized as an important source of baseball talent including players, umpires, coaches/managers, and front office/business personnel by big league clubs.

Byron Pierce, United League president, stated, "The United League is pleased to announce it is becoming part of North American League Baseball. By doing so the United League will be able to bring a national presence and the rich tradition of three leagues to each of our United League cities, while maintaining our regional rivalries and identity."

Better to see them survive as one then watch them all crumble apart. While the league doesn't apparently have any immediate plans to return a team to the humble community of Long Beach, it does provide local players additional opportunities to continue their baseball careers.

While there are still many markets that need to be finalized within the new North American League, there won't be an incredible influx of crossover between the three leagues, meaning each team is going to get a steady dose of teams within its own "division" (which are keeping the names of their original leagues). That's great in theory, especially after the last two years of GBL schedules that featured division opponents who did not play against each other in a given half of a season. However after Calgary and Edmonton play more than half of their games against each other, the act could get stale relatively quickly. Even the old Long Beach/Orange County rivalry had its limits.

It will be fun for teams to host new opponents, but one concern for players in the Northern League and United League circuits joining the new GBL will be getting their passports straightened out, a process that should be more familiar to Northern League veterans (Calgary and Edmonton were part of that league until leaving for the GBL in 2008). Nevertheless, each year, passport problems seem to snag a few players per team, preventing whole squads from making the road trip. Hopefully all GMs are on the same page in terms of having everyone able to cross borders. It was logistical nightmare in 2009 for the all-Colombian Yuma Scorpions to get proper documentation before their road trip to Canada, and while seems similar affiliation deals might not be on the horizon after the 2010 debacle that saw the GBL reclaim control of the Yuma franchise, it's still something that must be address thoroughly before the season.

Still, it's much better to have baseball than to not, and the new North American League will provide plenty of summer nights under the lights in 2011.

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