Independent baseball does major league business

Rockland Boulders mascot Boulder Bird.
John Koolery | Rockland Boulders
Rockland Boulders mascot Boulder Bird.

You've probably never heard of the Rockland Boulders. So, why has one of the heavyweights of the automobile industry bought prime real estate on their scoreboard?

Because they're champions.

Mercedes Benz renewed its corporate sponsorship with the Canadian American League baseball team after the Boulders brought home the league championship last season.

Nestled in Pomona, New York — just an hour's drive from the big apple — Provident Bank Park is home to an unlikely success story. Revamped in 2005, the Canadian American Independent League was once comprised of eight teams — seven American and one Canadian. By 2014, the league had shrunk to four American teams, but had gained two more Canadian teams.

The Canadian American League curse seemed to be a combination of poor investment strategies and frequent ownership changes. The Worcester Tornadoes' franchise was revoked in 2012 due to unpaid debts, the Pittsfield Colonials were unable to lure investors and its charter was rescinded, and the Newark Bears closed and liquidated all of the assets in its $30 million stadium—just three seasons after joining the Can-Am League.

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For many independent teams, external expenses—including insurance payments, salaries, and travel expenses—can often outweigh incoming revenue. In the last five years, the Boulders have reported a 400 percent increase in worker's compensation costs, with both players and office staff grouped into high risk coverage.

"There are teams in the Can-Am league that are at $300,000 in workers comp." Ken Lehner, president of the Rockland Boulders, said. "That's a big number for what is considered a mom and pop type of minor league operation."

In fact, the Boulders' $500,000 budget for marketing costs is equivalent to the minimum required salary of one Major League player. That allocation pays for cable, radio and print advertising, as well as social media.

However, the fragmented state borders between New York and New Jersey pose a particular issue for the organization, forcing them to purchase coverage on three separate cable networks and with three different local newspapers.

Fans flood the gates

"This market has disposable income. What it doesn’t have is disposable time." -Ken Lehner, President of the Rockland Boulders

Despite these expenditures, The Boulders organization, which opened its doors 2011, has remained in the black for the last four years. Meanwhile, its franchise valuation has grown 500 percent since its initial expansion fee.

The team averaged more than 3,100 fans per game during the 2014 season, double the attendance of the majority of other Can-Am League teams. With more than 140,000 total fans in attendance during their 46 home games last season, the Boulders likely averaged more than $1.5 million in ticket sales.

And that was without a championship.

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Winning has opened doors for the Rockland County team. However it's not the only factor in their financial success.

The outfield of Provident Bank Park may be home to advertisements for local businesses and corporate giants such as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Verizon, but partnerships account for only 30 percent of the Boulders' annual revenue. Concession and ticket sales combine to make 60 percent of returns, and the remaining 10 percent is attributed to special events hosted at Provident Bank Park.

"You have to innovate," Lehner said. "It doesn't matter what industry you are in or what business you are in, including baseball."

For the Boulders, that innovation comes in the form of special events and themed Saturday games, which have increased ticket sales and introduced new revenue sources. Rockland also hosts adult kickball leagues, children's summer camps, heritage nights and Pups in the Park adoption fairs.

Bigger than ever?

Like many independent leagues across America, the Boulder's retain competitive but affordable ticket prices, which often include entry to these special events and game-day promotions. The average ticket at Provident Bank Park is $10.53. In comparison, the cheapest tickets at Yankee Stadium and the Mets' Citi Field are $15 with average ticket prices running $51.55 and $25.30, respectively.

While ticket sales are steadily rising, Lehner admits that his organization has had trouble selling season tickets and that the average fan only attends 3 to 5 games each season. "This market has disposable income. What it doesn't have is disposable time," he said.

This is in stark contrast to Major League teams like the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs that have long wait lists for fans who want to purchase season tickets. Retention rates remain so high that only a small percentage of consumers are eligible to advance to the top of the list each season.

Although independent teams lack the support and exposure of big-name clubs, they still offer competition to MLB affiliates.

"Minor League Baseball is bigger than it's ever been," Bean Stringfellow, managing director of Performance Baseball and a former player. "Part of the reason it has to stay on its toes is because of the independent league…they are fighting for the same piece of the pie."