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Death of the CBL

By Jackson Murphy
web posted July 21, 2003

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear it? You probably haven't heard of it before, but the Canadian Baseball League, in its inaugural season, is stopping play at its very first All Star Game. Reading this you may ask, there was a Canadian Baseball League? Or maybe you would think that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig moved north and started his own strange baseball league where All Star Games end in ties and no teams ever make money.

"We have determined that the best way to achieve our goal of a high quality, professional baseball league for Canada requires us to take the time now to organize, plan and structure the league for a positive course ahead," said league chairman Jeff Mallett.

Speaking of Selig, who is this guy kidding? This is about as impressive as the inaugural, and ironically the only, season of the XFL. But stopping play in the middle of the season to plan the league's future isn't much of a plan at all. None of this is surprising. Canada isn't very adept at developing the professional sports we already have. So in a huge country why anyone would think an 8-team league stretched across the nation playing in places such as Kelowna, Trois-Rivieres, London, and Saskatoon would succeed is mind boggling. Sure, the Montreal Expos play in the Majors, but no one goes to see them either, so who in their right mind would go see the Montreal Royals?

The CBL was a stretch to begin with. It is an attempt to create a stand alone professional baseball league in Canada-our very own major league just like Japan. In reality it was an end of the road league with very little interest from Major League Baseball, and now few options for the 200 players and coaches.

Will Lingo, of Baseball America, summed it up this way: "Most of the league's teams struggled at the gate, though. Montreal was forced to play most of its games on the road because no suitable facility was available. Kelowna, B.C. (271); Saskatoon, Sask. (256); Niagara, Ont. (181); and Trois-Rivieres, Quebec (163) all averaged fewer than 300 fans a game."

London's Monarchs played their first game in front of 5,100, but later played in games with as few as 50 people looking on. Ouch. You'd think they could have given away a few more tickets than that. Even with the added bonus of nationally televised games on a sports network, The Score, was not enough to generate any sizeable buzz.

Minor league baseball does better than that. The Vancouver Canadians, a Single-A Short Season affiliate of the Oakland Athletics playing in the North West League drew more than 127,000 fans last season. The difference would be that those playing in the affiliated minor leagues are potential future stars-a hook that the CBL never had. Sure they are Raw and young, hardly the type of entertainment that is ever going to light up the box office, but the atmosphere is usually good quality family entertainment. No one, aside from possibly the dreamers organizing the league, suggested that career success in the CBL was going to lead to a ticket to the bigs.

Everyone who commented on the CBL's demise suggested that the product was good-quality baseball. And that seems to be true. But that simply wasn't enough. Clearly, it was the wrong product, in the wrong cities, at the wrong time.

So after giving up in the first season, is there really any way that this product could come back next season? CBL chairman Mallett seems to think they will be back next year after some reorganization. He's kidding himself. The league is now the joke it always was, but now simply one that is tarnished by this fiasco.

There are lessons to learn here. We have trouble supporting basketball, football, and even hockey. The CBL's meltdown had the unlikely effect of actually making the CFL look pretty solid. A confirmation that making a successful professional sports franchise work in unlikely cities in Canada is impossible. Nobody cared before, and now that it has suspended operations the interest level will be reduced to zero. Just another failed experiment that ignores the business, geographic, and population rules of this country.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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