Professional baseball may return to Southern Arizona, with an offer sent to Pima County officials for a lease at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The independent United League Baseball, based in Texas, made a proposal, but its financial difficulties over the years have caught the attention of officials who would decide on a lease.
The proposal faces a difficult path, not only because of the league's financial shakiness but because of the legacy of failed baseball ventures in Tucson. Three Major League teams spring trained in the city until moving to the Phoenix area, and two AAA minor league teams, the Tucson Sidewinders and the Tucson Padres, departed in the last decade.
United League Baseball is made up of four teams in Texas. League officials recently sent a letter to Pima County expressing interest in Kino Stadium, outlining possible plans.
The differences between an independent league and the stadium’s last tenant, the Padres, can be notable.
“Independent leagues are something that is outside the Major League ladder,” said Henry Atha, Pima County deputy administrator in charge of the Kino Sports Complex. “They have no connection to a Major League team as the former Tucson Padres had.”
United League Baseball’s offer is to pay $72,000 in rent, which would include using Kino stadium during the season and the office facilities year-round, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
The league also wants to manage concessions at Kino Stadium and would give 20 percent of the revenues from food and beverage sales to the county.
The league would also help fund any Major League Baseball spring training games brought to Kino, paying $10,000 for each game.
The plan contains various proposals for the stadium. One would bring almost as many games as is being lost with the Padres’ exit.
“It was something around 77-78,” said Atha, “which is comparable to what we had with the Padres.”
Teams in the league play about 42 home games a season, and the proposal was not specific about what other games would be played in Tucson.
One potential hitch is that Kino stadium technically is not empty yet.
The Padres, now called the El Paso Chihuahuas, have leased the stadium for this summer as a contingency plan in case construction on a new stadium in downtown El Paso isn’t finished in time.
“If their stadium is not complete, that’s why they signed a lease with Pima County for the 2014 season,” said Mike Feder, a veteran of Tucson baseball who served as general manager for the Tucson Toros, Sidewinders and Padres, “and that decision is definitely not made in mid-January.”
Until the Chihuahuas know their stadium will be done in time for the season, they have the right to use Kino.
Feder also pointed out the variability of independent baseball. Successful teams pull in thousands, while others, hundreds.
“There definitely are some independent league teams that have had some successes,” Feder said. “But on the other side there are some very, very small teams that don’t draw a lot of people.”
Kino Stadium has a capacity of about 11,500 for baseball.
A look at 25 United League Baseball games from the 2013 season showed attendance reports ranging between 500 and 1,600.
The Tucson Padres averaged fewer than 3,000 fans a game during their time in Tucson. That was the lowest in the Pacific Coast League and considered too low to keep the team in town.
The league’s top team, the Albuquerque Isotopes, averages around 8,000 a game.
United League Baseball officials believe a ULB team in Tucson would have notably higher attendance than other teams in that league, and even better than the Padres.
“I believe the team would exceed those numbers because this would be Tucson’s team that was there for the purpose of staying permanently,” said ULB owner John Bryant. “Everybody knew the Padres were leaving for the last 3 years. It makes it hard to fall in love with a team when they’re not going to stay there.”
The Tucson Sidewinders were a permanent minor league team, and their average attendance dropped from 4,100 a game in 2005 to 3,500 in 2008, the year the team departed for Reno.
The team had the lowest attendance in the Pacific Coast League all of those years and in several other previous years during its time at Kino.
Attendance is tied to financial solvency, which has been an issue for United League Baseball and its teams.
ULB in 2009 filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which led to dissolution. Bryant created a new company and took over the league from its previous owner.
The league and its teams are still experiencing financial struggles, including with the team he owns, the Fort Worth Cats.
“When I spoke with them back then, they said it was a temporary cash flow problem caused by purchasing the stadium [in which the team plays], and it would be resolved shortly” said Eric Nicholson, a reporter with the Dallas Observer newspaper. “As far as I know, most of those debts are still outstanding.”
Nicholson has followed the Cats’ financial woes, and he says team employees also weren’t being paid at times.
“There was a time where players and coaches on the Fort Worth Cats weren’t getting paid or weren’t getting paid in full.”
Such problems aren’t unique to just one team in the league.
News reports in the Texas cities of Edinburg and Amarillo mention teams being locked out of their facilities because they missed lease payments.
Pima County’s Atha said the reported financial difficulties will have to be considered before an agreement is reached.
Pima County is aware of the issues, and it will make sure to take all facts into consideration before finalizing any possible deal with United League Baseball.
“Well, of course there’s always some concern if you’ve got any kind of a history like that,” Atha said. “I would not be able to speculate exactly how we’d deal with that, but it certainly is a point we’d bring to our attorney’s attention.”