The United Shore Professional Baseball League, the four-team independent circuit that just completed its third season, is eyeing significant expansion — not at Jimmy John's Field in Utica, but with a second stadium, to be built somewhere in the Midwest.
Andy Appleby, owner of the USPBL, told The Detroit News this week that he is in "earnest" talks with about 20 cities, including spots in West Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Colorado.
Appleby said he will own the second stadium, and plans to "have a shovel in the ground on June 1," with teams playing there Opening Day 2020. The plan, Appleby said, is to add one team to the league when the new stadium opens, with two calling one of the stadiums home, and three for the other.
The ambitious expansion plans come on the heels of the USPBL's most-successful season yet at the box office.
"I think in a team when attendance at sporting events has gone down, we continue to go up — not through anything but hard work and creating a wonderful experience at the ballpark," Appleby said. "We continue to work most every second of the game and really treat every fan and every family as great as we can every single night. We always knew we would have to build this one family at a time, and we're doing just that.
"We put so much money and thought behind our game presentation and every aspect of our ballpark so people can really get a premium experience at a less-than-premium price."
The USPBL averaged 3,400 fans for each of its 75 games in 2018, with a high of 4,499 on Aug. 24. The per-game average was 50 fans higher than last year. Of the 75 games, 61 were sellouts, up from 60 in 2017. Public games are Thursday through Sunday.
A bevy of theme nights, affordable concession pricing and some darn good baseball — five players signed with major-league organizations this year, bringing the three-year total to 25, and the USPBL even found its way onto the "SportsCenter" top 10 this year — have struck a chord with fans, who have come out in droves to watch the Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns, Westside Woolly Mammoths and Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, who repeated as league champions last weekend.
It's been quite the success story for Appleby, a long-time sports and marketing executive in Metro Detroit who was met with more than a few eyerolls several years back when he announced plans for the USPBL in Utica — with the Tigers just down the road.
Adding another location, Appleby said, would continue lending credibility to the league.
The long-term plan, he said, is for 10 stadiums and 20 teams — two at each ballpark. While he plans to finance this next stadium, at a cost of $15 million to $20 million, the vision beyond that is for Appleby to franchise future stadiums.
"I finally bit the bullet and decided to prove the concept ourselves, pay the money upfront, which is very atypical in minor-league baseball. Almost everywhere, the community builds the ballpark and tries to find an owner to bring a team," Appleby said.
"We feel like there's a lot of advantages to working with a professional group like us. We can really minimize the downside for a community.
"We feel like we can build a ballpark for $15 million, $20 million, where the going rate with publicly-funded ballparks is $50 million, $100 million.
"I wouldn't trade our ballpark for any of those."
While Appleby wouldn't identify cities he's talking to, citing non-disclosure agreements, he acknowledged it would make sense for the next stadium to not be overly far from Utica. Otherwise, travel expenses would cut into the league's bottom line.
He acknowledged West Michigan would be an ideal spot. Grand Rapids, though, wouldn't seem like a fit, with the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps located just north of the city, in Comstock Park. Kalamazoo, likewise, has a team, in the Growlers, a member of the college-player summer Northwoods League. The Battle Creek Bombers also play in the Northwoods League. Cities such as Jackson, Grand Haven, South Haven and Holland don't have baseball teams and could be fits.
West Michigan appears the most-likely destination for stadium No. 2, but Ohio doesn't seem far behind, or possibly even Indiana. But it wouldn't be Toledo, Dayton, South Bend or Fort Wayne, all cities with affiliated minor-league teams.
"It is an expense to do this kind of thing," Appleby said. "But if it's West Michigan or Ohio, it's not too different. It's still a hotel room."
Appleby hasn't just put money and time into the game-day experience — the league was up to 26 suites this year, plus it added the unique two-hour, 30-minute time limit — but also the baseball-operations department. He said he's put about $1 million into player development, most notably into advanced strength conditioning, plus state-of-the-art video equipment and sabermetrics — information major-league teams demand when they go searching for diamonds in the rough — as well as Justin Orenduff, a former first-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers who is the USPBL's director of baseball operations. He founded the Delivery Value System and created the DVS Scoring System, programs designed to not just improve pitching mechanics, but prevent injuries.
Appleby boasts of increased velocities, sometimes as much as 6 to 8 mph on the fastball — for instance, Tyler Palm threw in the mid-80s during his career at Oakland, and was up to the low 90s this year before signing with the Minnesota Twins organization — as well as the rarity of serious injuries.
Most USPBL players to sign with major-league organizations have been pitchers.
A benchmark will be when the first USPBL alum plays in the major leagues — and that day might just be coming, like it is for a second stadium.
"Our whole model is for these kids not to come and be theater performers," Appleby said. "But also to make every single player better.
"That's been the real key to success."