'We got through it': USPBL makes strides in broadcasting, MLB partnerships amid strange year
You can count on one hand — a glove-covered and sanitized hand, of course — how many professional sports leagues have gotten through an entire season, or at least something resembling one.
Utica's United Shore Professional Baseball League is one of them.
Against all odds — and, let's be honest, some tough-to-stomach financial statements.
"At the end of the day, at least we can say did it," said Justin Orenduff, the USPBL's director of baseball operations. "We got through it."
The USPBL this weekend will conclude its fifth and weirdest season, with its three-day postseason. The Westwside Woolly Mammoths play the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers on Friday night, the winner plays the Eastside Diamond Hoppers on Saturday night. The winner of the Saturday game plays the Utica Unicorns in the championship game Sunday night.
As has been the case the entire season, fans will be limited to less than 100 per game, for a league that boasted 62 sellouts in 2019 at its 4,500-fan-capacity Jimmy John's Field.
The league typically starts in early May, but pushed back several times in 2020, waiting for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's to ease the restrictions on gatherings to allow 10%, 20% or eventually 30% capacity. The USPBL put together a whopping 172-page return-to-play guidebook, complete with significant health and safety measures, but that pullback from the governor never came.
So July 4 weekend, the USPBL kicked off anyway — marking, along with the PGA Tour's Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club, the return of pro sports to Metro Detroit for the first time since the March shutdown amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're doing the best we can," said Andy Applebly, the league's founder who had plans to expand beyond Metro Detroit, but had to shelve that idea for now.
"But it's turned out to be a good decision to play the games."
That's proved true on a couple of fronts.
Appbley told The News this spring that while the USPBL was financially profitable the first four years despite early snickers from some doubters, he wouldn't be able to play a full season without at least some modest ticket sales.
But the USPBL was able to march on thanks to a new broadcast product. The games had previously been on YouTube, but just with a single camera and interns on the call. This year Appbley decided to upgrade the product, with four cameras and established talent. The result: USPBL games have averaged more than 10,000 viewers a game, and more than 14,000 a game in recent weeks.
That's proved a valuable giveback to the league's corporate sponsors, who have stuck with the league.
"It's not the exact thing," said Appbley, noting next season's start will be delayed, until May 28. "But all those sponsors on the walls and the tents really did get a lot of exposure. That's allowed us to do OK this year."
Appleby hasn't yet crunched the final numbers, though he said if the league doesn't at least break even this year, it will come pretty close — remarkable given the fraction of hot dogs, brews and cokes they sold. The fans who were allowed in — top-tier season-ticket holders mostly — were given temperature checks before they could enter the park, required to wear masks until they got to their seats, and had hand sanitizer available throughout the park. He believes the USPBL has shown Whitmer sports can work with fans, particularly outdoors with social distancing.
Appleby also said the USPBL hasn't had to lay off many full-time employees this year, besides some sales people who were furloughed in August.
Meanwhile, on the baseball front, the league bolstered its reputation. With minor-league baseball shut down this year, two teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers, sent six total prospects to the league. Among them: Central Michigan's Zavier Warren, the Brewers' third-round pick during June's Major League Baseball Draft. The Brewers want Warren, a Southfield native and former Birmingham Groves standout, to transition to catching, and the USPBL proved a great output with which to get that early work in.
With MLB considering contracting dozens of minor-league teams, Orenduff believes the USPBL could continue to be a quality alternative site for minor-leaguers.
"It's gonna be a nice bridge and extension into potentially what the future relationships look like between the USPBL and major-league clubs," Orenduff said.
The USPBL has sent 36 players on to sign contracts with major-league organizations, with right-handed starter Randy Dobnak atop the Minnesota Twins rotation. As many as five players are expected to sign sometime next week or the week after, including right-hander Ty Hensley, who threw a no-hitter in August.
On the health front, the USPBL had limited cases of COVID-19 — five players, most arriving from out of the area, tested positive before the season but hadn't yet signed their contracts and were sent home. There was just one scare in-season, with a player who had been around a family member who tested positive.