Even if there's no season, USPBL 'will not go out of business under any circumstance'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The last game at Jimmy John's Field was Sept. 8, and nobody's entirely sure when the next one will be.

The four-team, Utica-based United Shore Professional Baseball League tentatively plans to start it season May 29, first with three games without fans, then working its way up to 15% fan capacity, then eventually 20, and, in a perfect world, 33% sometime around July 4.

The USPBL tentatively plans to start its season May 29.

But, amid the COVID-19 pandemic which has shut down the sports world, everything remains up in the air.

Well, everything except for one thing.

"We will not go out of business under any circumstance," said Andy Appleby, the local businessman who founded the league in May 2016 and, against seemingly long odds, has turned it into a whopping succcess.

"Most of that is because I just can't afford to. We built this ballpark by ourselves for $18 million, and we've gotta pay the debt.

"We've gotta figure out a way to be successful."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday extended Michigan's state of emergency through May 28, which keeps bars and restaurants closed, among several other industries.

The success of the USPBL is built on the fans, who view the league as an affordable option for a family night out, with cheap eats, cheap drinks and pretty good baseball, to boot — most players are just out of college, and the league has sent 36 players on to sign contracts with major-league organizations. One of those players, pitcher Randy Dobnak, even made it to the majors with the Minnesota Twins last year.

In four years, the USPBL has drawn more than 800,000 fans, and was planning on welcoming its 1 millionth fan through the gates this year. But that's TBD, now.

Many of the major pro sports are planning restarts with no fans, but they can do that because of the lucrative television contracts. The USPBL, even though it is upgrading its game-broadcasting equipment should fan capacity be limited for an extended period, needs the ticket sales, or a season might not happen at all.

"I wouldn't say it'd be catastrophic, but it'd certainly be a gigantic challenge that we'd have. We're different as a business in the sense that even movie theaters, they can start again whenever," Appleby said. "In our case, we've gotta play outside in Michigan, and we have only five or six months to do that. If we miss this year for whatever reason and we don't play again until May 2021, our last game was Sept. 8, 2019. You'd be 20 months without any revenue.

"Most businesses in the world can't survive four months of revenue."

The USPBL has about 30 full-time employees, all of whom remain on the payroll. The league has about 400 game-day workers, who haven't been needed yet. The league also boasts ties to more than 1,000 local charities, many of whom benefit financially from events throughout the summer at Jimmy John's Field.

Should Whitmer's order not be extended beyond May 28, the USPBL plans to play its first three games without fans, May 29, 30 and 31, then start slowing opening the stadium up to crowds, on a limited, sliding-scale basis. Appleby said plans are in the works to allow for social distancing, including in the suites and popular picnic areas.

Opening Day of Year 5 was supposed to be this Friday, but instead the USPBL will host what its calling Virtual Opening Day. It starts at noon and will run throughout the day on the league's social-media channels, including a season preview by Appleby and interviews with players. Fans can order and pick up a hot-dog meal (orders are being accepted here), and there will be trivia games for prizes.

Appleby credits his social-media team with the Virtual Opening Day idea, making the best out of a rotten situation. Within three weeks, Appleby hopes, virtual will give way to reality — noting that his pro league does have one advantage over others, in that it's entirely contained in one facility, with no travel or hotels needed. That's definitely a plus when talking COVID-19.

"We think that we can very safely do this," he said. "I say all this by no means thinking this is ideal to have one-third of the ballpark full, but that would be better for us than not playing the game."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984