The Australian Baseball League’s dedicated fans and international supporters are helping the sport cover its bases in a crowded marketplace.
The biggest story of the past year in Australian baseball emerged only days ago, with news Western Australia’s Liam Hendriks had scored a $70 million deal with a famous US club.
Born in Perth, Mr Hendriks started playing baseball at an early age before adding Aussie Rules to the mix in high school. That was in part influenced by his father, Geoff Hendriks, who played more than 150 games for WAFL side West Perth.
As a late teen, Liam Hendriks pitched for local clubs Carine Cats and Wanneroo Giants, as well as for WA’s premier baseball club, the Perth Heat.
He topped the 2007-08 national competition with a 1.90 earned run average and 25 strikeouts.
After stints with a handful of Major League Baseball teams, 31-year-old Mr Hendriks has become the highest-paid relief pitcher in MLB history, signing on for four years with the Chicago White Sox.
That deal could help raise the profile of baseball here at home, according to Australian Baseball League commercial general manager and 18-year professional player, Shane Tonkin.
Introduced to Australia by American goldminers in the 1850s, baseball has struggled to gain traction in a country dominated by Australian rules football, cricket, and rugby.
That left baseball to compete for sponsorship dollars with mid-tier sports including basketball, which was first played in Australia in the 1890s and has built a strong following since the national league started in 1979.
Baseball has made a far greater impact in Japan and South Korea, both of which enthusiastically embraced it post WWII, given the ongoing US presence there.
In Australia, the inaugural competition was driven by Aussie rules footballer Norman ‘Norrie’ Claxton, who donated a trophy (dubbed the Claxton Shield) in 1934 to be awarded to the interstate baseball champions.
The national competition, which had been through several iterations over the years, ran until 2010 when the ABL was formally established with backing from MLB.
That partnership lasted only six years after the Americans (MLB), under new leadership, pulled their 75 per cent backing ahead of the 2016-17 season.
It was at that point Baseball Australia, led by chief executive Cam Vale, assumed full ownership of the ABL, and it did so with about $4.4 million in revenue accumulated from members, sponsors and customers, and a net profit of $273,500.
Since 2016, revenue from clients grew to as much as $8.9 million before falling to $6.1 million in 2019-20, with Baseball Australia finishing the financial year with a net loss of $448,500, according to its latest annual report.
Baseball Australia ran the competition at a loss before selling its franchises in 2018.
“It’s a model that will be changing in the future,” Mr Tonkin told Business News.
“Discussions are under way with the teams [about] taking a percentage of ownership of the league, and that will be decided at the conclusion of this Australian Baseball League season.”
Even without MLB backing, the Australian league remains largely influenced by its American heritage and fancies itself as the premier ‘winter’ baseball league in the world.
Two new sides were introduced in late 2018, a South Korean team based out of Geelong and a New Zealand team in Auckland, which Mr Tonkin said formed part of Baseball Australia’s efforts to raise the profile of the league.
The eight-team competition takes place during the Australian summer, from November through until February, and concludes with the best-of-four championship series and the winner being awarded the Claxton Shield.
The latest season, which will soon come to a close, looked a little different this time round.
It began on December 17, instead of November, and dropped from eight teams to six after Geelong-Korea and Auckland Tuatara withdrew from the competition due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The 2020-21 season was also expected to include a ninth, an international team following “significant interest from international baseball organisations”, the ABL said in August last year.
It was one of many Australian sports affected by the pandemic.
Mr Tonkin said the league spent at least nine months planning for different scenarios that could arise.
“There would’ve been hundreds of different situations that we tried to cover and different schedules that we produced, and in week one of the Australian Baseball League, we threw all that work out the door and started again,” he said.
“There hasn’t been one week where we haven’t had to adjust our schedule for some reason.”
It didn’t help that some of the ABL’s major sponsors were in the coronavirus-hit travel industry.
Its partners include Virgin Australia, which recently came out of its seven-month administration, rental car business Hertz Corporation, and SportsLink Travel.
Despite these challenges, the league signed five new partnerships during 2020 and retained some of its major sponsors, including Hertz.
Meanwhile, Virgin and SportsLink had indicated an intention to renew their partnerships, Mr Tonkin said.
He said the ABL also received significant support from state governments, including those in WA and South Australia, which agreed to fund hubs in Perth and Adelaide.
That was after the planned hub in Brisbane came to a premature end when the city was forced into a three-day lockdown in early January.
Perth Heat chief executive Steve Nelkovski said the level of government support had allowed the club to recruit international players for the current season, despite COVID-19.
Each ABL team has at least one ongoing relationship with an MLB club.
In the case of the Heat and the state’s baseball representative body, Baseball WA, a close relationship with Florida’s Tampa Bay Rays allows the Perth franchise to recruit six to eight players and two coaches every summer.
“Our alignment with Tampa Bay is becoming one of the most significant team-to-team partnerships in Australian sport,” Mr Nelkovski told Business News.
“Tampa sends us its best prospects, who are expected to make the big league.
“We’re extremely thankful for the way we were able to work with the ABL and the Australian government to get these players into the season, which is really important for the development of the team and the sport.”
Mr Nelkovski said the partnership, which didn’t include any transfer fees, was mutually beneficial and allowed Tampa Bay to assess its players in a different environment.
The Heat currently has 11 international players in its squad of 30: seven from Tampa Bay and three more from the US, as well as one player from South Africa.
Five former Heat players have made it to the US professional league, including Mr Hendriks and fellow Western Australian Warwick Saupold, who played for the Detroit Tigers, as well as in South Korea for the Hanwha Eagles.
“Providing a pathway for Western Australians to make it through to the big league needs to continue,” Mr Nelkovski said.
“The Heat has got a great history of producing and developing young talent, and that remains at the core of what the organisation does.”
The club’s homeground is Empire Ballpark (formerly called Perth Harley-Davidson Ballpark) in Thornlie, which has received at least $15 million in upgrades since being built in 2004.
The latest redevelopment, comprising $6 million in upgrades funded by both the federal and state governments, will increase the stadium’s current 3,500 capacity and extend the grandstand, refurbish change rooms, and improve lighting and spectator amenities.
“The more we can improve spectator facilities, the better attendances we can have,” Mr Nelkovski said.
Perth Heat pitcher Maddux Stivey. Photo: Supplied
The stadium is owned by the City of Gosnells and leased by Baseball WA, with the Heat its major tenant.
The Thornlie diamond is the first baseball-exclusive stadium since the mid-1990s, when Parry Field in Belmont, which catered for far more spectators (up to 10,000) and averaged between 6,000 and 8,000 attendances each game, was demolished.
Parry Field was also about 15 minutes closer to the CBD than Empire Ballpark.
In A History of Australian Baseball, author Joe Clark cites the reason for the stadium’s demise as “a complex mix of politics and the reduced practicality of the venue itself”.
That included former owner, local businessman Kevin Parry, being unable to keep up with the high administration costs, and the horse racing industry’s influence at Belmont City Council.
Although a centralised venue would be more accessible to spectators, Mr Nelkovski said the Heat was attracting a good spread from the wider metropolitan area.
“We are in some ways central, and as Perth continues to expand, we’re not too far from the city,” he said.
“Would a location in the city be preferred? It’s difficult to say because there’s just nothing that comes close to what we have at the moment.
“But it’s something we’d be comfortable to look at once we outgrow the capacity here.”
Despite attracting bigger crowds at the old Parry Field, home-game attendances have increased year on year.
The Heat’s average crowd per game in 2019-20 was more than 1,370, up 21 per cent on the 2018-19 season. Its highest home series attendance was about 5,650.
“We’ve had incredible support from our members,” Mr Nelkovski said.
“It [memberships] stabilised this year, and that’s understandable with the unknowns throughout the off-season as to whether the season was going to go ahead.
“But we’ve had great loyalty from the membership base that we built up last season.”
The Heat, which now has about 2,000 members, is arguably the most successful club in the national competition, having claimed four titles (matched by Brisbane Bandits) and 15 Claxton Shield championships prior to the ABL’s inception.
The club will soon get a new gym, which Mr Nelkovski said would be an elite training centre to support the next generation of baseballers.
It is in addition to a $450,000 grant recently awarded to Baseball WA for projects at the stadium, and $190,000 received in the 2019-20 financial year.
Mr Nelkovski praised the association’s efforts in continuing to seek government support.
“Baseball WA is one of our most important stakeholders,” he said.
“We work closely with them to ensure we can continue to provide the pathways from being a young tee-baller to baseballer, a Perth Heat player and then potentially, on to a professional contract in the US or through Asia.
“We’re continually planning for the future.”
Since late 2018 the Heat has been owned by a private consortium comprising businessman Rory Vassallo, Eileen Bond, broadcaster Christian Galopoulos, and Seefeld Investments founder and part-owner David Trimboli.
It is the second time the Heat has been privately owned, with former stockbroker and now philanthropist Brett Fogarty having bought the club in the 1980s.
“That’s the main reason I got involved,” he said.
“It was a bit of a thought pattern … that people were getting tired of the machine that is the AFL and were looking for some alternatives.”
Rory Vassallo (centre) with Heat fans during a match against the Adelaide Giants. Photo: Matt Jelonek
Mr Vassallo, who sold a portfolio of childcare centres for $65 million in 2014, said bankrolling the club was a costly investment.
“We invest money, we always expected to do that,” he said.
“We went in with a strong feasibility, eyes wide open in that regard.
“The [money from the] members we get and the people who come through the gate goes 100 per cent back in [to the business] to increase their experience and recruiting the right players.
“Whilst we’re not making a lot of money, or anything at all, we know that we have to invest in the players and give them a pathway.”
Mr Vassallo said the Heat’s salary cap doubled when it went into private ownership for the second time and has been increasing by 10 per cent each year.
But ABL clubs do not share in revenue when they sign players to MLB teams, and some of those contracts (as seen by Mr Hendriks’ recent signing) are significant.
Mr Vassallo said it was possible the ABL model could change.
“In the WAFL, up until recently, we used to get a transfer fee and that was a signal of the investment we’d made in players,” he said.
“At the moment, that doesn’t exist in baseball; it’s definitely a conversation that might have to be had.
“We’re not there yet, but I imagine there will be a process there in time.”
For now, the Heat is focused on developing the next generation of baseballers through community and school-based programs.
Part of that plan included launching a diamond membership for registered baseball, tee-ball and softball players and their immediate family members, which Mr Nelkovski said would improve the number of players at the grassroots level.
“It all works from the grassroots, and we’re heavily focused and committed to making sure we can inspire the next generation of children,” he said.
To this end, Mr Nelkovski said, the club had also extended its community programs and partnerships to run all-year round rather than only during the season.
The Heat’s major sponsors include Northside Rentals, Perth Plasterboard Centre and Knightcorp Insurance.
Perth Heat captain and batter Tim Kennelly. Photo: Supplied
When discussing what lies ahead, Mr Tonkin told Business News the ABL and Baseball Australia were doing what they could to raise the league’s profile.
Efforts include expanding the league, securing broadcast deals, and raising awareness among juniors.
Mr Tonkin said the ABL, which renewed partnerships with Foxtel and streaming service Kayo Sports ahead of the 2020-21 season, estimated that between 1 million and 2 million viewers in Australia, the US, and Asia were reached during ABL matches.
The league also has major deals with Sky Sports New Zealand and international networks in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Mr Tonkin added.
He said the league observed interest from international baseball clubs seeking to establish their teams within the ABL.
“The number of teams in the league will grow above eight, and that will heavily involve teams from Asia competing in our league,” Mr Tonkin said.
“The ABL will not be as big as the AFL, I don’t think many sports will be.
“But we’ve got a niche market that we are growing.”