City officials are auditing the National Baseball Congress’ books, in the wake of persistent reports that the longtime amateur baseball tournament has been delinquent paying its participant teams and vendors.
City Manager Robert Layton said this week that he’s waiting on a report from the city’s auditor about the financial transactions for the 2011 and 2012 tournaments before he begins his own in-depth look into the future of the tournament. The city-owned tournament is run under a private contract with the owners of the Wichita Wingnuts independent league baseball franchise.
“It’s about allegations that teams are being paid late, and that some vendors haven’t been paid,” Layton said. “This being what could be the second season of that, we want to get to what the truth is. I need to see what the financials are before we go any deeper.”
The tournament, Layton said, is intensely popular with its supporters in Wichita – “zealots,” the city manager called them – but may need an infusion of private sponsorships and marketing support to stop what critics say has been a slide from a national event into a more regional tournament. This summer’s NBC had 11 Kansas teams in the 32-team field.
Josh Robertson, who heads the tournament and the Wingnuts, said his organization needs more financial resources to hire staff to operate and promote the tournament. He said participants got paid in September and October this year.
Robertson’s 10-member staff is overwhelmed, he said, by a hectic schedule beginning with Wingnuts games in May and running through September, in addition to NBC regional and national games. There was either an NBC or Wingnuts game in Lawrence-Dumont Stadium nearly every day from July 11 through the end of August.
“Our problem is a lack of time, to tell you the truth,” he said. “Even when the Riches (former Wranglers owners Bob and Mindy Rich) owned the tournament, you had the Wranglers playing a homestand, then the Midwest Regional qualifying tournament for the NBC, another Wranglers homestand, the NBC World Series, and another Wranglers homestand. That’s something like 57 days non-stop.”
Keeping it here
The City Council, Layton said, is committed to keeping the tournament in Wichita, and is studying ongoing capital improvements to its home, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
“We have to maintain it here, no question,” Layton said.
The tournament was founded by Hap Dumont in 1935 and has been an annual summer rite for several generations of Wichitans. The first tournament featured legendary pitcher Satchel Paige and several future major league stars have played in the tournament, including Hall of Famers like Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield and current major league stars like Hunter Pence, Ian Kinsler and Heath Bell.
The 2012 tournament was won by the Santa Barbara Foresters, who collected $18,000 for first place. That’s part of a $60,000 prize pool that hasn’t changed for about a decade. Robertson said the Seattle Studs, this year’s second-place finisher, won $12,000 but had expenses of $37,500 for their Wichita stay.
The council’s two resident baseball authorities, Jeff Longwell and Pete Meitzner, agree with Layton about keeping the tournament here and finding a way to revitalize it.
“Just being around baseball and growing up in Wichita, it’s easy for those of us who have loved that tournament for the last 40 years to understand what it can be and look like,” Longwell said. “The most important thing we have to do is put people in the seats, and we’ll figure out a way to do that.”
Longwell talked about mobilizing the city’s baseball community to help run the tournament and returning to the business model of Dumont, its founder; the private sponsorships Layton referenced; and promotions, promotions, promotions.
“Things that maybe don’t generate the gate receipts from the fans, but they generate excitement and momentum,” Longwell said. “If the sponsorships are there, then maybe you break even at the gate and away you go.”
Some other ideas floating around City Hall include inviting teams from higher-level leagues like Cape Cod, Northwoods and Texas Collegiate; special appearances by Hall of Famers; NBC old-timers games; a return to the tournament’s original composition of ex-pros and college players mixed together on teams; and a return to the tournament’s unbracketed invitational roots to guarantee that traditionally big-draw NBC teams pack the stands each August.
“We’ve got to have baseball folks run the baseball side and marketing people run the marketing side,” Longwell said. “The days of thinking that’s one person might be gone.”
Jayhawk League president J.D. Schneider, who runs the El Dorado Broncos franchise, praised the city’s move to get involved. Schneider said his franchise was paid this fall for its third-place finish in the 2012 tournament.
“I think that with the way the tournament’s been run the last four or five years, it’s a tremendous thing,” Schneider said of the city’s possible involvement.
Schneider also endorsed Longwell’s idea to return to the Hap Dumont business model.
“The tournament was never broken when Larry Davis ran it,” he said of the former director, who ran the tournament from 1971 to 1999. “It’s been constantly changed of late.”
Longwell reiterated Layton’s commitment to the tournament.
“We need to get sponsors involved, the excitement built back up, repair some relationships with some of these teams and then on top of better prize purses, we’ve got to do something outside of normal baseball business to provide some extra excitement to these teams,” Longwell said.
“We’ve invested in this as a council. At some point in time, we’ve got to make some decisions. I still believe in this tournament, and the great opportunities it has in Wichita.”