The National Baseball Congress World Series is under intense scrutiny at City Hall, where city officials have convened a panel of baseball experts and are fielding calls from NBC teams around the country, City Manager Robert Layton said.
A recent audit revealed that the tournament, a Wichita institution since its founding in 1935 by Raymond “Hap” Dumont, is in financial trouble. The Wichita Wingnuts independent baseball organization, which manages the city-owned tournament, also is struggling financially and owes the city $280,000.
This week, The Eagle asked a collection of NBC veterans – including team managers, owners, two former tournament general managers and city officials – what they would do to improve the NBC World Series. These are the main ideas that emerged from those interviews:
Increase prize money
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In the fifth year of a nationwide recession, most NBC teams say they don’t expect to break even playing in the annual World Series. They would just like to leave Wichita in a condition other than debt-soaked.
“Even when we’ve been in Wichita for the entire length of the tournament and won it, no matter how you cut it we cannot break even,” said Jon Dyson, general manager of the fan favorite Anchorage Glacier Pilots, a five-time champion that hasn’t been to the tournament since 2009.
“The last time we were there, we spent more than $55,000 to go,” Dyson said. “… Finishing second, we lost more than $30,000. If you could figure out a way to get us to $5,000 or $10,000 in the hole, we’d love to come back.”
Last year, perennial power Santa Barbara, Calif., lost $8,000 despite winning the tournament, manager and owner Bill Pintard said.
J.D. Schneider, one of the owners of the five-time champion El Dorado Broncos and president of the Jayhawk League, the state’s strongest NBC league, has a possible solution: dedicating the entry fees of the 32 teams to the prize pool. Each teams pays $1,300 to be a part of the World Series, which totals $41,600.
He also proposes that the city waive the annual Lawrence-Dumont lease payment of $33,000 due from Wingnuts management, which runs the tournament. Then, almost $75,000 would be available for the prize pool, potentially allowing a bump to $25,000 for the winner. Currently, the total prize purse is $60,000, with $18,000 for the winner.
And then, Schneider said, pay teams on time.
“When Larry Davis was alive, we could get knocked out at 2 in the morning, and we could walk in the office and he and Dian Overaker would have our check waiting for us,” Schneider said. “All of us run on a shoestring, so we need that money right then, even if it’s a few thousand dollars.”
A shorter tournament is another way to make a trip to Wichita for the NBC more affordable.
“The number of days is an issue,” said Frank Leo, longtime manager of the Hays Larks. “There are too many down days early on in the tournament. Surely they can shorten it up to nine or 10 days rather than 16 days.”
Leo recommends a second “elite” site, perhaps Wichita State University’s Eck Stadium, if rental costs are not prohibitive. WSU has been used as an alternate NBC venue in the past, according to several NBC long-timers, but not since 2000.
“I never had any objection at all to two sites,” said Steve Shaad, a former NBC general manager who ran the tournament for 17 years. “Thing is, managers want to play their games at Lawrence-Dumont, the main venue.
“So when we did that, I tried to give everyone their first game at L-D, and then they wouldn’t go off-site until they got in the losers bracket. That way, you have control of your fate.”
Two sites also relieve a frequent complaint levied against the current tourney: Daily game schedules are meaningless.
“Trying to run it all off at L-D backs the whole tournament up,” Leo said. “We’ve played games at 6 a.m. in the morning. Maybe there’s some exotic appeal to that, but I don’t get it.”
Wichita hotels used to make otherwise vacant rooms available at significant discounts to teams during the tournament, which runs July 27 through Aug. 10 this summer. Restaurants also sponsored teams, offering free meals to players.
Those sponsorships can be rebuilt, Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said.
“We know that Go Wichita hasn’t been utilized significantly for the tournament in recent years,” Meitzner said of the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “Today, we have a real jewel down there in Susie Santo (the new Go Wichita director) with a lot of know-how on how to enhance people’s stay in Wichita. Let’s turn her and her staff loose on this thing and see what they can do.”
Meitzner also mentioned Southwest Airlines, which will begin offering flights to Wichita this summer, as an “easy target for corporate sponsorship support.”
“I’d like to think that with Southwest online, there may be some things we can do to make flying in and out of Wichita less expensive for the teams,” he said.
Get Mom, Dad and the kids into the park and show the kids a good time, so they’ll all come back.
The NBC should be a viable option for families, with free tickets offered by tournament sponsors, as professional sports spiral out of the budgets of most Americans, said Bill Kentling, a former NBC general manager who originally was hired by Dumont, the tournament founder.
“Trying to take a family of four to an NFL game is impossible,” Kentling said. “College football is getting that way. It’s harder to afford a major league game.
“That’s why the NBC should flourish. It’s G-rated, and it’s cheap.”
Traditionally, the first several nights of the tournament are sponsored by Wichita businesses that offer free tickets. Those sponsorships have wobbled in recent years, pressured by the Wingnuts’ need for sponsors for its own games.
“In addition to sponsors who paid, we needed sponsors with good ticket distribution,” Shaad said. “Over the past few years, they haven’t been able to get those sponsors, and they haven’t had good ticket distribution. They had one Sunday night with a single restaurant sponsor, for example, and that restaurant wasn’t open on Sunday.”
And then, the kids: “Hap had this philosophy: ‘Kids do two things at the ballpark, and one isn’t watching the game. They drink, they eat, and both make us money,’ ” Kentling said. “It was imperative to have a youth group at the park every night.”
Meitzner takes it a step further: Get the kids onto the field having fun, so they will want to come back.
“Maybe between games each evening, we have a home run derby between a representative of each of the teams playing that night,” he said. “Get the kids in the outfield with their gloves, shagging the balls like they do at the All-Star Game.”
Feature top teams
There’s some early discussion to make sure NBC fans can get a look each year at some of the tourney’s historically dominant teams – and the crowds those teams can deliver.
One idea, endorsed by Jayhawk League officials, is a permanent berth for every past NBC champion that’s still active. The list is not very long, again thanks to the economy, but includes the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Fairbanks Goldpanners, Clarinda A’s, El Dorado Broncos, Liberal BeeJays, Wellington Heat and Kenai Peninsula Oilers.
Another is automatic berths to the top 10 finishers in each tournament, rather than the top two, which is current policy.
“Any more, you never know who’s going to be playing in the 7:30 game,” Schneider said of the evening’s featured game. “It’s just critical at the 5, the 7:30 and the 10 game to have teams on the field that will put people in the ballpark.”
One way to do that is a return to another Dumont custom: the unbracketed tournament, which can tailor matchups and game times to potential fan interest.
“Ray Dumont would be spinning in his grave if he knew the tournament was run on a bracket system,” Kentling said. “Part of the fun of the thing was the reseeding after each round, putting some level of unpredictability in the matchups. Whoever bracketed the thing is just plain wrong.”