April 3, 2014

Wichita transfers NBC World Series control from Wingnuts to nonprofit foundation

The nonprofit NBC Baseball Foundation will oversee the 80th National Baseball Congress World Series in late July and August.

The nonprofit NBC Baseball Foundation will oversee the 80th National Baseball Congress World Series in late July and August.

City officials have begun transferring control of their tournament from the Wichita Wingnuts professional team to a volunteer foundation board of directors appointed by the Wichita City Council.

And they’re looking for major tournament sponsors with an immediate goal in mind: a television deal with ESPN or Fox Sports to televise all or part of Championship Week.

In a meeting with Wingnuts officials Wednesday, the city stated its intent to take back the NBC tournament and began talks to craft a new lease for the independent professional baseball team at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, City Manager Robert Layton said.

The foundation board’s first job will be management of the 2014 tournament – potentially a temporary deal as it crafts a permanent management model, Layton said. The 2014 tournament runs from July 25 through Aug. 9.

The city bought the tournament from Bob and Mindy Rich in 2007, to keep the event in Wichita. Financial problems and dwindling attendance led the city to launch an internal review of the tournament in fall 2012.

“I think this is good for the city in terms of having a viable NBC tournament and an amenity with a long history that we surely want to add to,” Layton said.

Council member Jeff Longwell, who attended the meeting, said the changes will benefit baseball in Wichita, both the NBC and the Wingnuts franchise.

“Quite honestly, I’ll argue that this deal helps the city truly take more ownership of the tournament, which we own and never have paid the attention to that an owner should,” Longwell said. “It’s going to push us to step up and support the tournament like we should to make it successful, while allowing the Wingnuts to focus on their own baseball operation.”

Gary Austerman, one of the Wingnuts owners, agreed with the city’s view of the deal.

“I think this could be a win-win for all of us,” he said. “The old deal we inherited from the previous majority owner just wasn’t workable.”

City officials and the Wingnuts will begin work on a transition agreement as the tournament changes management, Layton said. And once the foundation board is appointed and seated, that group will decide how best to manage the tournament going forward.

The city and the ball club also are looking at the curious tripling of the Wingnuts’ water and sewer bills - to six figures - at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, even after a new artificial surface was installed at the ballpark. The Wingnuts have been disputing the charges for almost two years, Austerman said.

“I kind of agree with the Wingnuts on the dispute,” Longwell said. “The numbers don’t seem right. Most about this doesn’t seem right. And we haven’t sat down and worked through them, and now we’re going to have to.”

Austerman said he’s optimistic those bill disputes can be resolved and that the ball club looks forward to working with the city on a new lease.

Sponsors needed

Although the Internal Revenue Service isn’t expected to rule on the foundation’s nonprofit status until fall, the city’s legal department has authorized a “confirmation letter” for prospective tournament sponsors, offering tax benefits for any contributions.

“It’s a significant step for the future of the tournament, because we believe some of our organizations are going to be more willing to participate, based on the fact their contributions will be tax-deductible,” Layton said.

In addition, any profits generated by the tournament will go to youth baseball.

“This is going to help the foundation raise more revenue, even in the down years, because when you look at sponsorships, they become more attractive when you can write some of that off,” Longwell said. “That creates more value in a sponsorship.”

Getting the tournament on television is a top priority for marketers, Longwell said, and that will be difficult without key sponsors stepping forward.

“It’s great exposure for the teams who come here to play, it’s great exposure for their players and it’s great exposure for Wichita,” he said.

“We kept that tournament here because it’s good for Wichita, although we’ve had some difficult times getting more people – politically and otherwise – to show more support. We need a sponsor to step up and help us televise Championship Week. We think it would be a huge draw for players, and a true showcase for Wichita.”

Frank Leo, the longtime coach and general manager of the Hays Larks, said summer college baseball players welcome any exposure as they pursue their major league dreams. Television could provide a recruiting boost lost when major league scouts began filtering away from the diluted tournament field.

“An awful lot of this is about exposure to the scouts,” he said.

Council members also are considering significant improvements to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, up to and including a total reconstruction of the park’s grandstand area, funded either through the city’s capital improvements program or through inclusion in a citywide sales tax vote that could take place as early as this fall.

Under new management

The foundation board will have several options to manage the tournament.

One possible business model would be hiring staff – potentially including current tournament director Kevin Jenks – to run the event. Longwell said that’s probably the long-term form that tournament management will take.

Another, given the relatively short turnaround before this summer’s tournament, would be a temporary deal with the Wingnuts for this year only.

As for the tournament’s bills, Longwell had a message for NBC teams: You will get paid on time. It was the slow-pay of those teams, and of tournament vendors, that originally led the city to open a review of the tournament’s books 18 months ago.

The finances of the 2014 tournament could involve some city financial support, Layton said. That could be recovered after the tourney is complete.

“I anticipate we’ll need to contribute some money on the front end because we’ll start out with no assets, except rule books and baseballs,” he said. “There’s no cash transferring over in this deal, so we may have to front-end it with the belief that some or all of that can be recovered by the end of the tournament.”

Austerman said his ball club and the city share the same goal: to make baseball more vibrant in Wichita.

“We want something that’s workable, something that sustainable,” he said. “We’re very interested in that.”

The Hays Larks’ Leo said the management change is “to me, a good thing.

“The Wingnuts already have enough to worry about,” he said. “They’re at mid-season trying to run their own ball club, and they have to stop to plan a World Series, spend two weeks running it.

“I think that if this is done correctly, if you have a board whose sole focus is making the tournament better, then this is a good thing. There are a lot of good ideas being talked about. I hope they all come to fruition.”

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