Perhaps 2013 will be remembered as the summer people showed they cared about the National Baseball Congress World Series. Perhaps it will be remembered as the first step in rejuvenating the 79-year-old Wichita tradition, one that slumped considerably in recent seasons.
The NBC made numerous changes in recent months in an attempt to reverse its decline. The 16-day tournament ended a week ago and the immediate reviews are positive.
Attendance rose slightly from last summer, despite a battle with rain. A new format juiced up the energy in the first week. Coaches liked the rise in customer service and attention from the NBC, perhaps best represented by team meals covered after 24 of the games. Volunteers, motivated by their affection for the tournament, added touches such as a barbecue contest.
Perhaps most importantly, NBC general manager Josh Robertson said the tournament will pay out prize money within the next two weeks. In recent seasons, some teams waited as long as a year to get their check. The Seattle Studs earned $19,000 for winning the NBC and other teams will also receive prize money.
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The city of Wichita bought the NBC in 2007. The staff of the Wichita Wingnuts baseball club operates the tournament.
“I think that’s pretty critical,” City Council member Jeff Longwell said. “We have to do a much better job of getting them paid on time. The last thing you want to do is leave a bad taste in their mouth.”
Within the confines of the 32-team bracket, most of the changes met with approval. The NBC dropped ticket prices (from $13 to $10 for the top tickets) and spread its five free-ticket nights over both weeks, instead of grouping them at the beginning.
Those moves, and others, helped attendance grow to 66,747 for the tournament, up 4,883 from a year ago and the most since the 2007 tournament drew 72,137 fans, according to the NBC. Attendance for the championship game was 5,051.
More fans. Free meals. Two parties for the players. A day for players to perform in front of scouts from 12 major-league organizations. A two-hour clinic that drew 140 children. Free live streaming of games on the Internet. Team ambassadors assigned to help teams navigate Wichita.
For a summer baseball coach used to pinching pennies and playing in small towns, those gestures make a person feel like a big-timer.
“They’re making a really good effort of trying to make you feel more important and appreciated,” Clarinda (Iowa) A’s general manager Ryan Eberly said. “A big thing was the kids camp. That was something that was giving back to the community of Wichita.”
The format change meant 16 teams played the first week for two spots in Championship Week, where they joined 14 qualifiers to play off for the NBC title. While some Championship Week teams complained about a long layoff after the season, the new schedule helped reduce travel expenses and gave the early days a focal point. The new format also challenged the NBC on how to treat statistics and records from the first week and avoid the appearance of relegating those teams to second-class status.
“There seems to be a lot more customer service, at least with the teams, than in the past,” San Diego Force manager Brian Basteyns said. “Like anything new, it takes adjustments, but I think they’re on the right page.”
Operations manager Kevin Jenks, hired in February, heard much the same thing from fans and people representing the teams. He is already brainstorming ideas to make the tournament’s 80th year special. Luring better teams — and getting the Alaska Baseball League representative back — remain important goals.
“There certainly are some tweaks we would like to make,” he said. “I feel good about it. While I’m happy with this year, it’s not enough.”
Jenks liked the energy created by the first-week bracket. He wants the NBC to clarify its roster rules — spotlighted by the San Diego Stars forfeiting a win over Valley Center because its roster included 15 new players, 10 more than the NBC limit. He wants to consider penalties for teams who drop out of the World Series, an annual problem that induces nightmares for those trying to organize the bracket. This summer, three teams committed and then pulled out.
“It was utter frustration at times,” Jenks said. “There really isn’t a set of rules that, if you don’t do this, or you do this, this happens.”
Longwell and councilman Pete Meitzner attended NBC games and say they like the direction of the tournament. They think this summer could help reverse recent bad publicity and put the event on a firm foundation again. They see working with the business community and entities such as Go Wichita (the convention and visitors bureau) and the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission as essential.
“My sense was that there was a better spirit of enthusiasm and community support from fans and business,” Meitzner said. “The NBC group really reached out and engaged the support the community. That by itself got people excited again.”
Getting that prize money in a timely manner will excite the teams. Cutting those checks isn’t a one-step process, Robertson said.
The NBC must figure entry fees, fines ($10 for transgressions such as spitting tobacco), costs for batting cages ($50 an hour) and radio for some teams. Regardless of the paperwork, however, prompt payment is seen as important step in reviving the NBC.
“Absolutely,” Robertson said. “We’ve already started that process.”
Summer baseball changed dramatically in recent years, with college seasons running longer into June and growing independent leagues snapping up talent. A heat wave hurt attendance the past two seasons. Examples of the NBC staff facing challenges to keep the tournament relevant and profitable.
“We learned a lot,” Jenks said. “Next year is a big year for us, we know that. It’s our 80th year. We’re talking about it already.”