Legends On Deck

Baseball in 2020: United Shore Professional Baseball League (USBPL)

The United Shore Professional Baseball League (USPBL) launched it’s 2020 on Independence Day weekend.  They are a four team, independent league located in Utica, Michigan.  The league’s teams include creative names and logos like the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Hoppers, Utica Unicorns and Westside Woolly Mammoths.  Andy Appleby is the Founder and Chairman of the USPBL.  I was able to discuss the history and vision of the league and their decision to play in 2020.  Here’s what we covered: 

BK:  Andy, your league is right in line with the focus we have here at Legends on Deck.  We cover a lot of affiliated Minor League Baseball, but we’d like to know more about independent leagues and the role they play in the broader scope of baseball in America. Why did you decide to launch the USPBL back in 2016?

AA:  My sports management background dates back to 1986.  I spent 12 years working for the Detroit Pistons (Palace Sports and Entertainment) and left there to purchase the Ft. Wayne (IN) minor league franchise in 1998.  There I fell in love with Minor League Baseball.  It was everything about the fan experience that I loved and I knew it was something I wanted to continue to do.  That became the inspiration for where I am today with the USBPL. 

COVID Plan

BK:  Obviously this season is different.  MLB is playing 60 games.  Minor League Baseball is not playing at all.  I don’t want to dwell too much on the COVID aspect, but it is such a dominating factor this year.  I understand USPBL has put together an extensive document that includes the health and safety measures for players, staff and the limited number of fans.  What’s the season going to look like for USPBL?   

AA:   We put in all the research and released a 200 page COVID protocol program to get the clearance to start the season from the Governor.  We’re taking all the social distancing precautions, including mask, hand sanitizer stations and temperature checks. We began games on July 4th weekend.  Currently, we are only allowing 100 fans in the stadium per game.  Our venue being outdoors, it is arguably a lot safer to attend our games than it is to visit your local grocery store.  Our request to the state is that we are allowed to get up to 20% capacity in the coming weeks.  

A Unique Model

BK:  I am curious about the model you chose for the league.  All four teams play at Jimmy John’s Field, so there’s no travel between cities or concern about securing facilities.  Why was this model chosen?  What advantages does your model have?  

AA:  Yes, we are an independent league, which allows us a lot of flexibility in certain ways.  Because we are unaffiliated, we are not beholden to MLB scheduling.  As you know, Michigan is awfully cold at the beginning of April, when minor league baseball typically begins.  This allows us to start our season when the weather is ideal for baseball. Playing all games at Jimmy John’s Field also eliminates the logistics of travel schedules.  All our players live in the metro Detroit area during the season.  Our typical game schedule runs Thursday through Sunday (with some Wednesday games).  These days tend to work best for bringing fans out to the ballpark.  

Player Development

BK:  As mentioned, we follow a lot of players and their journey through the development process.  According to your website, 37 players have been signed to MLB contracts since 2016.  What kind of players make up the rosters of the USBPL teams and how are they getting noticed by MLB organizations?

AA:  Yes, we have been able to send 37 players on to contracts with MLB clubs.  It’s something we are very proud of.  Currently, we have players from 44 different states represented in our league, almost exclusively players coming out of college.  Because we are not beholden to one MLB franchise we can market our players to all 30 teams.  This makes our league very attractive to players looking to get to the next level.  

Creative Control

BK:  The creative side of the league is very interesting to me.  Minor league baseball is known for its unique nicknames and branding.  What was the decision making process like in terms of naming the teams and developing brand identities?  Considering all four teams play their games at Jimmy John’s Field, has there been a team that stands out as a fan favorite over the past few seasons? 

AA:  Naming the teams was a lot of fun.  My daughter was the one who came up with the Uitica Unicorns and consequently they’re our most popular team.  I always like the name the Beavers, so that was my idea.  A friend of mine came up with the Diamond Hoppers name.  Those were our original teams.  The Woolly Mammoths were added as our fourth team, which was named after a woolly mammoth skeleton was found in the state of Michigan.  They are fun and unique names and mascots that have become very popular with fans.  

An Independent Future?

BK:  As you likely know, MLB announced back in late 2019 that it planned to contract over 40 minor league teams.  Recently, MiLB Commissioner Pat O’Conner, suggested that nearly 50% of minor league franchises could fold before next season.

AA:  Possibly.  Everything is hard to do because it’s so expensive to operate these leagues.  Our model is unique for a number of reasons.  Very few league executives have the full scale experience that  I have in sports management and marketing.  The relationships I have built over the years to bring in partners and sponsors make a big difference for this type of league.  I have had people reach out to me about our model, but it is not that easy to replicate.  We have to manage our services and pay the players without the support of a parent team. I do think it’s possible to see more independent leagues sprout up, but they may not follow our exact model. 

BK:  Finally, we can check out USBPL games live on YouTube this season, correct? 

AA:  Yes, we are live streaming.  We are working hard to upgrade our technology and provide the best viewer experience.  It’s hard to replace live games at the ballpark.  As mentioned before, we are pushing for clearance for 20% capacity this season.  That would at least allow us to keep things going under the circumstances.  

Final Notes

The United Shore Professional Baseball League offers a unique baseball experience.  In these bizarre times, they are making the best of this season and working hard to make things work from a financial standpoint.   Independent leagues like the USPBL will continue to play an important role in the cultural landscape of baseball in America for years to come.  Our goal at Legends on Deck is to continue to bring more attention to baseball at all levels of play and highlight the people who work to expand the reach of the game.  We look forward to seeing what the future has in store for the USPBL.  

Brian Koss
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