The Current State of Baseball Tournaments
Posted January 28, 2020
There was once a time, perhaps considered a long time ago now, that the spring and summer months were littered with senior men’s baseball tournaments. If a team wanted to, they could play a tournament almost every weekend between the beginning of May and August long weekend within a couple hours of a drive. But the glory days of the baseball tournament appear to be over and perhaps will never come back.
Today I can only think of the following baseball tournaments in the Edmonton/Central Alberta area:
- John Golonowski Memorial Tournament - Westlock (May)
- Starchuck-Semeniuk Memorial Tournament - Waskatenau (June)
- Rosalind Athletics Baseball Tournament (June)
- Tigers Tournament - St Albert (June)
- Tofield Canada Day Tournament (July)
- Riggers Tournament - Red Deer (July)
- Goodfish Lake Tournament (July)
- Pow Wow Days Tournament - Lac La Biche (August)
Gone are the following tournaments that come to mind:
- Axemen Invitational Tournament - Camrose
- Edmonton Athletics Tournament
- Ryley Sports Days Tournament
- Bardo Sports Day Tournament
- Holden Farmers Day Tournament
- Blue Willow Invitational Tournament - Edmonton
- Rainmaker Rodeo Tournament - St Albert
- St Paul Cubs Tournament
- Capt Ayre Lake Tournament
- Senior AA Provincial Tournament
- Roadrunners Tournament - Camrose
- Tri-Hosted Tournament
- Fete Au Village Tournament - Legal
So what happened to these tournaments? For the majority of these tournaments, they were a big draw and attraction for the communities that were hosting them. At one point a few decades ago, tournaments like the Camrose Baseball Tournament, Killam Lions Club Tournament and the Lacombe Lions Baseball Tournament were huge attractions with large payouts (up to $14,000 in today’s money) at times.
I was involved with organizing the Axemen Invitational Tournament in Camrose for years and getting a behind the scenes look at the famous Ryley Sports Days baseball tournament. The Axemen hosted a baseball tournament that was held at the start of the baseball season, usually the weekend after May Long Weekend. The tournament would often fill up with teams from the North Central Alberta Baseball League, as it was a NCABL Sanctioned Tournament, and the Powerline Baseball League. But the tournament also drew registrations from Lethbridge, Lloydminster, Parkland, Calgary, Provost and the Prospects Baseball Academy. So the interest level was high for the tournament and good ball clubs were coming out, but it quickly became tough to make any money off the tournament and provided very little in terms of prize money as a result of costs associated with the renting of facilities, required new baseballs per game, umpires, umpire travel and lodging. Not to mention the time commitment that was required by one or two people to run and organize everything.
(The Prospects Academy takes on the Parkland White Sox in the final of the 2011 Axemen Invitational)
It leaves me to believe that what we experienced with the Axemen Invitational Tournament was what other tournaments experienced and caused their eventual demise. Without sponsorship money to cover the costs, a tournament had very little hope of raising those funds for the host team or host recreational society.
Expenses Outweigh The Fundraising Effort
In some places, the cost of a facility is nothing for a weekend tournament. It might be given to the baseball club from the municipality as the fees are waived if it was part of a Sports Day event for example. In other locations, a day rate for a baseball field is quite high, requiring a whole entry fee or two from teams to cover the costs of that facility during the day, and perhaps into the night with an under the lights game that sees the price jump even more. The baseball teams are often left to complete the field maintenance themselves in-between games as the cost of a municipal grounds crew for the weekend is not a realistic expense for tournament organizers.
A baseball tournament cannot operate without the work of the men in blue who are often on the field for 3-4 games a day during a weekend tournament. For their services organizers pay dearly, sometimes which comes with paying for travel and lodging as well as change room facilities. A tournament game can run a team around the $100 - $130 range per game depending on the level of umpire in some cases. The higher the level of certification that the umpire has achieved, the more you pay and rightfully so. A ten game, two day tournament all of a sudden has a minimum of $1,000 or so for umpires game fees. Some umpires will require either a hotel or a per day vehicle expense for them to travel as well. In some tournaments, like the NCABL sanctioned tournaments, teams are required to have a certain number of pearl baseballs for each tournament game and be checked and discarded at the umpires discretion. A $300 box of baseballs gets chewed through pretty quick with around 30 pearl baseballs required to even meet the bare minimum required for the tournament. Mix in foul balls not coming back or a little bit of wet weather and the baseball budget jumps.
The little things that add character to a baseball tournament such as a beer gardens and concession need to be planned wisely. In a larger centre like Camrose or Edmonton, there is competition from other sources of beer and food within a five minute drive. Not so in small towns where the food and drink at the baseball field might be the only thing in town that weekend. The most successful beer gardens I’ve seen in the past are in the small towns where teams are expected to drink and eat to support the local team’s efforts to fundraise. A camping trailer might only be a short walk away as well, whereas in larger centres teams might have to drive to a campsite or hotel, both of which have food and drink options more than likely on the way. A more recent option to food in recent years has become food trucks, but this often leaves the profits with the truck and not the organizing team or recreation society.
(The 1957 program of the famed Lacombe Baseball Tournament)
Tournaments Are On A Weekend
Decades ago, towns hosted Sports Days on a day that often fell on a day of the week such as Wednesday due to society not necessary being as work week centred as it would eventually become. Today, tournaments are only on the weekends with a Friday night game used to squeeze in more games or a Monday used on a long weekend for tournament championships. It seems difficult to recruit teams to a tournament because their player availability for a weekend is very limited, especially for teams that predominately play only on the weeknights in their leagues. Too many times fans will see a Frankenstein’d team with players from one or two other teams in the lineup, or the always dreaded slo-pitch player pulled in to play on short notice. Weekends are for family time and home projects for some and for others it is for shift work that perhaps they committed to in order to play during the week more often. For the most part, the days of packing up the family and heading for a weekend camping trip next to a baseball field has passed at the senior men’s baseball level.
While getting teams to come to your tournament on a weekend is tough, often getting your own players to commit to the tournament is just as hard, if not harder. A beer garden shift, a score keeping shift, working the field in-between games or selling 50-50s are all things that players can’t or won’t commit to, making hosting a tournament often meaning one or two people have to do everything. With only one or two people involved in the tournament it means things like a beer garden or 50-50s might not happen because of less helping hands, making the experience for fans a little less.
All of the things that prevent opposing teams and your own players from coming to your tournament, also impacts the average baseball fan who used to come to the ballpark on a weekend. Often the teams would rely on the fans for a small gate admission, concession and beer garden revenue to help with the fundraising aspect. Attendance to local baseball as drastically slipped by all accounts over the years, with only a handful of game in these small communities seeing what would be considered a great turnout.
(The Tofield Braves brought the annual Tofield Canada Day Tournament back in 2017)
Teams Aren’t Deep Enough Anymore
This is more important in some leagues compared to others, but these days pitching is so important that a team can’t afford to have a pitcher throw on the weekend and not have them throw a weeknight league game. In leagues like the Powerline Baseball League, most teams have 1-2 pitchers that are needed for a pair of weeknight league games. Across all leagues, regardless if it is the PBL or the NCABL or the Sunburst League, teams are forced to hit the free agent market for a weekend to see which players can join their roster for the tournament and pitchers are at a premium. This often means that the regular team, plus a few extras, are now registering for a tournament as opposed to just the regular team with a couple of guys who might have to throw on the weekend and on a week night as well. Or it opens the door for a team to give someone else some innings at a tournament which leads to either uncovering a hidden gem or, and most likely, less than ideal pitching.
Reading about tournaments of yesteryear, players seemed willing and able to pitch 10-14 innings in a week for a few weeks of the baseball season. You might see a pitcher throw on Tuesday night in the PBL, then pitch again on the weekend in a big game at a tournament. At one point, you might even see players throw a weeknight game, then pitch the opening game of a tournament to ensure their team is on the right side of the bracket before then again throwing some innings in the tournament championship game if needed.
I don’t know if we will ever see senior men’s baseball tournaments like we used to, and it is too bad. The urbanization of the population often leads to field availability issues in large centres to host a tournament and even if you could get a field for tow or three days, the cost of doing so makes it difficult. With less and less of the population living in the rural areas, the charm of the small town baseball tournament is all but gone. Teams are no longer packing up a trailer or motorhome to camp with the family for a weekend senior men’s baseball tournament.
Today the best chance at getting to spend a weekend at a baseball field is found in minor baseball. There are some terrific baseball tournaments at facilities that cater to the family who decides to camp near by. Last season Provost hosted the 15U AA Tier I provincials and saw two fields packed with baseball action and a campground full of trailers and motorhomes over the long weekend. I hope that the level of fun that was had at a tournament like that, can continue to happen in small towns for minor baseball tournaments, because right now it is the only way it is going to happen. So if you are in a small town and they are hosting a tournament, stop in and check it out and give them your support. You might have to pay a small admission fee to watch, but it is worth it.
(Provost hosted the 15U AA Tier I Provincial Tournament in 2019)