Baseball fans were caught in the middle of a Major League crisis in the summer of 1994.
A strike that began on Aug. 12 wiped out the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, and caused the World Series to be canceled for the first time since 1904. But what if a new league came along – one with incentives that would lessen the possibility of work stoppages? Would that tempt followers of the National Pastime to move past the traditional big leagues and give a different circuit a try?
The founders of the United Baseball League certainly hoped so, and on November 1, 1994, they announced that the National and American leagues were about to have company.
“We’re not here to prod the establishment and we’re not here to replace it,” co-founder Dick Moss told the Associated Press. “We’re here to coexist with it. We will compete, just as Ford competes with General Motors.”
When I first heard about the UBL it piqued my interest. I was already a fan of alternative sports leagues and MLB had gone seemingly forever without any real competition. Maybe this would rock the boat a bit.
“Every sports league in this country had been controlled by a bunch of rich, white guys,” UBL co-founder Bob Mrazek said to AP. “We will offer a level of play which is comparable to major league baseball. We will build our success on a philosophy of true partnership. Our plans call for sharing and equity sharing arrangements with our players and our host cities.”
During the league’s inaugural news conference, it was announced that the goal was to sell 10 franchises for $5 million each, with eight in the United States, one in Canada, and one in Mexico. Play would begin in 1996 and by 1999 six expansion teams – including four from Asia – would be added.
Curt Flood, part of the UBL management group and a legendary figure in the sport’s labor movement, said there would be franchises in Puerto Rico, Taiwan and the Dominican Republic.
“We’re not limited to just the United States,” Flood said. “It’ll be a very high caliber, high class of competition. In some ways, this is a rare opportunity. If you were going to construct a league designed to avoid the problems of the past, how would you do it?”
Players were to receive 35 percent of pretax profits of the UBL, while host cities would get 15 percent plus 50 percent of luxury suite income and one-third of parking revenue.
In 1996 the projected average attendance would be 17,500 with ticket prices around $8 and an average player salary of $520,000. Players would be eligible for free agency after three seasons in the UBL.
In addition, the league agreed to a 20-year TV deal with Liberty Sports Network.
All of it sounded good to me – except for the 1996 part. While I understood the pitfalls of rushing to market, the strike was still fresh on everyone’s mind and a new league debuting in the spring of 1995 might still have some anti-MLB momentum.
Instead, the founders opted to take their time and, supposedly, do things right.
After the November unveiling UBL officials spent the next few months putting their plan into action, and in 1995 it was revealed that the inaugural season would begin on March 28, 1996. Instead of 162 games, the regular season would consist of 154 games, returning to MLB’s “old” format.
The Eastern Division would include Central Florida (Kissimmee), Long Island, Puerto Rico (Bayamon), and Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles, New Orleans, Portland, and Vancouver would comprise the Western Division. There was even talk of bringing in Pete Rose – famously banned from baseball – as skipper of the New Orleans entry.
As for talent, the idea was to initially go after free agents and international stars.
But, as is the case with most upstarts, starting up is often the biggest problem. In December, 1995, Moss announced that the league would postpone its first season until 1997 due to stadium issues and snags in the TV contract.
Then, after four months of silence, the UBL released a statement on April 11, 1996, that it was suspending operations “until further notice.”
And as you’ve probably noticed, 25 years later the UBL remains suspended.
Apparently there were several factors involved in the failure to launch. For one thing, Liberty merged with Fox Sports, and that included Major League Baseball broadcast rights.
But by 1996 the strike of 1994 was ancient history to sports fans, and any window of opportunity for the UBL to make a splash was closed.
Still, it was an interesting idea, and I often wonder how far it would’ve gotten if it had been able to take the field in 1995.
And who knows? Perhaps some entrepreneurs with more money than business sense might want to give the United Baseball League another go. After all, Rose still needs a club to manage.