YAKIMA, Wash. -- In like a lion and out like a lamb.
Yakima’s greatest professional sports era didn’t end in the grand style in which it began in 1990.
Instead, it ended relatively quietly with the Yakima Bears’ final game last September, an anti-climactic end to a heady time where Yakima played alongside teams in places like Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland; Chicago; San Diego; Miami and Mexico City.
Much like the steady financial drain on the franchises themselves, the end came slowly but almost inevitably, as a variety of factors conspired to remove great sources of entertainment from the Yakima Valley.
“It’s sad. It’s really sad,” said Kathi Bonlender, who along with her late husband Ron, were dedicated supporters — both as fans and sponsors — of the Yakima Bears baseball team and Yakima Sun Kings basketball team, which folded after the 2007-08 season. “I’ll still drive by (Yakima County Stadium) and think I should be there tonight.
“I really miss it.”
Beyond the enjoyment the Bears, Sun Kings, Yakima Reds soccer team and several football teams provided, they created other positive aspects that the community may not have truly noticed — and may never get back.
“It says something about your community. You’re on the map,” said auto dealer Bob Hall, who has the rare perspective as both a sponsor of teams and being part of the ownership group that purchased the Sun Kings in 1995.
“My personal political view was that professional sports was a tremendous asset to this community,” said former Yakima mayor and professional baseball player Dave Edler. “It benefits us in so many ways. Quality of life but also economically. When our teams are playing in other venues, your name is out there. There’s tremendous benefits from that.”
In that regard, Edler believes Yakima has lost more than just a few teams.
“I’m disappointed we’re no longer a professional sports community,” he said. “That put us on the map with larger communities. We’re no longer in the same conversation with Tri-Cities, Spokane, Everett. We’re a rung down the ladder from them and we’re not working to realize those assets for our community.”
But could Yakima ever regain such an asset?
It’s possible, according to many, but not without overcoming several significant obstacles.
“Local pro sports are very labor intensive,” Hall said. “It takes a lot to operate them and you have to have a lot of ingenuity.”
Show me the money
Unquestionably the biggest hurdle teams in Yakima face is raising enough revenue in a market lacking major corporations and with a smaller, lower-income population base than most of their competition.
That was particularly true for the Sun Kings and Bears, whose annual budgets were in the $750,000-plus range. But even much smaller operations like the Reds (approximately $120,000 annual budget) and Yakima Mavericks football team (about $25,000) struggled to attract enough corporate dollars.
“Our margin for error is less all around — sponsors, season-ticket holders,” said Rich Austin, former Sun Kings general manager and current director of the Yakima Valley Sports Commission.
All of the teams said finding willing sponsors isn’t the problem. Finding ones that can make a significant investment is.
Austin and former GM Diana Juarez said the Sun Kings largest sponsors in any given year was about $25,000 and were “few and far between,” according to Austin, with several others in the $10,000 range. Bob Romero, a former Bears GM and current executive director of the Yakima YMCA, gave similar assessments from his time with that team, with those numbers significantly less for the Reds and Mavericks.
“We had great sponsors ... unfortunately, we needed bigger dollars,” former Reds general manager Teresa Vega said, estimating that owner Jere Irwin probably covered 80 percent of costs each season out of his own pocket.
“Our biggest sponsor ... probably matched what primary sponsors for other teams in the league had,” Romero said. “But other teams had more than one (like that). We lacked the bigger corporate sponsors you find in bigger cities. The biggest individual business here, as a whole, is agriculture and they don’t need to advertise in their own community.
“It’s not a criticism of Yakima, it’s a reality. We had great business support, they were just not as large as in other cities. The sponsorship dollars are not comparable.”
Not helping matters is that operating costs will continue to rise, creating an even bigger squeeze on teams.
“Unfortunately, the prices we were able to charge for sponsorships and tickets could not come close to meeting the inflationary costs,” said Mike McMurray, whose group owned the Bears since 1999.
The growth of other sports, such as mixed martial arts and X Games-type events, along with the information explosion that allows people here to watch a greater multitude of sports via television and the internet, also thins out potential sponsor dollars.
“The competition ... has increased two times, three times from what it was,” Hall said. “There’s a marketing demand for keeping your name out there in different segments of the audience ... but you can only spread it so far.”
Added all together, it’s an ominous barrier.
“For those two (the Bears and Sun Kings), they have very good people owning and operating the teams and doing a good job with limited budgets. A lack of effort wasn’t the issue,” Romero said. “I’m not sure you can generate the revenue to operate a franchise (of that size) successfully in Yakima.”
Daunting but not insurmountable, others counter.
“When you’re in a small town, you have to be creative,” Juarez said. “You have to cater relationships to fit businesses and it’ll take multi-year commitments from businesses.”
“There was a thirst for that kind of activity,” former Sun Kings owner Otis Harlan said of his team. “We were welcomed (by businesses) in almost every instance. I think anybody that has a decent product will be well-received.”
“People love competition and love sports,” Hall said, “so there’s always going to be a place for someone to, at least, get a return on their investment.”
Putting Fans in the Stands
Even in the best sponsorship years, teams still need to put enough people in the seats to make those corporate investments worthwhile.
“For a sponsor, it’s not worth the money if the crowds aren’t that big,” Vega said. “You can’t just ask or expect them to pay more if they’re not getting the return on their investment.”
“We have different sponsorship packages,” Mavericks owner and general manager Nathan Soptich said, “... but a great crowd for us would be 500 people so they (sponsors) don’t get the exposure (they want) for their money.”
“It takes a lot of pressure off (when you have those corporate sponsors),” Central Washington State Fair Park assistant general manager Greg Lybeck said, “but the bottom line is that people have got to come.”
And while there are, according to Hall, about 130,000 living in what he called the “10-minute drive window” around Yakima, that’s still far less than for other cities the Bears and Sun Kings were competing against (see chart).
“In Yakima, you could draw the same percentage of population as other cities in the Northwest League but it’s not enough to cover costs,” Romero said. “We could match or exceed that percentage of population as Spokane, but they just have more people to draw from. Spokane can put 7,000 people in the stands to make up for a 1,300 night. We can’t do that in Yakima.”
Compounding matters is that Yakima County is a predominantly lower-income market where the median household income in 2011 was $42,707, ranking in the lower third of 39 counties in the state. That makes it a tougher sell, particularly when the ancillary costs of things like parking — a long-time complaint of Bears and Sun Kings fans — and concessions are added to the cost of a ticket.
“You need higher income levels in Yakima,” said Greg Stewart, president and general manager of the Central Washington State Fair Park. “People don’t have the discretionary dollars. They don’t have the money to pay the prices needed to support a team.”
To that end, the Bears and Sun Kings learned to adapt to the marketplace, looking beyond season tickets. They became more creative luring fans, offering smaller ticket packages and emphasizing group nights.
“You have to look at all avenues,” Austin said. “It was our thought to get someone in the building for two, four, five games rather than not at all.”
That thinking is all the more important today.
With natural ebbs and flows in fan interest, it’s as important to be proactive attracting new fans as retaining existing ones.
“There’s natural attrition and you have to have a vibrant market to fill the losses. We didn’t,” McMurray said. “Either the market was not there or we could not attract new fans.”
“You have to have a support system that can allow you to do things in the community,” Juarez said, pointing to the Sun Kings’ school reading program as an initiative that helped them reach potential new fans. “That initial connection allows you to build stronger bonds later.”
All The Right Moves
Money is the root factor in success or failure, but certainly not the only one.
While the Bears and Sun Kings had their troubles attracting enough sponsors and fans, the Sun Kings may still be playing today if they had better partners.
When the Sun Kings arrived, the CBA had fairly stable footing in most of its markets (like many minor leagues, there’s always going to be a couple of weak links in the chain) and a strong relationship with the NBA, which used the CBA as its developmental league.
By the final Sun Kings season in 2007-08, the CBA was a shell of its former self. The NBA’s Develop-mental League, formed in 2001, had eliminated the CBA’s value to provide players and then siphoned off three of the CBA’s top franchises — the Idaho Stampede, Sioux Falls Skyforce, and Dakota Wizards after the 2005-06 season.
The Sun Kings had an opportunity to make the jump the D-League at that time, but the Yakama Nation, which owned the team, chose to stick with the CBA, playing one more season before shutting down operations in a flailing league that didn’t even make it halfway through that last Sun Kings-less season.
“The contract they (the NBA) wanted us to sign was very binding,” said Ralph Sampson, who was on the Yakama Nation Tribal Council when it purchased the team in the summer of 2005. “Their terms and conditions were pretty stringent. It was a pretty easy decision to make for us.”
The CBA’s failure, as well as one-and-done seasons by the Yakima Shockwave and Yakima Valley Warriors indoor football teams, which played in either struggling or fledgling leagues, illustrates another threat to future pro sports efforts here.
“Owners will be asked to put a lot into this (type of endeavor),” Stewart said. “It’s not comforting knowing the league (they’re looking at) may be shaky.”
“People here weren’t mad at the Sun Kings, they were concerned about the stability of the league,” said Austin, who was also GM for the Shockwave. “You can put a good product on the floor but if your partners aren’t, it’s difficult. Any time you don’t have a game played or you bring in new teams every year, it can overshadow all the good things you’re doing.”
There is always the outside chance Yakima could reacquire a franchise in the well-established Northwest League, but a different but equally daunting obstacle emerges because Yakima County Stadium falls short on several Minor League Baseball requirements and, according to a 2010 feasibility study, it would cost an estimated $20 million to upgrade that facility or $28 to build a new ballpark.
Coupled with finding a stable league is Yakima’s geographic hurdle.
There are few league options available that would provide Yakima with reasonably close rivals.
That means deciding between a smaller-scale regional league — such as the West Coast League for college baseball that Yakima will join next summer or the International Basketball League — or taking a chance on something larger like the Indoor Football League, which is based primarily in the Midwest, or the NBA D-League (provided a franchise even becomes available).
Choosing the latter automatically increases the financial difficulties because of travel costs.
“Travel cost is one of the higher numbers in our budget,” said Teri Carr, owner of the Tri-City Fever of the IFL, noting that as result, her annual budgets are about $600,000, nearly double that of midwest teams who are in close proximity to each other.
Even Austin, who makes an exception in the case of the D-League, believes a future team owner may need to think smaller.
“It needs to be more of a regional setup than a national one,” he said. “It has to be setup perfectly for Yakima — low cost and with built-in appeal.”
But that’s certainly no guarantee the team will succeed.
Both the Reds and Mavericks have played in regional leagues, which helped them keep their costs significantly lower, but the talent level is not as high and they found it hard to attract fans to see players they watched in high school or could still see playing in a recreational league somewhere in the Yakima Valley.
“We had the best players in the area. It’s not that we didn’t put a quality team on the field,” Vega said. “You could go to Chesterley (Park) and see some of those same players for nothing. Maybe people didn’t want to pay to see them (with the Reds) when they could go sit and watch them at Chesterley.”
Who Do You Trust?
The one unquestioned success for Yakima’s pro franchises has been their ability, for the most part, to have not just quality ownership but often local owners.
“When you have local owners with ties to the community, it’s a difference maker for a franchise,” Romero said.
“There’s quite a bit of importance to having local owners,” Harlan said. “It’s important to have local names attached.”
However, it only takes one or two bad apples to spoil the bunch and there have been instances where an owner either didn’t have the finances or commitment to this community and the bad taste left behind creates a wariness among sponsors and fans that future owners must cut through.
“When you have owners that went in some place and burned the market,” Carr said, “it’s hard to go back in because the people don’t trust the new owner.”
Yakima Valley Warriors owner Michael Mink found that to be the case when he struggled to gain trust from a community still stinging from the Shockwave. And hard feelings can transcend sports.
“Anyone who tries this again has to have legitimacy,” Juarez said. “They have to be imbedded in this community. You can’t drop people in this community and sell a team. It won’t work in Yakima. People want to see you shopping in the stores and see that you care about this community.
“You can’t expect to put walls up if you don’t have a foundation. It’s all about relationships. They have to know you, they have to like you and they have to trust you.”
Navigating all those elements successfully is the tricky part, one that few have managed here despite the long tenure of so many teams. If someone can pull all those pieces together, though, there are those who see a substantial reward — managing a successful franchise that the community embraces.
“The opportunity is there for something,” Juarez said. “This community supports sporting events, but you have to start with a strong foundation and someone invested in this community.
“(Then) you hope for the best, expect the worst and know that what you’re doing is the best for the community.”