YAKIMA, Wash. -- While Yakima will add to its team sports next summer with the debut of a team in the West Coast League for college baseball players, getting back in the professional game won’t be an easy task.
Beyond the financial challenges, there just aren’t many viable sports leagues that make sense for Yakima given its market size and geography, although some have expressed an interest in the area.
Basketball remains Yakima’s best option, with two extremely different choices — the regional International Basketball League or the more costly NBA Developmental League, if a team were to even become available (See related story).
The D-League would likely have a broader appeal because it would return a level of basketball similar to the Yakima Sun Kings of the defunct Continental Basketball Association, but the IBL could offer an option that might make better financial sense to a potential owner.
The league, based in Portland, Ore., had 12 teams last season, predominantly in the Pacific Northwest, making it as close to a perfect geographic fit for Yakima as anything out there.
Getting into the IBL is affordable at $10,000, and Commissioner Sharleen Graf said most teams have operating budgets no higher than $50,000 to $60,000 for a 20-game season that runs from the end of April through July.
More importantly, IBL officials have had an eye on this market dating back to when the Sun Kings were playing.
“Yakima’s a very desirable market for me and the league, particularly because of the great fan base,” Graf said. “This is one of the top markets for the IBL.”
There is also interest in Yakima from the Indoor Football League, despite two previous indoor football failures in weaker leagues, because it would create a natural rival and travel partner for the Kennewick-based Tri-City Fever. There is also a chance the currently dormant Wenatchee franchise could return, creating a strong three-team pod in a league where the Fever’s closest opponents right now are in Casper, Wyo., and Fort Collins, Colo.
IFL commissioner Robert Loving said they would certainly listen to someone wanting to put a team in Yakima, but wasn’t aware of any interested investors.
“If there are, we’d certainly like to talk to them,” he said. “Yakima is a good area. It would fit in well with the IFL. It’s just a matter of finding people to put up money for a team.”
After that, it’s slim pickings.
The Yakima Reds were unable to make it in the Premier Development League of the United Soccer Leagues and a return to that league seems unlikely. An unknown on the soccer front is the newly formed Evergreen Premier League, which last week announced a team in the Tri-Cities and was said to be looking at Yakima for a possible franchise.
Hockey remains a non-starter primarily because the SunDome lacks ice-making equipment.
Improved technology makes the cost to fit the building for ice actually lower than what it was when the subject was first tossed around in the early 1990s, but those expenses would still be nearly $2 million, according to Central Washington State Fair Park assistant general manager Greg Lybeck.
There also would be start-up costs for things like a Zamboni, the rink and boards, and protective Plexiglas panels.
Even clearing those hurdles, there’s really only one league option.
The Western Hockey League, where the Tri-City Americans play, has no plans to expand any time soon, and when it does, the league has targeted cities in western Canada as priority markets, commissioner Ron Robinson said.
On top of that, it’s an expensive proposition. Robinson put annual team budgets in the $3.5 million range, meaning a team would need to draw between 4,500 to 5,000 fans per game in addition to extensive arena advertising.
“It’s very challenging to have community support and sponsors to operate on a long-term basis,” he said.
That leaves the North American Hockey League, where the Wenatchee Wild play, but those costs are also considerable, particularly travel since the league’s 24 teams are based primarily in the midwest, from Minnesota to Texas, with another team in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Plus there’s are the operating costs for a 60-game schedule.
Last season, the Wild paid $37,000 in ice fees to use the Toyota Center, while costs for the Zamboni and Plexiglas panels alone were $30,000, as reported by Michelle McNiel in a story in the Wenatchee World earlier this year. This season, McNiel said the Wild will pay the arena operators $3,000 per game and $1.50 per ticket sold for its 30-game home schedule.
All in all, not a promising scenario for local sports fans.