Two weeks ago the American West Baseball League canceled its winter program in Yuma. Now the Yuma franchise has pulled out of the league altogether. Tom Ferguson, owner of the Yuma Desert Rats, explained the team’s immediate withdraw from the AWBL in a press release that was issued on Friday;
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the Yuma Desert Rats will not be playing in the AWBL this season. We believe it is in the best interests of our fans, the City of Yuma, our corporate partners and sponsors to take some time to explore the best way that we can add value to the Yuma Community thorough the game of baseball……We also think it will give us the proper time to find a suitable successor league which will provide the stability to create several much-needed business and support functions at the team level.”
The withdraw of Yuma puts the future of the AWBL on very unstable ground and reduces their membership to three teams, all with questionable futures. Although Ferguson refused further comment citing a non-disclosure agreement between the franchise and the league, AWBL CEO Michael Cummings wasn’t so shy. On Saturday Cummings told the Yuma Daily Sun that Ferguson wasn’t able to meet the requirements of the franchise agreement. “We knew there was a problem financially with Tim to fulfill his obligations to the league and so forth, and we tried everything we could to accommodate him. I think at the end of the day he decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t honor those, so he’s no longer here,” said Cummings. According to Cummings, there may still be baseball in Yuma this summer; “We’re looking at some ownerships that have come to us and discussed the possibility of going out there.” These comments seem to indicate that the league is not interested in operating a team in Yuma unless it can find an outside ownership group to pony up with new fees.
The status of the lease with the City of Yuma is also in question and could be the subject of future legal battles. “When he (Ferguson) went in and bought the Yuma franchise, acquired the rights to the Yuma franchise, he also purchased the corporation from us,” Cummings told the Sun. “The lease is under that corporation’s name, and he (Ferguson) did not fulfill hs obligations as far as acquiring that corporation.” Apparently the lease agreement is with the city and the corporation (Yuma Panthers LLC) and would prohibit Ferguson from fielding a team in another league in Yuma. “….he (Ferguson) has an operating right agreement that states he cannot play professional or collegiate baseball without paying us (AWBL) a substantial amount of money,” explained Cummings. If Ferguson wants to field a team in Yuma this season, “….he’ll end up in legal battles with me.” The franchise owned by Godfather Media (now Embark Holdings, Inc.) did not play in Yuma last summer nor has the AWBL played a single game. For his part, Ferguson believes that it will be up to the city to determine how the lease is interpreted and that is what will ultimately decide whether baseball is played in Yuma and by whom this summer.
The future of the AWBL has been uncertain from the beginning. In June, Godfather Media of Costa Mesa, California announced the formation of a new independent league. The announcement included a list of four locations which were to be part of the league; Fullerton, Long Beach, San, Diego (California) and Yuma (Arizona). League founder Michael Cummings, the chairman and CEO of Godfather Media, had acquired two teams in the North American League but that league ceased operations thirty days later. The two teams, the Orange County Flyers and the Yuma Panthers, were to be the basis for the new American West Baseball League. Shortly after, Godfather added the territories of Long Beach and San Diego. A list of other possible sites included Palm Springs, Mesa, Ariz., and Henderson Nev. The Flyers were initially slated to be a traveling team as it had no home field. The club still owed Cal State Fullerton rent for the use of Goodwin Field during the 2010 season. At the time, Cummings told the Orange County Register that Godfather Media had a plan for success; “One of the biggest things we’re going to do that the (previous) league didn’t is revenue share with the teams from the sale of sponsorships. The league is only as strong as its weakest team.”
In July, the league announced that it had added its fifth team in Mesa, Ariz. The owners of the new franchise were to be former big league pitcher Albie Lopez and Mesa sports agent Eddie Marin. Lopez is a local product who attended Mesa’s Westwood High School. The proposed Mesa site was unable to secure a stadium as the Chicago Cubs use Mesa’s Hohokam Park for its rookie level Arizona League games. The league also contacted Tempe but it also hosts an Arizona League team (Angels).
The Yuma Panthers franchise was sold to Ferguson in October. In December the Panthers changed their name to the Desert Rats and in named former big league player and minor league manager Hal Lanier to be the skipper for their inaugural season.
Also in October, retired Marine Major Jim Hoynes paid the franchise fee to bring a team to the San Diego area. Hoynes’ North County Cannons are scheduled to play at the baseball facility at Cal State San Marcos. The facility has a capacity of about 2,000 and has no lights.
The stadium situation in Long Beach is also interesting. The AWBL has unveiled a team name (Splash) and logo for its Long Beach franchise, but Long Beach State which now operates Blair Field seems to have little appetite for hosting independent baseball. “Some group (AWBL) made an initial contact with Mark Edrington (the facilities chief and associate A.D.), but it never went beyond that,” Long Beach State Athletic Director Vic Cegles told the Long Beach Press Telegram in August. "We're really not interested. If anyone did come to our table, they should be prepared to pay heavily, in cash, and up front." No ownership group nor stadium agreement has been announced for the Long Beach franchise.
On December 1-2, the AWBL held a tryout camp at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson. There were 44 participants and half them were signed to contracts with the league’s four existing teams. The league had also announced a winter program to be held at Ray Kroc Sports Complex in Yuma that was to start on January 24. Two weeks prior to the scheduled start of the league, the AWBL notified the City of Yuma that the program was being canceled “due to lack of interest.”
In August, Godfather Media had changed its name to Embark Holdings, Inc. The company was founded in 1985 as Godfather Media and has headquarters in Mission Viejo, California. On September 30, 2012, Embark reported an unaudited net operating income and a net income of $11,550 for the previous nine months on a total income of $65,000. According to businessweek.com, “Embark Holdings, Inc. may have more financial risk than other companies in the Media industry as it is one of the most highly leveraged with a Debt to Total Capital ratio of 136.63%....Additionally, an examination of near-term assets and liabilities shows that there are not enough liquid assets to satisfy current obligations.” Embark stock is traded as a penny stock currently valued at $0.0001.
The model for holding companies is to acquire businesses and then sell them at a profit. In the case of the AWBL, they have bought franchise rights to two teams in a defunct league (Yuma and Orange County) and claimed territorial rights in two other cities (San Diego and Long Beach). They have sold franchise rights for the San Diego area (North County Cannons); Yuma (Yuma Desert Rats); and reached a nominal franchise agreement in Fullerton (Fullerton Flyers)) that includes investment from former major leaguer Edgar Renteria. Now that the Yuma ownership group has withdrawn and with no ownership group or stadium agreement is in place in Long Beach, the prospects for the league getting off the ground seem bleak. In the wake of canceling their winter league, the AWBL has announced a similar 30-day spring program that is to begin on April 1 at an undetermined Southern California location. The league has previously said that they will play a 90-game regular season beginning in May. As of now, the American West Baseball League looks more like a fantasy league than the real thing.