Chances are slim to none that a professional baseball team will play its home games at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park in 2012.
The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which oversees the stadium, is tied up in a lawsuit with a group whose proposal to put an independent league professional team in the new downtown stadium failed last year.
The lawsuit is scheduled to continue until at least late November, and that’s after the time when leagues usually decide on expansion and set their schedules for the following season.
So even though the 2011 baseball season isn’t over yet, Omaha is basically mathematically eliminated from placing a club downtown in 2012.
“If we had a viable prospect at this point and if we weren’t in litigation, there would still be a very short window,” said Roger Dixon, president and chief executive officer of MECA.
But MECA lacks a viable ownership group in a sustainable league, he said. And it still faces legal hurdles.
Citing the lawsuit, Dixon and the MECA board chairman, Jim Vokal, were guarded in their comments. Neither went so far as to call it impossible to field a team in 2012, but both agreed that the timing made it unlikely.
“I’m confident that we’ll have one by 2013,” Vokal said.
That is, he said, “if it makes sense fiscally and there’s strong backing from investors in a sustainable league.” That’s consistent with what MECA officials have said for more than a year.
Independent league baseball has been seen as the most likely tenant to help fill dates around the College World Series at Omaha’s new $128 million stadium. That prospect emerged after the Omaha Royals (now Storm Chasers) decided to build their own stadium, Werner Park, and play in Sarpy County.
The independent leagues have no affiliations with Major League Baseball. Its players are former minor leaguers, college and high school stars and a few ex-major leaguers.
The Lincoln Saltdogs, who share Haymarket Park as a baseball home field with the University of Nebraska, play in an independent league called the American Association. Its 14 teams include clubs in St. Paul, Minn., Sioux City, Iowa, Sioux Falls, S.D., Wichita, Kan., and Fort Worth, Texas.
Vokal noted that MECA doesn’t need money from a professional baseball team to pay the ballpark’s bills.
“The CWS revenue that we receive covers the bonds,” he said.
The stadium also has other events, such as Creighton Bluejays baseball games, Omaha Nighthawks football games and outdoor concerts.
That said, MECA officials would like to have a professional baseball team, Vokal added.
“We want the stadium occupied as much of the time as possible,” he said.
In 2010, MECA came close to doing a deal with a group — headed by Omahan Walt Peffer and backed by investors from Iowa and Minnesota — called Fast Ball Sports LLC. Fast Ball Sports wanted to create a Northern League expansion club, the Omaha Flame, to play 45 games a year downtown.
Those negotiations fell apart last fall. MECA officials lost interest in part because four of the Northern League’s eight teams — from Gary, Ind., Fargo, N.D., Kansas City, Kan. and Winnipeg, Manitoba — bolted for the American Association.
The remaining Northern League teams joined in 2010 with two other independent leagues to form a new league, the North American League. The North American League had 10 teams in 2011 — four in Texas, two in western Canada, and one each in California, Arizona, suburban Chicago and Hawaii.
The Hawaii team didn’t finish the 2011 season. The suburban Chicago team, the Lake County Fielders, looks shaky. It barely finished the year, partly by playing a town team from Wisconsin, after almost being kicked out of the league for not showing up for a road series in Hawaii. The City of Zion, Ill., is threatening to sue the Fielders, partly owned by actor Kevin Costner, for $185,000 in unpaid rent, dating to 2010, plus other costs at the city’s temporary stadium. The team’s management claims that the city failed to complete the stadium.
Meanwhile, Fast Ball Sports is suing MECA in Douglas County District Court. The suit claims that MECA officials misled Fast Ball Sports into spending money for franchise fees and other costs. It asks for at least $57 million and a judicial order preventing MECA from leasing TD Ameritrade Park to any other professional baseball team.
MECA lawyers have denied misleading Fast Ball Sports. In legal filings, MECA lawyers say that the authority’s board never approved a lease with the group and that the failure of the Northern League had made it impossible for Fast Ball Sports to present Northern League games at TD Ameritrade Park.
Peffer and a Fast Ball Sports lawyer, Jason Bruno, said last week that the group remains interested in fielding a team in Omaha. The North American League Web site still lists the Omaha Flame as an expansion team for 2012.
The case between Fast Ball Sports LLC and MECA is in its early stages and appears unlikely to be resolved soon. The next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 22, on MECA’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss all claims.
The American Association is considered by baseball observers to be stable and a good fit geographically for Omaha. American Association Commissioner Miles Wolff said his league remains interested in an Omaha franchise. But nobody has formally applied for one, he said.
An Omaha franchise would be unlikely to be approved with a lawsuit hanging over the stadium, Wolff said.
“The lawsuit clouds everything,” he said. “Until that’s resolved, we can’t even talk to MECA.”
The American Association’s annual ownership meetings are in October. That’s generally when expansion applications are considered.
A potential investor, Omahan Jim Haller, who briefly worked for Fast Ball Sports last year, said MECA officials look “very prudent” in retrospect, given what has transpired with the Northern League, the new North American League and the lawsuit.
Haller said an independent league team could work in Omaha, but most likely not in 2012, even if the lawsuit were resolved by the end of 2011.
“Nobody in their right mind would put a baseball team in that stadium with three months’ advance notice,” Haller said.
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