Eighty-year-old Joe Parmer remembers when watching an American Legion baseball game at Fargo’s Jack Williams Stadium wasn’t similar to scrolling through the Yellow Pages.
However, an outfield fence full of advertisements pays the bills. And Fargo Post 2 Legion members know that’s the first priority to ensure a stable summer baseball program.
“We don’t want to be in the position where we have to cut our program,” said Parmer, a longtime Post 2 board member.
Several Legion clubs in North Dakota and Minnesota are searching for ways to generate income or cut costs.
With state tournaments starting today and Thursday in North Dakota and Minnesota, many clubs have noticed the following trend:
National American Legion baseball coordinator Jim Quinlan said, despite steady player interest in Legion baseball, funding for the sport has decreased nationwide, forcing thousands of clubs to look for outside income.
“There’s a lot of demand on those Legion posts,” Quinlan said. “If they (teams) don’t get some sponsors, it really makes it difficult.” Post 2 isn’t the only Legion club that relies on advertising. The Moorhead Blues and West Fargo Patriots have sold advertising on their outfield walls at Matson Field and Veteran’s Memorial Field the past few years. “The signs are the big moneymaker for us right now,” Patriots coach Brett Peterson said.
Despite some baseball purists thinking the appearance of ads covering nearly half of the outfield fence at Jack Williams is gaudy, it generates about $16,000 a year.
It’s Post 2’s most lucrative source of income in its nearly $80,000 yearly baseball budget, surpassing traditional sources such as charitable gaming, Legion member donations and season ticket sales.
Post 2 finance director Hank Deyle said the team began this summer season $9,000 short and wonders if next season will be the same.
“We’re scratching all the time to get enough money,” Deyle said. “When the gaming was lucrative, we had no problem.”
Post 2 currently has 30 advertising signs lining the left and right field walls and with a hope of better funding, they’re expecting to add more in center and right field before next season.
“Hopefully, we’ll get the other half done next spring,” Parmer said. “We hope to do the entire outfield. We haven’t completed it yet.”
Post 2 coach Bill Ibach said he’s witnessed a change since his playing days in the early 1980s. “Our program never had to (use advertising) because the Legion had so much money,” Ibach said. “That was a source of pride.”
But the rising cost of field care, travel and equipment has left teams searching for ways to cope.
Smaller Legion clubs believe advertising is necessary in order to survive.
“Some people don’t like it,” Hope-Finley baseball coach Mark Frost said. “But that’s been the life-blood for Legion baseball.”
The Hope, N.D., and Finley, N.D., Legion and Sons of the American Legion clubs sold signs on the outfield fences to help support a team budget of around $8,200. Nearly half that budget goes toward umpire and coaches salaries.
Like many small-town teams, Frost said his team made cost-cutting moves to help maintain the quality of the program. The biggest was sharing equipment, including parts of uniforms, with Hope-Page High School. “We are kind of unique,” Frost said. “We split the cost on things that are used in both.” Legion clubs used to rarely rely on outside funding to run baseball teams. Charitable gaming, ticket sales and fundraisers seemed to take care of any money issues. However, club officials said they have taken hits to their gaming funds for various reasons. “We used to live entirely off gambling. It’s getting less and less,” said Fargo Post 2 board member Jim McLaughlin.
Some Legion officials believe local casinos have taken away business. Others blame dwindling interest in pull tabs and bingo.
Moorhead Blues business manager Joe Baker said the club still receives gaming money, but it’s a touch-and-go situation.
“As long as our bingo and our pull tabs sales stay up, then we’re OK,” Baker said. “If they fall off, naturally, the program’s going to fall off a little bit, too.”
Some teams implemented player fees to take care of travel, equipment and insurance expenses.
According to Minot (N.D.) Vistas coach Todd Larson, each of his players must pay $450 a season in order to participate.
However, they’re offered several chances to work off the fee by volunteering at Legion fundraisers and team events throughout the year.
“We’re self-supportive,” Larson said. “We haven’t had any money from our Legion for a number of years.”
New York Mills, Minn., has nearly new facilities at Russ Jacobson Field and strong community support. Yet, Legion coach Mike Weller said the team’s numbers are still declining.
“We had three starters that didn’t come out this summer. They just wanted to work,” Weller said. “When I played ball, I couldn’t wait to get to the field. I knew I could work when I was done playing ball.”
North Dakota East Region chairman Ron Frydenlund believes adults in small communities need to improve the way they contribute to their programs.
“Younger adults don’t join the veteran’s organizations,” Frydenlund said. “They don’t do anything until they got a kid up there playing.”
Post 2 parents and alumni created a booster club this year as a way to raise money for the 2009 Legion World Series, which is sponsored by Post 2 and will be held at Newman Outdoor Field.
“We are kind of wearing out,” McLaughlin said of Legion members. “We’ve got a lot of parents to get really active.”
Even though Post 2’s hopes are high for the next few years, it, and many clubs like it, will keep raising money any way they can.
McLaughlin, 80, sets up a small stand at every Post 2 home game, selling team apparel and Roger Maris collectables. It’s just another small way to keep the team in business.
“We are proud we’ve kept it strictly Legion sponsored,” McLaughlin said. “We’d like to keep it that way, but it’s getting tougher all the time.”