I hope the IBL continues, and that it catches on and does well. I know it is hard to get something going, but I love the fact that they are making a go of it!
Yaffi Spodek and Noach Lawrence
The Jerusalem Post (jpost.com)
The Israel Baseball League will return next season, officials say, despite low attendance and some players' concerns that insufficient outreach and low marketing have stunted efforts to popularize the sport in Israel.
"The league is definitely coming back next year," IBL founder Larry Baras told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "We even have tryouts for next season scheduled already for Aug. 19."
The league will not expand past the existing six teams for the second year, but there are plans to build several baseball fields.
Locations under consideration include Bet Shemesh, Jerusalem, Netanya, Beersheva and Eilat.
"We are working together with the Jewish National Fund and the municipalities to help us raise the money and find the expertise needed to build these fields," Baras said.
Baras acknowledged that the league has experienced some financial difficulties.
The IBL is financed by a general ownership, an arrangement that is not ideal because the funds need to be disbursed among all six teams.
"We are definitely looking at what makes sense as far as selling individual teams," Baras said. "Having local ownership is really an important part of success."
Until this week, the league had paid Sport5 to televise Sunday games, which were then repeated in Israel all week and broadcast in some parts of the United States on Comcast.
"But this was a very expensive proposition for us, and we are trying to negotiate to work something out based on our financial considerations," Baras said.
Now, the only remaining game that will possibly be televised is the championship Aug. 19, with Baras working hard to ensure that it is broadcast, despite its coinciding with a soccer game.
Another issue that has plagued the league all season is lack of support from native Israelis, evident by the poor attendance at games.
The overwhelming majority of IBL fans are Americans who have made aliyah or are visiting for the summer.
At Sportek in Tel Aviv on Monday, 75 people were in the crowd for the game between the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and the Netanya Tigers, according to facilities manager David Rattner, a number that is only slightly lower than the average of 100 to 125 fans at the field.
Attendance is generally lower at Sportek games because "this whole area [north Tel Aviv] is very Israeli," Blue Sox pitcher Jeff Moore said.
Gezer field often attracts crowds of several hundred people because its home teams, the Blue Sox and the Modi'in Miracle, hail from cities with larger Anglo-Israeli immigrant populations.
IBL public relations director Nathaniel Edelstein urged critics to compare the IBL's attendance figures not with "those of the major leagues or even minor leagues [in America], which isn't fair," but rather with those of European leagues.
"They don't get the kind of numbers that we're getting," he said. "They get 30 people a game, and it's all friends and family."
Baras agreed, saying: "An average of 300 people per game during the start-up season is impressive."
Still, some feel the small crowds are indicative of a broader trend: the Israeli public's lukewarm reception to the sport of baseball.
"When we go out to bars and restaurants, we tell the person seating us, 'We play in the Israel Baseball League' " Netanya pitcher Leon Feingold said. Half the time, he said, "people say,'What?' "
More Americans than Israelis know about the IBL, Feingold said. When the league was launched, it won copious coverage abroad, as expected, but as the weeks progressed, few Israeli media outlets seized on the IBL.
"It's not seen as newsworthy or sportsworthy," he said.
The decision to give the teams English names may also account for the Israelis' indifference to the sport.
IBL officials originally wanted to use Hebrew names - the Tigers were going to be Namarei Netanya - but Israelis persuaded them to use the English transliterated names.
"Israelis were telling us that that was the trend here, which is kind of sad," Baras said. "We weren't trying to lead it in that direction, but that was the general consensus here."
Baras said he believes that "subliminally, people are still associating baseball with Americans."
Feingold also cited as problematic the fact that the IBL's headquarters are in Boston, while only "a skeleton crew" operates in Israel. Edelstein confirmed that the IBL's staff in Israel consists of only 10 people.
Rattner agreed, saying: "The problem this year was that we were understaffed. There were lots of great ideas but not enough people to implement them."
Overextended in this way, the IBL passed up some "common-sense outreach opportunities," Blue Sox outfielder-pitcher Alan Gardner said. "I'm not saying the people running the league don't have common sense, but ... there were grass-roots opportunities that were missed."
Gardner suggested yearbook signings and ticket giveaways in bookstores, or informal games of catch on the Tel Aviv beach.
A few activities like those have been planned, such as an upcoming team visit to the Netanya Mall to sign autographs. On Tuesday morning, 11 players representing all six teams went to Ben Gurion International Airport to greet a Nefesh B'Nefesh flight of new immigrants.
The IBL should not only sponsor more community outreach, players said, but also step up promotion.
"It's kind of discouraging that some games don't draw that many fans, but it's tough because we're competing here with soccer and basketball," Bet Shemesh outfielder Sean Slaughter said.
Despite the problems, many players said they would gladly return to the IBL next year.
"Morale goes up and down," Netanya pitcher Fabian Almenta said, "but as long as we're playing ball, eating and getting paid, we're happy."
"There is a positive feeling among the players, which has gradually improved throughout the season as the league has accommodated us," Bet Shemesh pitcher Rafael Bergstrom added, saying that at the start of the season the league did not treat the players as well as expected, with laundry left for days and a lack of proper training conditions and equipment.
"All the trivial things don't seem to matter as much anymore once you get out on the field and realize how amazing it is that you're playing baseball in Israel."
"I'm extremely excited to be here," Natanya outfielder Dan Rootenberg said. "I'm loving it and would definitely come back for the second year."
"It will take a few years for baseball to catch on here, but I really think it's been a successful season," Baras said. "It has done so much to link Americans and Jews, and it has helped people to think of Israel in a different light, not only as a place related to religion and war. The league has brought about 1,000 people to Israel for the first time in their lives this summer, and that is a real accomplishment."