The Kansas City T-Bones have 17 seasons and 3 independent baseball league championships to their name. But for almost a year, they’ve been up for sale with no takers and behind on their bills.
“The market has changed. Kansas City has changed, so a lot of things have changed,” T-Bones general manager Chris Browne said.
The team moved in 2003 from Duluth, Minnesota, to Village West in Kansas City, Kansas. Back then, the MLB’s Royals weren’t doing so well. And by 2010, the T-Bones were averaging 5,550 fans a game.
But the Royals commanded virtually everyone’s attention when they went to back-to-back World Series, winning one, and now these days, crowds have dwindled to an average of less than 4,000 a game.
The T-Bones are coming off the 2018 American Association championship, and continue to attract former big leaguers such as Daniel Nava, Chris Colabello and Shawn O’Malley – all of whom signed this season and are in their early to mid-30s.
“I want to see if I can get a shot to get back in affiliated ball and have that be my last round or my last chapter,” said Nava, who last played with Philadelphia in 2017.
Nava is most known for breaking into the big leagues in 2010 with a grand slam on the first pitch he saw with the Boston Red Sox. He also briefly played for the Royals in 2016.
Independent league players typically doesn’t stick around long with their teams, so Browne is faced with a rebuilding job every year. His most important baseball stat, besides wins and losses, is how many players he can sell to teams that are affiliated with Major League Baseball.
“There’s some competition from a PR standpoint between some GMs, managers and owners to say, ‘Hey, we promote x amount,’” said Browne, who sold 14 players last year to teams with major-league affiliations.
Selling that is a key part of the ownership’s strategy when it comes to turning the team over to someone else.
When asked about his family’s intent to sell, team president Adam Ehlert said: “It’s been a very good, but a very long, couple of decades, so we’re considering other things.”
Neither he nor his father, owner John Ehlert, disclosed the asking price for the ballclub.
Corporate sponsorships are also highly valuable to an independent baseball teams like the T-Bones. But financially, times are tough at the T-Bones Stadium since their naming rights deal with Community America Credit Union (CACU) expired two years ago.
“They (CACU) outgrew us and I can’t complain about that,” Ehlert said. “We weren’t able to move their needle any further than we had through the first contract and a couple extensions.”
Ehlert wouldn’t divulge what the naming rights brought in, but two sources familiar with the deal told KCUR it was about $200,000 annually.
Without that money, the T-Bones have thousands in overdue bills, according to Doug Bach, the administrator of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.
“We updated an agreement with them in 2017 and put some financial obligations that were clearly on them to fulfill and they have not been able to meet those,” Bach said.
The Unified Government told the T-Bones to pay up, but it continues to wait for that money. Bach said the government could void the management agreement, but doesn’t think that’s the best solution.
“We feel like the best interest of the area and the community right now is to keep the T-Bones playing baseball,” he added.
But there’s at least an easing of the financial burden coming: Adam Ehlert announced Friday that the stadium will be renamed JustBats Field at T-Bones Stadium as part of a corporate partnership with an online baseball equipment company.
Ehlert does know what he hopes a potential owner would do — aside from pay for the team.
“Ideally, it’s somebody local. It’s not critical, but it’s absolutely ideal,” he said. “But we also need to understand that that owner or prospective owner realizes the great deal of work that goes into this.”
The slogan for the T-Bones, who have the American Association of Professional Baseball all-star Break next week, is “Fun Well-Done.” But crunching the T-Bones’ financial numbers at this time cannot be fun.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.