Baseball boss Ben Foster sees better days ahead
BEN Foster became the Australian Baseball League's first official employee back in July 2009, coming in as the general manager and recently celebrating five years in the role.
While the ABL's growth since then has not been meteoric, it has been steady enough for Foster to believe there will be no more dark days, like when it folded in the late 1990s, and again in the early 2000s.
While Foster knows the revamped competition will not compete with the "big boys" of Australian sport - cricket and the football codes - he is confident the ABL will offer punters a unique and fun experience.
Along with its steady growth during his five years in the role, Foster spoke to APN about how well placed the game was to capitalise on the success of the Major League Opening Series in Sydney, back in March.
The Canberra Cavalry's groundbreaking victory in the Asia Series last year has also been a part of the changing attitude towards Foster's developing competition.
In light of Team Australia's historic 5-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in March and the Canberra Cavalry winning the Asia Series - is this the year that the Australian Baseball League can start to shine?
"I came in and was fortunate enough to be the very first employee of the ABL. It's my five-year anniversary.
"In terms of where we were from me being the only employee sitting in an office by myself, to where we are today, is pretty significant.
"In light of Canberra winning the Asia Series and Team Australian beating the Arizona Diamondbacks, we've seen the conversation change.
"When we're out there talking to business people and community leaders, and when we're out there talking to people within the international baseball community, all of a sudden the ABL is mentioned in a different context.
"You ask 'is this the year?' Well, I think every year is 'the year' for us.
"We've seen our league literally start from nothing, to be where we are today.
"There's still a long, long way to go, but we're trying to inspire a new generation of Australians - from my kids to your kids.
"We've made progress year on year, and it takes catalysts like the Opening Series.
"We're under no illusions - it's a crowded marketplace, and there are a lot of sports out there trying to do the same thing we're doing.
"But what we think we can do is challenge the status quo.
"We're not here to say we're reliant on a seven or eight-figure television deal. We're not trying to say we're reliant on filling Suncorp Stadium.
"We're out there to challenge the status quo and do business differently."
What are some of those things you want to do differently?
"We've got some of the best players in the world. This season alone, we've got seven or eight players playing in the Major League, who are ABL alumni.
"Both on and off the field the Brisbane Bandits have faced some significant challenges. But they've made some decisions to change their direction.
"They've got some pretty significant announcements to make in the next couple of months, and I can really see Brisbane changing the way it does business."
Having a guy of Dave Nilsson's stature as Bandits chairman is massive for the club isn't it?
"Absolutely. While he is still a household name in many circles, not a lot of people understand what an achievement it was for him as a kid from Brisbane to do what he did.
"He's played in an All Star game. That's almost unfathomable.
"His experience from a baseball and business perspective, and then to bring in Mark Ready as CEO, someone who's been interconnected with his community for so long ...
"You add those two elements to a team, and it's a pretty exciting team."
What number has the employees at the ABL grown to since you were the only one working for the organisation?
"What was my email address and one email account five years ago, is now over 150.
"We're still small in relative terms, but when you talk about that year on year exponential growth, that's a really positive story and one we're really proud of."
So could we see another lull in top-level baseball again, like we saw before the ABL took off again five years ago?
"There are never any guarantees, but we've got a number of hard-working and dedicated people.
"It's not getting any less competitive. But what we do have is a slightly different approach to the big boys of Australian sport.
"We want to be another form of entertainment, and we think we've got the platform to do that."
Can you expand on your strategic goals - where do you want baseball in Australia to be in five years' time?
"Central to our strategy is around facilities. That's the No.1 thing. The facility and the architecture around a baseball stadium in the US is very much integral to the experience of attending a baseball game.
"Our goal is to upgrade our existing facilities, and aim for facilities that could be in better locations.
"That's a core strategic focus for us - to improve capacity, amenities and the architecture of our existing six stadia.
"Equal to that is engagement with the community, because we know we're not going to be out there on television."
How highly regarded is the ABL among the big overseas competitions, like Japan and the US?
"In our first season we had nine import players from four different clubs. Last season we had 33 from 13 Major League clubs.
"Over the four years we've been operating, we've had 20 of the 30 Major League clubs send us international players.
"To me, that's a sign of faith in our organisation and what our league is doing and producing.
"Guys who are coming to us as 18 to 22-year-old prospects, we're now seeing as everyday players in the major leagues, who everybody can aspire to.
"We're expecting that number to grow over the years.
"We were the only country outside Japan and Korea with a team that won at the Asia Series, so automatically that gave us credibility.
"The Asian Confederation is hoping one day soon we can potentially host the Asia Series.
"That's certainly on our radar. We've told them 'give us a couple more years'.
"It's traditionally held in November, when the northern hemisphere is moving into winter.
"They make no mistake about the fact they'd love to come and spend a November in Sydney or Perth or Brisbane.
"That's definitely on the radar for us in the next few years."
Players such as Didi Gregorius and Brandon Barnes are just a couple of ABL alumni that came out here as young development players. Now they are excelling in the Major League ...
"We've had 81 international players, and that's on top of our Australian native players.
"At any given time there's between 50-70 Australians over there plying their trade.
"We're developing on both fronts.
"James Jones - who played in Adelaide a couple of years ago - he's now the everyday centre fielder for Seattle.
"He became our 30th alumni who's in the major leagues. That's not an insignificant number and one we're proud of."
How well placed is the ABL to expand on the success of March's Opening Series?
"A lot of work went into the Opening Series. We worked with the Australian Sports Commission and Baseball Australia to make sure there was some legacy that came from that.
"While we have every confidence it'll be back here soon, there are no guarantees.
"We're trying to make sure that the hearts and minds that were captured from that event are translated into more kids playing the game.
"We're also looking at social leagues for the average punter, so there are a number of initiatives we're looking at which can truly leave a lasting legacy from the event."