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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 August 19."
The league will not be expanding past the existing six teams for the second year, but there are plans to build several new baseball fields.
Locations under consideration include Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem, Netanya, Beersheba, 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 confirmed.
Baras acknowledged that the league has recently been experiencing some financial difficulties.
The IBL is currently financed by a general ownership, an arrangement that is not ideal, since the funds need to be dispersed among all six teams.
"We are definitely looking at what makes sense as far as selling individual teams," he said. "Having local ownership is really an important part of success."
Up until this week, the league had been paying Sport5 to televise their Sunday games, which were then repeated in Israel all week, and also broadcast in America 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," explained Baras.
As of now, the only game that will possibly be televised is the championship on August 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 local Israelis, evident by the poor attendance at games.
The overwhelming majority of IBL fans are Americans who have either made aliya or are visiting for the summer.
At Sportek in Tel Aviv on Monday there were only 75 people in the crowd for the game between the Beit 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," explained Blue Sox pitcher Jeff Moore.
Gezer field often attracts larger 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 to "those of the major leagues or even minor leagues [in America], which isn't fair," but rather to 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, so far, 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 Leagueâ€š'" said Netanya pitcher Leon Feingold. 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 originally supposed to be Namarei Netanya - but were dissuaded by the advice of Israelis who convinced them to use the English transliterated names.
"Israelis were telling us that that was the trend here, which is kind of sad," admitted Baras. "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.
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."
Edelstein said that the IBL's front office in Israel consists of 10 employees. He added,
however, that the IBL also employs 45 additional "non-front office" staff, including
groundskeepers, announcers and scorekeepers.
Overextended, the IBL passed up some "common sense outreach opportunities," said Blue Sox
outfielder-pitcher Alan Gardner.
"I'm not saying the people running the league don't have common sense, but... there were grassroots 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 these have already 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," remarked Beit Shemesh outfielder Sean Slaughter.
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," Beit 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," said Natanya outfielder Dan Rootenberg. "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 concluded. "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."