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Israel may have lost its one and only baseball league after a disappointing single season in 2007, but the dream of diamonds in the desert is getting another chance.
This week it was announced that Maccabi Haifa Heat owner Jeffrey Rosen and New York Yankees minority owner and minor league baseball mogul Marvin Goldklang have reached an agreement with the Israel Association of Baseball to perform due diligence on a possible return of professional baseball to Israel.
"When we saw the old IBL in 2007, the concept struck a chord in a lot of us who would love to see baseball in Israel," Goldklang, who resigned from the IBL board along with a host of notable names after its only season, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
"I had an interest in the concept dating back to that time, before that time, it's something that I think has been at the back of my mind as something I d love to see in Israel for quite some time, well before the IBL."
The new agreement gives Goldklang, Rosen and several as-of-yet-unnamed partners exclusive rights to investigate making Israeli baseball an economic and practical reality.
They will cooperate with IAB to build the foundation for a successful professional baseball operation in Israel, rather than just plop down a league.
Accordingly, a new pro league is not expected for at least another year, and probably two.
The new partners stressed patience, keen on avoiding the mistakes made by now-defunct Israel Baseball League.
Goldklang, who also owns four minor league baseball teams, says that following the dissolution of the IBL, the IAB began contacting those experienced in pro baseball in the US about whether they had an interest in moving forward.
"Our response to them," he says, "was that it would be something in which we might have interest, but only if we could approach it the way we felt it should have been approached by the old league-to do some serious due diligence before opening our doors.
"One of the assets that we have is we have people on the ground, we have an office in Haifa, staff in Israel working with the Heat," said Andrew Wilson, Director of Marketing for Rosen's company, Triangle Financial.
"Jeff was one of the original investors in the IBL, and he is a huge fan of baseball. And a huge fan of Israel. So a match like this is his dream. Unfortunately a lot of the investors got burned with the IBL. There was a lack of funding, a lack of staff, of advertising and not enough communication between anybody behind the scenes.
"The IBL did virtually no preparation in Israel prior to the 2007 season. Marv, Jeff and their group will create a real business plan based on solid research and acceptable business practices," said Haim Katz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball.
"I don't want to speculate as to when we will see a new league. The appearance of the league will depend upon some solid number crunching as well as well planned creative ideas. To simply build it all at once will not be enough to succeed and is pointless. It will take a lot of work and dedication to execute a successful plan. We believe these are the people who can pull it off."
The agreement, which creates a de facto partnership between Goldklang, Rosen and their partners, is going to have two main focuses: marketing, and facilities.
Goldklang said they would test the potential effects approaches which have proven so successful at the minor league level in the States.
"The essence is to work on creating an atmosphere in the ballpark that can be enjoyable even to non-baseball fans," he said.
Some of these marketing tactics, he said, might include increased picnic areas like in US minor league parks, entertaining PA announcers who don't simply announce the name of the batter and promotional events, all with the aim of promoting interaction with fans and creating the type of atmosphere that would hope attract more native Israeli fans.
"It's not like the States, where the games sell out all the time," said Wilson. "You have to connect with the fans. One of the things we do in Haifa is constant emailing, putting out releases, thanking the fans, marketing with posters all over the city - we're community-based."
Wilson said he and Rosen hoped to eventually have live streaming video of Israeli baseball games, as does Maccabi Haifa now.
"We had 15,000 separate visitors to our site to watch the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv. It's not easy to get a lot of fans at the game," Wilson said. "You can't just expect thousands of people to show up, it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of marketing-that's what we learned with Maccabi Haifa, we're very happy with crowds that we're drawing."
"Unlike the prior league, we do have the necessary funding in place to take ourselves through the first phase of our effort," Goldklang says.
"I think we have assembled a group of partners, including people who are prominent names in Major League Baseball. If you look at us as a group, the management of this operation is likely to be different than anything that has been tried before."
One of the key issues will be finding places for teams to play.
"There is no facility in Israel that could be fairly called a ballpark," Goldklang asserts. There are baseball fields that are fine for youth programs, but when it comes to putting professional players on the field, and making the game work at the professional level, you need a lot more than what the old league had to work with."
Wilson said they hope to develop two or three real ballparks, by either building new complexes or expanding existing facilities such as Gezer or the Baptist Village.
The target is for an eventual eight markets including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ra'anana, Beit Shemesh, Modi'in, Haifa, Netanya and the Sha'ar HaNegev region.
Goldklang said the Sha'ar Hanegev region was especially interesting because it included about a quarter of a million people living only 20-25 minutes from Ashkelon who don't have an abundance of recreational options.
There won't be a season in 2009. To try and throw something together quickly, Goldklang maintains, would just bring upon the same problems that caused the earlier effort to fold. The target is one to two years, with some "presence" in 2009 to establish a marketing and fan connection.
"This is a very serious endeavor," Goldklang says. "If I didn't think it was a better than 50% chance we could do this, these are the type of people that wouldn't be getting involved. We're not in the business of wasting our time."
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