By Erik Cassano
Andy Appleby was working as senior vice president of marketing for the Detroit Pistons when, after 12 years, he left to buy the Fort Wayne Wizards, a minor league baseball team.
“Fort Wayne is where I fell in love with minor league baseball,” says Appleby. “It was affordable, fun, close to home, and family oriented. It was a great combination.”
That love led to Appleby’s 2016 founding of the United Shore Professional Baseball League, an independent league in suburban Detroit. While the four-team league plays all of its games at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Michigan, Appleby plans to expand the number of teams to as many as 20 in the coming years and build additional stadiums.
“The idea came up when I owned the Fort Wayne team,” he says. “There were 16 teams, so there was a fight to get weekend dates, because those were best for family attendance. But teams would only get five or six weekends a summer. In developing this league, I said, ‘Let’s play every weekend.”
The 2019 season is the league’s fourth, and its teams play almost every Thursday to Sunday for 18 weeks. It sold out more than 80 percent of its games in 2018, and in just over three years, more than 30 former players have been signed by Major League Baseball.
From the ground up
Appleby knew he could put together a successful minor-league model if he could find the right corporate backing, form the right marketing plan, focus on player development, and “service the heck out of it.”
“It was an opportunity to take everything I’ve learned from 32 years in professional sports and apply it,” says Appleby, who previously headed up an ownership group that bought the Derby Country FC Premiership soccer team in England. “I’ve taken every idea I thought was good, from marketing to sales, to player development and ballpark design, and implemented it in this league.”
Appleby negotiated sponsorship agreements with United Shore Financial Services for the league naming rights, and with Jimmy John’s sandwich shop chain for the naming rights to his league’s ballpark. And he worked with his coaches to develop an analytics-driven approach to player development, spending more than $1 million a year to help make every player better.
He also spent money to make every spectator safer. When the field opened in 2016, it was among the first ballparks in the country to have safety netting from foul pole to foul pole.
“We want to have the cleanest, safest ballpark possible,” Appleby says. “We want it to be a great experience for families to come to our games.”
The teams play games from mid-May through mid-September and host nonticketed closed games to allow players—mostly recent college graduates who just missed being drafted by MLB—to get extra practice. In addition, hundreds of charities have used the park for fundraising activities.
That means the field is busy nearly every day throughout the summer. But ideally, Appleby says, four teams wouldn’t share a single stadium.
“We’re in talks with several communities, and I think we’ll have ballpark agreements in the next six months or so,” Appleby says. “As we get bigger, we’ll start to operate more closely to a conventional league, with one or two teams per ballpark.”
Appleby’s ballpark, and his league, have become exactly what he envisioned when he set out to create them—not just a self-sustaining business and a player-development platform for MLB organizations, but a strong economic and community relations driver for Macomb County and the metro Detroit area.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve created here,” Appleby says. “It’s had a tremendous impact on the region both socially and economically, and we think that impact is only going to increase as the league expands. It’s really been an amazing win-win across the board."
An all-star teammate
Five years ago, the site of Jimmy John’s Field was a vacant brownfield in Utica, Michigan. To turn it into the thriving home of the United Shore Professional Baseball League, Appleby needed support from a bank that could see his vision.
He found it in Huntington, which provided a loan to finance construction of the ballpark.
“From the earliest days, Huntington saw that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary minor-league baseball project,” says Appleby, whose project in 2017 won the Phoenix Award and People’s Choice Award as the very best brownfield project in America. “They saw the major sponsorships we were able to secure. They knew we weren’t just taking a flyer here—some real work had gone into this.”
Huntington’s bankers gained a deep understanding of the ballpark and league in its formative stages due to a collective willingness to listen and learn.
“They’ve been great to work with,” Appleby says. “They were willing to do what I did, which is take a look at an unregulated landfill in Utica and envision what could be possible. Jimmy John’s Field wouldn’t have happened unless Huntington was willing to take that step with me.”
For more information, visit www.uspbl.com.