NAPA’S FIELD OF DREAMS - Local Pro Baseball Team Owner’s Reality
Bruce Johnston will soon be the owner of Napa County’s first professional baseball team. Intrigued last year by a group of local businessmen who had formed the “Napa Professional Baseball Exploratory Committee,” Johnston now has until the end of this month to engage our community to make his small town version of a very major league dream come true.
Johnston recalls that those local businessmen, who are all “baseball guys,” thought that since Sonoma, Vallejo, San Rafael and Pittsburg had professional teams, Napa should have one too. “I thought that it might be fun to do something with the team, sell tickets, programs, whatever, just for the fun of being at the park, so I followed up. The next day I got an email back from Mel Engel that said, ‘We are glad you want to own the team.’ I am not sure that you ever wake up and say, ‘Gee, I think this is the day I will own a professional baseball team!’ The reality is that it isn’t quite as easy as that, as there are lots of moving parts, and the business model does not work on ticket sales, concessions and merchandise sales alone. What makes it work are those things, plus local businesses who understand the civic value of having a team in Napa, and who are willing to sign on as sponsors and advertisers.”
Suddenly, Johnston, an East Coast native and former shopping center development executive who relocated to Napa with his wife Jill Johnston in 2007, found himself championing Napa’s professional baseball team, the Napa Silverados. The past several months he has spent traversing Napa County, telling the story to anyone who will listen, and rallying support for a team, field and program that will bring one of America’s favorite pastimes to town.
Johnston explained that the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs is an “Unaffiliated League,” with current teams in Sonoma, San Rafael, Vallejo and Pittsburg. In “regular” minor league ball, using the San Francisco Giants as an example, the AAA Sacramento Rivercats, the AA Fresno Grizzlies, and A San Jose Giants, all have expenses defrayed by the San Francisco Giants. In this league, the owners are responsible for 100% of the expenses. The league is currently in discussions with other entities, and the hope is that it will be a six-team league when the Silverados start in 2018, then ultimately grow to eight Bay Area teams. “With more teams comes more interest from fans, from the media, and from players too,” Johnston added, “The fun part is an instant rivalry with Sonoma! What about Vallejo? Of course. San Rafael, okay, they have a 100-year-old stadium and we had to fix ours up. What about Pittsburg? Yes. We would be willing to cross a bridge to score a win against Pittsburg!”
The Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs set June 30, 2017 as the deadline to assess the level of local community support to offset the difference between ticket sales (many tickets will be donated), merchandise sales and concessions. Johnston explained that, “The business model requires a very strong component of local business leaders who are more concerned about the good that this team can do for our community, rather that the number of people who see an outfield fence advertisement. However, we are working very hard to create marketing opportunities and events which allow supporters to engage both Silverados fans and the entire Napa community.”
Johnston envisioned the value of the Napa Silverados pro baseball team early on, and immediately incorporated multiple aspects of “giving back” to the community in his plans. When the idea for the team originally came up, his wife thought he was crazy, and let him know how much work it would be and how much time it would consume. “At this point, I can confirm that she was 100% correct on all points,” Johnston said, “But at a family dinner that weekend, my sister-in-law Laurie Woodward, who has been teaching at Browns Valley Elementary School for more than 25 years, pointed out that what we had not realized, was the lack of affordable family entertainment in Napa, especially when the kids are out of school.”
After moving to Napa, Johnston also realized something very special about the Napa Valley, “This is the world capital of food and wine. There are more Michelin Stars, more 95 to 100 point wines, more parks, but there is something else about the Napa Valley which is even more incredible. I have never lived anywhere where the ‘giving back’ is as strong as it is here. Every local store allows bake sales. I am not sure about the rest of you, but I think we have all bought cupcakes and brownies we never intended to eat, okay I actually ate a couple of brownies. One step further, I think that you could probably go to a silent auction in Napa every weekend, and see cases of wine, verticals, old bottles, big bottles, restaurant certificates, resort certificates, balloon certificates, bike tours and wine tours. These are for every conceivable charitable cause, be it health, education, pets or open space. We also have the Napa Valley Vintners who raise money every year, in four days last year they raised about $16 million dollars, and the Gasser Foundation which continues to invest in Napa each and every day. Pretty impressive.”
Johnston went on describing his dream, “While the Silverados will never be a new Gasser Foundation or Napa Valley Vintners, there is a lot we will do. My vision is to have every game sponsor designate a non-profit of their choice. The non-profit will be mentioned on all ads, they will have an information booth to educate patrons about what they do, and they will receive a contribution as well. The Silverados will make a donation, and provide game day programs for their volunteers to sell, with all proceeds benefitting the non-profit.” Other perks such as free tickets for children that play baseball and softball, and seats for veterans from the California State Veteran’s Home in Yountville are part of the plan.
A big part of the team name is that Silverado, specifically the Silverado Trail is something which unites the entire county. Johnston’s vision is that people who live in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, Napa, and American Canyon, as well as all of the unincorporated areas of the county, feel that the Napa Silverados is THEIR team.
An integral part of this program is the Napa Valley College, with whom the Silverados are partnering to host the home games beginning in 2018. For the college, the Silverados summer season would bring Napans, as well as visitors, to the campus. People who may not have had a reason to visit the college in the past. The team may also have opportunities for local college students for part-time summer jobs and internships.
While the dream is big, the costs are also high. “The cost of simple things like uniforms (two sets, home and away, plus batting practice, plus coaches), baseballs for 40 games cost $15,000, umpires for 40 games total up to $12,500, pre- and post-game meals, and more. I will visit every restaurant and caterer in Napa to ask for support. I want the Napa meals to be ‘Best in League!’” Johnston added.
There are ways to sponsor, or volunteer, at every level. The players themselves need support too. “The other very important thing that the team will need help with is housing via host families,” Johnston explained, “The players play a three-month season, June through August. While this is professional baseball, they only get paid between $300 and $1,000 per month, for an average of $500 per month. So we will need to locate families who are willing to take in a ballplayer for three months. At the 2017 tryouts which I recently attended, all of the coaches expressed to the players who didn’t make the cut, that they had a slightly better chance of making a team in the future, if they had housing for the season. So I am hoping that folks here in Napa might offer an empty room or an unused travel trailer in the backyard.”
“If I didn’t add that it would be pretty cool to tell people I own a professional baseball team, I would be lying,” Johnston added with a laugh, “That said, I do not view this as owning a team as much as being a caretaker. Once the Silverados are on the field, they will be the Napa Silverados, and it will only be because of the local businesses who stepped up, through their support and the support of that group of baseball guys that put the foundation in place, that allowed me to bring the team to Napa. In the end, this is about fun, affordable, family entertainment, based upon a team and ownership excited to give back to a community, which generously gives back all year long.”