By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Like firing the perfect slider, the Hawaii Stars sure know how to throw a nice shindig for community business leaders, who apparently all have disposable money in their pockets to do their part in helping fund the independent professional baseball team.
In a well-lit, air-conditioned room at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, there was a long row of appetizing luncheon platters, and dressed on silver trays were fruits, sandwich meats, hoagie buns and some kind of cookies. Iced tea, unsweetened and the color of chocolate fudge, was the ordered drink of the day.
Former University of Hawaii at Hilo coach Joey Estrella, the organization’s media maven, charmed the room full of about 20 corporate dignitaries (enough to form a pair of old-timer softball teams), before he warmly welcomed Bob Young, owner of the Hawaii Stars and Na Koa Ikaika Maui.
Before that, Mayor Billy Kenoi stopped by, shook Young’s hand and departed. There was work to do, coach Estrella joked, drawing a laugh from the enthusiasts. Then up to the plate stepped Young, dressed in a black company shirt. He looked quite spiffy.
For the next 30 minutes, Young, a Los Angeles lawyer, who eventually plans to retire somewhere in Hilo, gave a slide-show presentation about why pro ball is important to Hawaii and spoke with the enthusiasm of a devoted diehard baseball lifer.
Off the bat, Young announced that the Hawaii Stars are Hilo’s team as well as district segments like Keaau, Honokaa, Waimea, Kailua-Kona and Volcano. He noted that the front of the uniform has “Hawaii Stars” not “Young’s Hawaii Stars.”
He cited the $200 million in revenue that sporting events, such as the Honolulu Marathon, bring to the state, according to a study by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. There was no figure on how much the Stars specifically help the Big Island; also no word if the Big Island Visitors Bureau has commissioned a study.
The Stars are in their second year playing in the officially titled Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. Last year, Hawaii and Maui were part of the North American Baseball League, which sort of folded.
Young took emphasis to hammer home civic pride — fans bonding with baseball and the Stars, who are active in community service. He mentioned a young fan, Connor, who sits above Hawaii’s dugout, and happens to sing the seventh-inning stretch song, “Take me out to the ballgame.” Connor homers every time he sings the classic song, strategically altered to include the Stars’ name.
After his speech/presentation/sales pitch, Young took questions, and he only had one hurled his way: How do you finance the two teams?
He said he’s sunk almost $3 million of his family’s money into the two-team operation. Maui’s team is in its fourth year, under a fourth different league. Na Koa is 4 for 4 and Hawaii is 2 for 2, as far as finding new homes each year.
Young also talked about his two Hawaii teams growing into an international league. He’s crossing his fingers that Taiwan and South Korea will become playing travel partners like the two independent Baseball Challenge League teams: the Million Ishikawa Stars and Shinano Grandserows.
His dream is to have his own Hawaii professional league, featuring four island teams with one stationed on Oahu. He’s talked to the University of Hawaii about Les Murakami Stadium, but so far has received the cold shoulder.
What the Hawaii Stars, currently in fourth place in the five-team league, need more than wins is not only corporate sponsors, but wealthy investors with $50,000 under their bed. If Young can find 15 big-time investors, he would sleep much better at night.
Last year, he said the break even point was between 700 and 800 fans. He reiterated that figure during a sit-down interview after the room shrunk with the business folks trotting off back to work. For the past two nights, the Stars averaged about 75 fans. Under any number-crunching ledger, that’s a lot of red ink.
Young said he’s sold a few units to friends and supporters. The 15-unit price total is $750,000, the operating expense for both ballclubs. It’s also one-third the appraised value of his Hawaii Baseball LLC (limited liability company; that blends partnership and corporate structure).
For those who don’t have 50 grand growing on a tree, investors could buy half units ($25,000) or quarter units ($12,500). Unit owners would be entitled to free tickets and discounted merchandising, and profit margins once Hawaii Baseball LCC is swimming in the black.
Unfortunately, investors would not be allowed to be the next Jerry Jones and treat the Stars or Na Koa as their personal fantasy baseball team. The team’s managers, Hawaii’s Garry Templeton II and Maui’s Jeff Brooks, call the shots on player acquisitions.
The investment is speculative, meaning if Hawaii Baseball LCC goes under, investors don’t get a cent back. The Hawaii Stars have a five-year lease with the county to use Wong Stadium. And Young plans to extend it soon, his belief that good things are on the horizon.
In June 2012, the Hawaii Stars signed a three-year radio deal with New West Broadcasting (KPUA AM 670). There is no radio broadcast this year; Young said the radio station preferred airing San Francisco Giants games.
Current money woes aside, Young sees a pot of potential somewhere over the rainbow. During his presentation, he talked about landing a lucrative deal with a South African mobile app company. He said it’s for $6 million with $1.5 million due in a letter of intent next month. That money would go toward stadium improvements at Wong and Iron Maehara on Maui.
Besides securing a home field on Oahu, which is extremely costly, and developing his own league with an international flavor, the biggest home run for Bob Young would be getting his Hawaii Baseball LCC invited to affiliated ball.
It’s no secret that Major League Baseball is bathing itself in big-time cash with billion-dollar TV deals with ESPN, Fox and Turner. Each of the 30 teams gets about $51 million. That’s outside of their own regional sports network deals, MLB licensing money (hats, uniforms, etc.), gate receipts, parking, concession and whatever other way organizations turn a buck.
If Young could fall under an MLB umbrella with his Hawaii Baseball LCC and four-team dream league as someone’s affiliate farm team, that would be his gravy train. However, one reason the Hawaii Winter Baseball League closed shop was because MLB didn’t want to fork over any money for player salaries.
Young said “there’s an MLB team interested in what we’re doing.” He said he’s trying to set up a meeting. Young is a lawyer and, judging from his appealing shindig, he’s pretty good at pitching big ideas.