Before summer heat descends upon the Flathead Valley in 2022, residents and visitors alike will be able to partake in the most classic of American pastimes on a professional level.
The Pioneer Baseball League (PBL) board of directors approved an expansion to the Flathead Valley on Aug. 16, bringing the total number of clubs in the Rocky Mountain area league to 10.
Businessman Marty Kelly, who splits time with his family between Kalispell and Atlanta, proposed the yet-to-be-named Flathead Valley team. The Kelly family will be joint owners in the venture.
“I’m sure my father probably first thought about owning a baseball team in the 80s when it was a little more accessible for minor league baseball,” Chris Kelly said. “Through the 90s and 2000s, it seemed like a dream that was going away as minor league baseball wasn’t as popular.”
Now that family dream is only months away from becoming reality, spurring a flurry of activity to get a full franchise up and running in time for the May opener.
When Mike Shapiro took over as PBL president less than a year ago, the league was already planning to expand from eight teams with the addition of the Northern Colorado Owlz, who will join for the 2022 season.
“One of the highest priorities I had was to find a 10th team for 2022,” Shapiro said. “There were a number of criteria I had when I was looking through the region. It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.”
Shapiro needed main components for a potential addition: a market to support the team, an adequate minor league baseball facility, and the right ownership group.
Of the three, the first point was the easiest for Shapiro see in the Flathead Valley, with the area’s rapid growth and a long history of supporting youth and American Legion baseball.
Chris Kelly says that throughout years of involvement in the baseball world — the Kellys founded a the Sunbelt League, a collegiate wood bat league in Alabama and Georgia, in 2005 — the family met contacts throughout professional baseball and “one thing led to another” until they ended up in a discussion with Shapiro.
“The opportunity to be part of the expansion plans were there, and we were able to put the club within the footprint of the league,” Kelly said. “Obviously for us the first choice was to bring it home to the Flathead, as a way to give back to the community here.”
The one missing key to the Flathead Valley’s status as an expansion location was the lack of a suitable venue, but the Kellys offered a solution to that as well, with a parcel of land they acquired north of Kalispell off U.S. Highway 93.
The new first-class stadium will have a capacity of 2,500 and be used for other family-friendly events throughout the year. Kelly says the hope is to break ground “as soon as possible,” and renderings of the design have been made public. Even if the ballpark isn’t finished in all capacities, Kelly and Shapiro say it will be able to support the professional team in its inaugural season.
In addition to the stadium, with only nine months until opening day, there’s a lot left to figure out to create a new franchise from scratch.
“I have absolutely no doubt they’ll have a team ready to play,” Shapiro said. “But what goes into that is a lot more than putting players on the field. It’s pulling together staff to scout, recruit and sign players, and putting an operations team in place, gathering sponsors and selling season tickets and marketing the club.”
The PBL has been around since 1939 but lost its Class A-Rookie affiliation with Major League Baseball before the 2021 season, moving to “partner league” status. Without individual teams benefitting from a Major League partner, a large portion of funding comes directly from ticket sales and merchandising.
Marketing can be a major source of revenue for partner league teams, many of whom have gained notoriety for their mascots and brand more than their record or players.
In 2019, the Missoula PBL team rebranded from its hometown-associated name the Ospreys (there is literally an osprey nest in the stadium) to the current Paddleheads.
The company behind the Paddleheads rebrand, Brandiose, has a reputation for remarketing minor league teams into nationally recognized sensations with memorable mascots. In 2018, the company unveiled a new name and mascot for the club in Madison, Alabama called the Rocket City Trash Pandas, and its mascot Sprocket, the garbage-can-flying raccoon astronaut, helped the club pull in more than $4 million before taking to the diamond for a single game.
“Obviously we’ve had discussions internally of names we like and dislike,” Kelly said. “We want something the community can be proud of, but at this point we don’t have any names in mind. We’re really glad to see public support on social media, though.”
Kelly was referencing posts on locally run Instagram and Twitter pages that crowd-sourced ideas for fun. Among those submitted, some in jest, were the “Second Homers,” “Snowghosts” and “Powder Monkeys.”
“We look forward to continuing to interact with the community at large to come up with something everyone can enjoy,” Kelly said. “This is a great opportunity and we’re proud we’re doing this privately through our family, but we want it to be for the Flathead Valley.”
As the closest league team, the Paddleheads will be an obvious rival and close travel partner.
“We supported the application and we’re excited to see baseball grow in Montana, especially on the professional side,” said Paddleheads Vice President Matt Ellis. “Hopefully it’ll create a close rivalry that will be fun for the fans — I can see a lot of our fans traveling to games and we’ll probably do something really fun to get people up there for the opening day.”
Shapiro thinks the region can support additional clubs, leaving open the possibility of further expansion beyond the current 10, but would not divulge the potential cities on the list.
“I’m particularly excited to have the Pioneer League in that part of the world, in the Flathead,” Shapiro said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places you can find in this country, and for the people of the community, and the visitors, they’re going to have this wonderful summertime family-oriented entertainment option.”
“I can just see it now: beautiful summer nights there, people able to come out to the ballpark and have a local, professional club to cheer on.”
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