Creekside Sports has been in the horsehide-swatting business since Gerald Ford was president. Softball in Denver has been around in one form or another since bell-bottoms were hip -- the first time. And Crestmoor Park Softball Association opened its doors when John Travolta was dancing in white leisure suits.
Now the City of Denver is looking for a piece of the old ball game.
Earlier this week, the Denver City Council approved a plan to start its first city-run adult softball league, putting Denver government in direct competition with the handful of private companies that for the past several decades have assumed the headaches of organizing games, finding umpires, buying softballs and fielding complaints from the several thousand players who take to the city's diamonds every spring, summer and fall.
City officials insist that everyone can play together without a bench-clearing brawl. "Our goal is not to push anyone out of business," says Tiffiany Moehring, public-information officer for the parks and rec department.
Denver's competitors in the bat-and-ball biz don't see it that way. "It may put us out of business," complains Steve Esses, who co-owns Softball in Denver. Adds Dave Moysey, owner of Crestmoor Park Softball Association (CPSA): "With no Denver fields, I'm not gonna be able to do it. I'll have to stop."
Despite these protests, the city's move into the ball game makes some sense. After all, Denver owns the fields the games are played on. Yet there's also no question that the department was lured onto the diamond as much by the promise of profit as a love of the game. Managing adult softball leagues will never be mistaken for running Microsoft or Wal-Mart. But the private companies "can make quite a bit of money," Moehring says. Adds Stu Bader, who handles field permits for Denver, "We think there's a way for us to make money on this. We can generate some revenue."
The city's interest in softball highlights an anomaly in Denver's recreation programs: Nowhere else in the metropolitan area are adult softball leagues organized privately.
The city has farmed out the job to a handful of small organizations for at least the past quarter-century. Ernie Perez, who started organizing games more than three decades ago, says he recalls overwhelmed parks and rec officials asking players to help them organize leagues in 1972.
The players eventually formed a board of directors, organizing into a non-profit company called Denver Softball. At its peak, Perez says, the company managed up to 700 teams in the city's spring, summer and fall leagues.
About five years ago, however, the city began making it more difficult to operate in the softball business. For example, Denver increased its field-rental fees, then added a $160-per-team surcharge to the registration fees. "During the past five years, Denver has dramatically raised fees -- over a 1,000 percent increase to CPSA Sports, so that these [private] organizations can no longer make a profit and stay competitively priced with leagues in the suburbs," complains Moysey. Faced with a field shortage, the city also began restricting the fields on which the adult teams could play.
Concluding that such pressures made it too difficult to continue, Denver Softball called it quits in 2001. The following year, however, Esses, then a city worker, reckoned he could revive the company and perhaps make some extra income in his spare time. Last summer he organized about 250 teams under the new company, Softball in Denver.
Crestmoor Park Softball Association began operations in 1977 as a six-team petroleum men's league at Crestmoor Park, near Alameda and Monaco. According to the group's Web site, "Besides the annual summer men's leagues at Crestmoor Park, nearly thirty coed oil-company teams participated in CPSA leagues and tournaments at Crestmoor Park on Sundays in the early '80s."
When the oil business tanked in the mid-'80s, organizer Moysey says, he began seeing the league as a way to supplement his income, so he opened Crestmoor to teams outside the oil industry.
Stan Janiak initially started Up the Creek Sports in 1975 as a readership promotion for the weekly newspaper he published. Last year, Creekside Sports organized softball games for just over 100 teams. The business has not exactly made Janiak rich. "I earned $13,000 last year," he says, "but I'm retired and receive Social Security, so this income was very important to me."
The newcomer to the Denver adult-softball scene is a national adult-recreation company called SportsMonster, which moved into the local market in 2000. Last year, it arranged games for about 200 softball teams during the spring, summer and fall seasons. Still, says SportsMonster founder Bart Fitzpatrick, due to the high cost of using Denver's fields, it's not a huge moneymaker. "It's a little tricky here," he says. "We have very low margins."
Bader says city parks officials started looking at moving into the softball business about four years ago. But, he adds, several embarrassing scandals in the parks department made the political climate inappropriate for the city to make any sudden moves into private enterprise, and then-mayor Wellington Webb recommended shelving the plan. This fall, however, with Denver in a serious budget crunch, profits were suddenly a topic of interest. When Bader and others dusted off the plan to start running softball this time, officials were ready to listen.
According to initial five-year projections, department bean counters calculated they could earn about $46,000 the first year of operation and closer to $50,000 thereafter. Even if those figures prove overly optimistic, Moehring says, the city can bail on any league that's costing too much money. "Fiscally, it's very low-risk," she says. "We're only going to run the leagues that make us a profit."
Those who've been in the business for a while, however, say the city is doing its math in a field of dreams. "We know what the costs are," says Moysey. "There's no way they can make money. My concern is that they're going to be inefficient and waste taxpayer money."
Creekside's Janiak agrees. "Three private companies paid the city over $125,000 [in registration and rental fees] last year," he says. "There was no cost to the city other than field maintenance -- no health insurance, no salaries or retirement benefits. Privatization of city services is the holy grail of city efficiency. This is reverse privatization. Plus, it will cause the loss of jobs of three companies."
What rankles him more, Janiak adds, is that the city's entrance into the ball-game market is akin to a real-estate taking. "These are teams that have been organized and promoted by private companies," he says. "Teams are the assets of the companies."
Bader and Moehring both insist that department personnel will not contact established teams and players directly to swipe players for their new league. "It makes no sense for us to go in and smash everyone out of business," Moehring says. "We're not intending to take over the entire market." Instead, a marketing campaign featuring fliers posted at recreation centers and local businesses will indirectly target softball players.
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Even if a takeover is not the department's goal, parks and rec is already wielding a big bat, placing private organizers in a financial squeeze play. For starters, the city has reserved the ten fields at Kennedy and Vanderbilt for its own league -- parks generally regarded as the two best for men's softball because of the lengths of the fields. (Bader is reluctant to admit as much -- kind of. "I don't want to say these are the premier fields," he says, "but we wanted to provide a quality program, and we selected these fields.")
Because it owns the fields, the city is also undercutting the competition on cost. For instance, Bader says, the city was able to lop the $160 surcharge off the top because it isn't necessary to charge itself the fee. A price-comparison chart prepared for the city council shows that the league will cost $100 to $200 less than fees charged by the private organizers.
Still, recreation directors in several suburban districts agree that it's about time the city began managing its own ball games. They note, for example, that Denver's adult softball leagues have not been particularly well run in recent years, citing a number of defections to their leagues. They also point out that Denver is one of the most expensive places in the metro area to join a softball league.
Besides, Bader says, he's ready to take a turn at bat. "Basically, these groups have been using city facilities to make money," he says. "We think we can do it better. We're recreation professionals."