How to get the Dutch Hoofdklasse back on track?

Baseball is losing ground. Not only in the USA but also in the Netherlands. Less fans that head to the ballparks. Less people that play the game. Thirty years ago, some Hoofdklasse games drew around 800 – 1,000 fans per game easily. Nowadays clubs are happy if there are 100-200 fans in the stands. What needs to be done to reverse this trend?

The Dutch baseball blog wrote that the top four of the Dutch Hoofdklasse is the same for the tenth consecutive year. Even though the gap between the #4 and the #5 has become smaller, the gap is still there. And this gap doesn’t get smaller because the clubs in the lower half of the standings are getting stronger. On the contrary. The #4 is losing ground.

Right now it is still the case that (most of) the best players are going to the top four. If those clubs need a player, most of them will start shopping elsewhere. And in general, elsewhere means another club.

Why are players opting for top four clubs? First of all, the power of attraction of those clubs. Second of all, money. Officially baseball in the Netherlands is still an amateur sport, but players are paid some kind of expense allowance. And apparently, some clubs pay more than others thanks to bigger sponsors.

How can we stop this downfall of baseball in the Netherlands? We need more people to play the game again. With less people there will be less talent that can move to the Hoofdklasse and because of that the  quality will go south. But baseball needs fans in the stands too.  Perhaps that is the start of everything. And how do you get fans to the ballparks? By making the Hoofdklasse more attractive. How to make the Hoofdklasse more attractive? That is a tough question. I tend to say that the level of all clubs needs to get more equal. This needs to happen by raising the quality of the bottom four teams instead of lowering the quality of the #3 and 4 teams. But that is easier said than done and perhaps even impossible.

How can we achieve a Hoofdklasse in which more teams are each other’s match and more teams can contend? In my opinion the best option is to force Hoofdklasse and Overgangsklasse clubs to create a baseball schooling system, so they can get players from their own ranks instead of “buying” them somewhere else. And by implementing a rule that prohibits teams to acquire more than one player from other clubs and only one player from abroad, they will be forced to build a good baseball school.

You can wonder if an own schooling system won’t interfere with the current baseball academies. Not necessarily. Take the Rabbits baseball academy from Haarlem for example. Around 35% of the players that leave the academy will end up in the Hoofdklasse. Of that 35%, around 40% goes to DSS (the vast majority of these players already played for DSS before they went to the academy), 30% to Kinheim (like DSS also from Haarlem) and 30% to Pioniers from Hoofddorp. It appears that most of the players return to their old club. The unique situation with the Rabbits is that three teams are (more or less) linked to this academy, the aforementioned Kinheim, DSS and Pioniers.
In the case of the Unicorns from Rotterdam, I always thought that it would be Neptunus that would benefit the most from that academy. But after receiving a list from that academy it appears that I was dead wrong. A lot of players return to their former club after leaving the academy and even a few ended up with other Hoofdklasse clubs.
The sole exception here may be the Scimitars from Bussum. Figures from 2009 through 2013 show that the majority of players that attended that academy did not come from HCAW. But… of the fourteen players that debuted in the Hoofdklasse ever since, only two went to other Hoofdklasse clubs, so twelve went to HCAW. In that case you cannot say that the players from the Scimitars come from the own baseball system of HCAW.  But this conclusion is based on old figures and things could have been changed by now.
Nevertheless you can say that the majority of players that attend a baseball academy return to their former club and that only a handful will go the the Hoofdklasse club in the same region as the academy that they attended.

I think it is safe to say that the academies and internal schooling systems can live next to each other and that the academies are an added value to the internal schooling systems.

A discussion at Facebook pointed out that there is one big obstacle with a rule that prohibits clubs to acquire only two players per transfer period: You cannot force players to stay with their club. Of course you can’t. But why would a player go to another club, when it is almost sure that he will end up as a bench warmer? Right now, I cannot think of a solution for this problem, but in my opinion the acquisition of players needs to be limited.
Also the acquisition of foreign players during the season needs to be limited. When Curacao Neptunus lost a few players due to “retirement” and career opportunities in the USA, the team started shopping and acquired several players with professional roots halfway the season. If their own education system would have been well enough at that time, they could have filled the void that the two players left by themselves.
By shopping for foreign players, you may get Italian-like circumstances. They will cost the clubs quite some money. Money that isn’t always there. Because of this, a big part of Italian baseball is in dire straits now. In the Netherlands we have seen this with the legendary Haarlem Nicols. The acquisition of (foreign) players (even Stan Bahnsen pitched for them) eventually led to their financial downfall.
But what can you consider as shopping with other clubs? If some team gets a player from one of the academies, is that shopping with other clubs?  The academies are playing in a different league that does not interfere with the Hoofdklasse, so no one is hurt when a player leaves an academy for a Hoofdklasse team.

Anyhow, I realize that forcing teams to create an own education system will take time and it will cause a further deterioration of the level in the Hoofdklasse in the first years. I also realize that creating an own baseball education system may be very costly. But with the clubs being protected from being raided by other Hoofdklasse clubs, an own eduction system will be cheaper than “buying” players in the long run. Let’s make clear that there are some clubs in the Hoofdklasse, that already have their own baseball schooling system but this not a common thing at all clubs.

On August 10, 9innings published another article about the “problems” that the Hoofdklasse is facing. In that article another solution was written down. The Dutch Sports Federation is giving a subsidy to top sportsmen who cannot make their own money due to the time they spend on practicing their sport. A solution would be to divide the subsidies among the Hoofdklasse clubs, three subsidies per team. In that way the good players will be divided among all teams. This is a very good idea. Perhaps it may be possible to combine both ideas.

But creating education systems is not the only thing that needs to happen. More people must play our beautiful sport again. How can we convince people to start playing baseball? I think that luring more fans to the ballparks will lead to more people playing the game eventually. But how do you attract more fans? Here are several possibilities.
We need to make the league more attractive with more teams at a same level (as written before). But next to making the league more attractive, perhaps between inning entertainment and a minor league like atmosphere can help. But clubs need to promote these games; not only within the own club but also in the non baseball world, where the
potential new fans can be found. Dizzy bat races, silly games on the field, bouncing castles
next to the field. Food and souvenir stands. It all may help to get children back to the ballpark. And when the children come, their friends will come too and eventually their
parents will follow. One of the clubs that I played for is growing because kids start to play baseball. They will took some of their friends with them and their parents followed. Now there is even a team of fathers of the youth players. Sure, those fathers won’t make it to the Hoofdklasse, but one of their kids may.

Eventually, when more fans know to find the way to the ballpark, it will lead to more people wanting to play baseball. And with more people playing baseball, more talent will emerge eventually, also through the academies as they are facing the very same problem as the Hoofdklasse clubs do.

With this article I only want to look for a solution for the situation that Dutch baseball is in. I am not saying that my ideas are THE solution. No doubt that there will be other options as well and there will be better options as well. The KNBSB has held several workshops last year in an attempt to collect ideas and visions to make baseball popular again. It is not clear if one of the ideas has been picked up by the KNBSB, but with these workshops the Dutch federation has chosen the right way to bring back baseball to where it once was.

To conclude I’d like to thank Evert-Jan ‘t Hoen, Michael Duursma and Ronald Bouwman for providing the much needed information about the various baseball academies.

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