Laramie’s demographics, Cowboy Field and a 14-year run for the former Laramie Colts summer collegiate baseball team were on Steve Wagner’s radar for a while.
Wagner, who grew up in west-central Minnesota and currently resides in Rapid City, South Dakota, is the founder and president of the Expedition League – a rapidly expanding wood-bat collegiate league in the northern and central Midwest.
The Laramie Colts franchise came to a close last winter when the team and the Rocky Mountain Baseball League in Colorado grew apart on several aspects – a decline of competitive teams, looking to grow farther from Laramie into Southern Colorado and a shift in the overall ideology of the league — that would not have been optimal for Laramie to continue to field a team.
With a one-year break in 2013 to transition from the former Mountain Collegiate Baseball League to the RMBL, the Colts were a part of Laramie summers from 2005-2018.
It didn’t take long for a path to open for Wagner to begin exploring the possibility of adding Laramie to his league.
Wagner has since traveled to Laramie for meetings in late March and more recently on July 25.
The origin of an idea
“About eight or nine years ago I got really excited about summer collegiate baseball,” Wagner said. “I’m a business guy by trade, definitely a sports guy and have always loved baseball. When I stumbled upon summer collegiate baseball I started realizing this is a big deal. There’s a lot of really good leagues out there operating in that niche for quite some time.”
Wagner also knew summer collegiate leagues haven’t had a presence is his region of the country that is mostly dotted with communities and surrounding areas with populations of 30,000 to 60,000.
“When I started looking around there were some great communities where summer collegiate baseball would work really well — it was uncharted territory,” Wagner said. “The thing that really captured my attention was a lot of the communities that I have identified are really well suited for minor league-like baseball, but not really large enough communities to support a minor league baseball team.
“What’s so exciting about summer collegiate baseball is that it is an outstanding business model,” Wagner continued. “It’s everything that minor league baseball teams do with fun in-game entertainment, between inning activities, serving great food and beer — all those things — but you don’t have professional baseball players who you are paying salaries to.”
Wagner started the process of establishing the Expedition League five years ago, including about three and half years devoted to “building the league, identifying markets, negotiating ballpark leases and finding owners,” he said.
The league started with eight teams in 2018 and grew to 10 teams in 2019.
The Expedition League
The Expedition League had two five-team divisions last summer – Lewis and Clark.
Teams in the Lewis Division were: Badlands Big Sticks in Dickinson, North Dakota; Hub City Hotshots in Aberdeen, South Dakota; Pierre Trappers in Pierre, South Dakota; Souris Valley Sabre Dogs in Minot, North Dakota; and Wheat City Whiskey Jacks in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada.
Teams in the Clark Division were: Casper Horseheads; Fremont Moo in Fremont, Nebraska; Hastings Sodbusters in Hastings, Nebraska; Spearfish Sasquatch in Spearfish, South Dakota; and Western Nebraska Pioneers in Gering, Nebraska.
The league recently announced the addition of the Jackalopes in Rapid City, South Dakota, possibly starting as soon as next summer.
The league drew about 160,000 fans in 2018, and were on pace for a little more than 250,000 fans this summer.
“We are able to bring college players in and give them that minor league experience of wood bats, playing in front of large crowds and playing a lot of baseball,” Wagner said. “It’s a 64-game season in about a 75-day window and they are getting exposure. We have fantastic relationships with college coaches — they love to send their players to the Expedition League and we take good care of these guys.”
Wagner said three main factors are researched to begin the process of deciding on an expansion team – population and the demographics within, a suitable ballpark to start with and the overall strength of the business community.
“We love people of all ages coming to our games — a lot of younger families with mom, dad and a couple of kids coming to the ballpark,” Wagner said. “We make it really fun for the kids and a great experience for the parents. We look for that kind of a demographic with a right-sized population.
“Another key consideration is the ballpark. What if you have a great community and all those factors are there, but don’t have a great ballpark? So we look at communities that have great ballpark facilities that can accommodate 1,000-plus fans per game because we are drawing large crowds.
“The third factor is the strength of the business community. A significant source of revenue for our teams are sponsorships and corporate partnerships.”
Wagner is optimistic Laramie provides all the checkmarks.
Starting a dialogue
Wagner’s introductory meeting in March was well attended by representatives from the City of Laramie, University of Wyoming and the American Legion baseball program.
“It was my opportunity to tell our story and what the Expedition League is all about, to hear from all the various stakeholders and to start the dialogue about how we can relationships and a lease of Cowboy Field,” Wagner said. “It was a lot of sharing information and why we are excited about Laramie and Cowboy Field.
“There are multiple people as stakeholders in the ballpark, and Cowboy Field is what we believe a very nice ballpark for what we are looking to do. The Legion baseball people are also very excited about what we do. We partner with Legion baseball in all of our communities and work very closely. The meeting went well with a lot of positive reception.”
The second meeting was an effort to take further steps of searching for possible team owners and continue lease negotiations for Cowboy Field.
“One of the key things is finding the right ownership group,” Wagner said. “I’m very protective of all our owners and very selective about that process — entrepreneurial, business-minded folks who understand our business model. That’s important to us.
“I’m also looking at negotiating a good ballpark lease and we like a long-term lease because we plan to be in all of our communities for a long, long time.”
Wagner said changes to Cowboy Field will be determined. But some of his initial ideas are to improve concessions, develop a kid’s zone they have for all their teams, a party deck area and possible future fixed-stadium seating and VIP-type seating.
“Those are things we like to do everywhere across the league that fans really enjoy and appreciate,” Wagner said. “It takes time to build a following and a base, which is always a challenge for first-year teams — for fans to understand it is just like minor league baseball and the same experience with in-game acts, fireworks and a kid’s zone area — all those sorts of things that really make the fan experience second to none.
“The baseball talent is amazing, but what we are selling is fun. I can’t count how many times people say to me, ‘I may not like baseball, but I love what you guys are doing — this is so much fun.’”
What are Laramie’s chances?
“I love the ballpark, the demographics and size of the community, and having a university there is a positive thing for us. All those things collectively fit well with where we like to grow and expand,” Wagner said.
He added the Expedition League is looking to potentially add more teams in Wyoming and Northern Colorado and “Laramie fits the blueprint really well.
“I would say it is definitely more than 50 percent that it is probable we would have a team in Laramie for 2020,” Wagner said. “I’m excited about the possibilities in Laramie and think it could be a really good fit for the Expedition League.”