The Prospect League kicked off its 2012 season on Tuesday — without the Nashville Outlaws.
After just two years, the summer collegiate baseball team is defunct after failing to find new ownership.
“We had a good thing going and we had pretty good success in two years,” Brian Ryman, who served as the Outlaws’ manager both summers, said. “Both parties tried very hard to make it work. I think Nashville is a great sports town and has a lot of options. It became a big financial burden not only on the first ownership group but on the league to continue to do it. They just had no choice but to shut it down.”
After reaching the playoffs in their first summer with the Prospect League, the Outlaws reached a state of flux in March of 2011. The franchise’s founders and owners Brandon Vonderharr, Jason Bennett and Chris Snyder — along with former director of sales Dustin Skilbred — left for opportunities at Alliance Sports Marketing, which was founded in 2002. The sports marketing agency specializes in sponsorships for sports teams and venues. On its website, logos and posters of the Outlaws are featured as examples of print and design work.
With just two months before the season opener, the league stepped in and operated the Outlaws for the 2011 season. Commissioner David Chase conducted a search for a new owner. He told The City Paper last May that without new ownership, the Outlaws’ future with the Prospect League looked bleak.
“We’re not going to force it,” Chase said then. “If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”
Last December, with no leads on an owner and scheduling for the 2012 season around the corner, the Outlaws disbanded. Chase could not be reached for comment.
“I know they had several potential buyers and for whatever reason they all backed out,” Ryman said.
Several factors contributed to the Outlaws’ demise.
In 2010, they played their home games at 3,000-seat Hawkins Field at Vanderbilt. But the cost of rent took a toll on the franchise.
In 2011, they moved to Lipscomb’s Dugan Field. It was a familiar site for Ryman, who is Lipscomb’s director of baseball operations. Attendance suffered. After ranking fifth with a 1,081-average at Vanderbilt, the Outlaws were last in attendance at Lipscomb, drawing just 212 fans per game.
The Outlaws were also the furthest team south in the 14-team league, which was created in 2009 and includes teams in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“Our travel was a lot more than a lot of teams in the league,” Ryman said. “With the hotels, the meals and the equipment if people aren’t coming to the games then there’s no money to pay the bills. ... Those other markets are really small towns and it’s the only game in town. Whereas here in Nashville we’re blessed to have great country music and concerts all the time and you have the Predators, the Titans and the Sounds and so forth. There is always lots of options and things to spend your money on.
“Sometimes us being the low man on the totem pole there wasn’t enough dollars for us.”
The team drew numerous collegiate players from around the area and the country along with players from Belmont, Cumberland, Trevecca Nazarene and Vanderbilt.
Jerry Bell, who was the Outlaws pitching coach, is still offering an avenue for local players. The former Belmont pitcher, who spent four years with the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1970s, runs the Tennessee Summer Collegiate Baseball Association. The six-team, wood-bat league features many junior college players and former high school standouts with Middle Tennessee roots.
Ryman also keeps busy as the director of the Middle Tennessee Outlaws. The non-profit amateur organization is in its seventh season and caters to players between the ages of 15-18. More than 60 former Middle Tennessee Outlaws have gone onto play college baseball.
“There’s not a league that is certified through Major League Baseball so that is kind of disappointing,” Ryman said. “I know we have a great Triple-A program here and Vanderbilt, Belmont, Trevecca and Lipscomb have all been successful. There are a lot of really good players in this area and a lot of good baseball people. So it is difficult not to have that college option in the summer.”