Massive declines in gaming revenue and sponsorship have put the future of the Peninsula Oilers summer collegiate baseball team in jeopardy.
The Oilers are playing out their 46th consecutive season and are the only Alaska Baseball League team never to have taken a season off.
The squad of top collegiate players has three National Baseball Congress World Series titles to its credit and has sent 125 players to the major leagues. All this from the outpost of the small town of Kenai and the friendly, quaint confines of Coral Seymour Memorial Park.
Currently, the Oilers are struggling to find enough money to get through the season.
“It looks bleak right now,” said Michael Tice, the president of the Oilers board. “I want to try and stay positive that fundraising efforts and donations will pay off. I want to stay positive about it, but it’s really looking negative right now.”
Diana Tice, who is Michael’s wife and an executive assistant for the team, said the organization is counting dollars for every road trip.
“Funding has always been in place for us before the season started,” Diana said. “It’s not in place right now.”
Michael said he has been affiliated with the organization since 2000. This is the first year in his time with the Oilers that funding has not been in place for the season.
“It’s not good,” he said. “I really don’t know how to describe it.”
Tice said the funds are not in the bank right now to get the players home. He said the Oilers will find a way to get players home, either through fundraising and donation of air miles that takes place this season, or continued generosity of board members, who already donated air miles and use of their credit cards to get the team up here.
The team also will make some money from beer and concessions at Seymour Park.
“It’s kind of two-fold,” Tice said. “Gaming is going down and sponsorships are going down.”
In 2009, Tice said the team raised $179,000 in gaming and $56,000 in sponsorships. Gaming and sponsorships are the two major ways the Oilers raise money. In 2018, those numbers were down to $55,000 for gaming and $35,000 for sponsorships.
Tice said that from 2011 to 2013, the economy was in the tank and gaming has never gotten above $100,000 per year since then.
In June 2018, then-Gov. Bill Walker signed a smokefree workplace law for the state. The law didn’t take effect until Oct. 1, 2018, but the Oilers went smokefree at their bingo hall in June 2018. During the season, visiting teams stay at the bingo hall.
“We knew it was coming, so we instituted it a bit early,” Tice said. “We figured we might as well not have visiting players exposed to smoke.”
Tice said that once cold weather arrived, the bingo hall saw a drop in attendance.
“You’ve kind of got to keep people’s attention when they are playing bingo and pull tabs,” Tice said. “If they go outside to smoke, they’re not playing pull tabs.”
Gaming was already going down, generating $20,000 less than fiscal 2016 in the fiscal year ending September 2017 and $19,000 less than fiscal 2017 for fiscal 2018.
“I really don’t want to lose another $20,000 this year, but we’re already way down,” Tice said.
Sponsorship is down because corporate sponsors have disappeared. Diana Tice said the corporate entities in town all used to have local representatives to run sponsorship pitches through. Those representatives are gone and Diana said she has no luck at corporate offices.
“We lost our big corporate sponsors,” Diana said. “Small businesses are what’s carrying us right now.”
The Oilers have cut expenses to the bone. Diana Tice is a part-time employee, while general manager Victoria Smith is, for the most part, a summer employee. The team added a fourth member to the coaching staff this season, but that was with the understanding that the coaching staff take over field maintenance. The coaches are now housed at the bingo hall.
According to Michael Tice, head coach Kyle Brown has been great about helping the team save money, putting in a conservative bat order, then carrying the bats up here himself to save on shipping costs.
Tice said putting on a baseball season costs from $120,000 to $180,000, depending on how it’s calculated. There are certain costs that can’t be reduced, like the $35,000 for annual airfare costs. So the team will take help in any fashion, including airline miles.
“They can just write a check if they want,” Tice said. “At the same time, if people want to call us or pop in the office and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea.’
“What we need is somebody to not just give us an idea, but also bring five people with them to make it happen. We’re staff-poor right now.”
Donations are being accepted at oilersbaseball.com. The Oilers are a nonprofit, so donations are tax deductible.
The team also is doing things like raffles and selling root beer floats at each home game, and will have a fundraising cornhole tournament at the ballpark on July 21, with more details to come.
“For me, it’s like we’re playing small ball all summer,” Diana Tice said. “Every bit of fundraising we can do can add up.”
Michael said the team would like to raise $35,000 by the end of the season. In an ideal world, the team would raise $100,000 for next season and be ready for another summer of baseball.
Tice said the team will have to decide by an Alaska Baseball League meeting in October whether it is going to play next season, or take it off to get some money in the bank.
The team also does Little League camps in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer, gives out scholarships and has helped out with the Frontier Community Services World Series.
This year, the World Series has been taken over by the Kenai Centennial Savvy Lions, renamed Strides: World Series Baseball and will be held June 29 at Seymour Park.
“We’d like to thank everybody who has helped us already,” Tice said. “We’ve got some committed sponsors. Some of the local sponsors have given incredible help.”