The first pitch was thrown out Friday night at Rosemont's new $63 million, 6,300-seat baseball stadium along the Tri-State Tollway, officially adding another player to the lineup of baseball franchises in the suburbs.
The owners behind the new team, the Chicago Dogs, believe they'll have success -- at least off the field -- in a marketplace that features two well-established major league teams and four lower-level suburban franchises that are competing for the same suburban family fan base.
But what makes them so sure, considering similar franchises -- the Schaumburg Flyers and Lake County Fielders -- have flopped in recent years?
"It's the location," said Shawn Hunter, a longtime corporate sports executive who partnered with fellow investor Steven Gluckstern as owners of the new franchise. "I think for minor league baseball, this might be the best in America in terms of population, access and public transportation, and then all of the complementary assets around that the village has to offer -- the entertainment, the restaurants, the movie theater, the Fashion Outlets."
The Dogs, who play in the 12-team American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, feature a roster of players aiming for a shot in the big leagues. They'll compete in the same league as the Gary SouthShore RailCats. The Schaumburg Boomers, Joliet Slammers and Crestwood-based Windy City Thunderbolts play in the independent Frontier League.
The Kane County Cougars are the sole team in the suburbs tied to a major league team. They're the class A minor league affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But baseball in the minor leagues has long been more about family fun -- the giveaways, promotions and postgame fireworks -- than what's going on between the foul lines. Experts say the success of the Chicago Dogs -- and the ability of their competitors to adjust -- depends on how well they can execute those off-field antics.
"If they're really good at giveaways and fun dress-up nights and crazy things in the marketing world, then there's potential," said Nola Agha, an associate professor of sport management at the University of San Francisco, who has studied the economic impact of minor league teams on communities.
Agha believes there's a place in the market for the Dogs because of the size of the metropolitan region, with someone who lives near Rosemont, for example, more likely to attend a Dogs game than drive 31 miles to a Thunderbolts game in South suburban Crestwood.
And Allen Sanderson, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago who also studies the economics of sports, says the Dogs are competing against other suburban entertainment options more so than they are baseball teams.
"I think for families, it's 'Hey dear, where are we going to go tonight? Do you want to go to the mall, the pop concert, a museum, or go see the new team?'" he said.
If there is one team at risk of losing a share of the market it may be the Boomers, who play 15 miles to the west in Schaumburg.
But team owner Pat Salvi thinks the suburban market is big enough for both teams, and says the Boomers will focus on attracting fans who live south of Schaumburg that might not want to travel to Rosemont. So far, the Boomers haven't seen a hit to their group sales or sponsorships, he said.
But Salvi admits the new team will force the Boomers organization to work harder. And he supports efforts of the village and park district to make upgrades to the 19-year-old ballpark to compete with Rosemont's publicly financed Impact Field.
"I think we can both coexist successfully," Salvi said. "But everybody -- from the GM to the guy who pulls the tarp -- has to just be more vigilant and work a little bit harder to make sure we're presenting the best product we can to fans."
Salvi is also owner of the Gary-based RailCats, which competes in the same league as the Chicago Dogs. As a voting member of the league's executive committee, Salvi said he supported the Dogs' inclusion because of their strong ownership group and benefit they would bring to the league as a whole.
Curtis Haug, general manager of the Kane County Cougars, said he didn't think the Rosemont team will have much effect on his team, which has played in Geneva since 1991. Last year, they ranked third in attendance in the 16-team Midwest League.
The Dogs owners said they studied the practices of a number of teams, including Mike Veeck and Bill Murray's St. Paul Saints, a fellow American Association franchise that leads all the independent league teams in attendance.
"It brings together everything I love about sports and entertainment," Hunter said of his new franchise. "Every night a big portion of our crowd will be going to the very first baseball game of their lives. We're going to be bringing people into the sport."