Dan Litzinger and partner Kim Archer have different versions from the same theme in their description of having owned the Rochester Honkers.
Litzinger and Archer were in charge of the Northwoods League baseball franchise from 2003 until 2018, the Honkers playing an approximately 72-game schedule through the summer months. Litzinger and Archer, the Honkers former co-owners, routinely put in 18-hour days to get the job done.
As is true of most owners of minor-league franchises, a lack of resources dictated that their hands needed to be in every aspect of the day-to-day activities, from making sure there were enough hot dogs and buns at the concession stand, to unclogging toilets, to writing checks to the umpires, to yukking it up with patrons, to turning out the stadium lights when that evening’s production was finally done.
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For them, it was a labor of love. That is, until the labor had finally eclipsed the love and they sold the franchise in December of 2018.
“Kim used to say that it was like hosting a party every night, with 36 of them, but with different guests every time,” Litzinger said. “I’d say it was like having 36 productions of the same play, but with different endings every time.”
But it was fun, right?
“Yeah, the whole thing was a labor of love,” Litzinger said. “I liked the thrill of the games and seeing happy faces. I was more involved in the fun parts, with the fans, the sponsorships, the host families, training the interns with video and radio, and all of the team aspects. Kim had to deal with more of the dark side — from the HR stuff, to the book keeping, to the taxes, to the staffing and hiring a brand new staff every year and finding people who actually wanted to show up and work every day.
“But in the end, we got out because of the stress and burnout that went with it. It was a lot of hours and we were not getting any younger. Really, it’s a younger person’s gig.”
Strength in numbers
When Litzinger and Archer sold the Honkers, they found familiar and trusted folks to take over. It was a five-person group that took the reins, three of them already with long-time connections to the Northwoods League — the La Crosse Loggers’ operators Chris Goodell, and brothers Dan and Ben Kapanke. They were joined by Mankato business leaders and friends Chad Surprenant and Kyle Smith, that five-some purchasing both the Mankato MoonDogs and the Honkers, and doing it under the name Bases Loaded Entertainment.
It’s Goodell’s 22nd year in the league, having gotten his start in 1997 as an intern for the Waterloo Bucks, then gradually moving his way up in that organization before joining the Loggers in 2002. He became part owner of the MoonDogs in 2018 and the Honkers in 2019, as well as the Honkers’ president.
To the 46-year-old Goodell, none of this has ever felt like work, even though his summers are filled with 16-hour days at the ballpark.
“Twenty-two years in the league and I haven’t worked a day yet,” Goodell said. “This isn’t work. We go to the ballpark in the summer and it’s all built around the game of baseball. That is my passion. People come to the ballpark to socialize, or for all different reasons.”
Still, Goodell’s perspective is different from Surprenant’s or Smith’s when it comes to his Northwoods League ownership positions. This is Goodell’s livelihood, his full-time and year-long job.
For Surprenant and Smith, being in the mix of five Honkers and MoonDogs owners is more pastime than full-time gig, though they both pour themselves into it each summer.
“My opportunity is to be an investor and a super-fan,” he said. “After (Litzinger and Archer) worked at it for (15) years like they did, I can see why they got out. But for me, this is fun.”
Surprenant is the former longtime CEO of architecture and engineering firm ISG, and now works as its chief strategy officer. Smith is a developer in Mankato.
“When I went to the meeting (about being a prospective Northwoods League) owner, Chris and Dan were telling me, ‘You’re going to love this,” the 51-year-old Surprenant said. “They let me know that I could be as involved or uninvolved with the (Honkers and MoonDogs) as I wanted to be. I enjoy making improvements with the facilities, to make it a better experience for the fans.”
What he’d really enjoy is seeing a new stadium erected for the Honkers. That, he said, would make a massive difference for the franchise to reach the ceiling he envisions. A designer and architect by trade, he has some plans there. But for now, it’s a waiting game with the city of Rochester to make that happen.
Surprenant intends to keep pushing and is sure a new ballpark, likely built on the present downtown site, will eventually get done.
“We need to get that accomplished,” he said. “As things are now, with a tired and old stadium, you can only take Rochester so far. But we’ve designed a master plan at ISG for a new (Honkers) ballpark that would be used for multiple sports. If done right, and done downtown, this ballpark could be the link to the city.”
He also believes it could be the missing link to making the Honkers one of the biggest draws in the Northwoods League
“We could be drawing 2,500 to 3,000 fans per night,” Surprenant said. “That’s what it should be in Rochester.”
Heavy dose of fun
The Honkers are currently among seven minor league-type franchises in Rochester and Austin, though they would more appropriately be classified as amateur sports franchises, since none of the players are paid.
Rochester houses the Honkers, men’s soccer teams Med City FC and Rochester FC, women’s soccer team Rochester United, the Rochester Grizzlies junior hockey team and the Rochester United men’s basketball team. In Austin, there is the Austin Bruins junior hockey team.
Of that group of seven, the newest arrivals are Rochester FC (third year year), owned by Muharem Dedic and Midhat Mujic; and the Rochester United soccer (third year) and basketball (first year) teams, both owned by Matthew Fatehi.
Owners of each of these franchises jumped in for similar reasons, led by their passion for their community and their sport(s) of choice, a sense of adventure and a desire to connect with people.
Craig Patrick, who teams with Mike Cooper in co-owning the Bruins and Grizzlies, remembers getting the bug to be a sports owner all the way back to his grade-school days, growing up in Sioux City, Iowa and a fan of the Sioux City Musketeers, a USHL team.
He was also a fan of the Musketeers’ owner at the time.
“Their owner seemed like a great guy and like he was having so much fun,” the 56-year-old Patrick said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll do something like that someday.'”
Once Patrick and his wife Michele’s four kids were out of the house, all of them former high school and college hockey players, he determined it was time. In 2010, he bought an NAHL franchise and landed it in Austin, 120 miles from the family home in Hudson, Wis. Patrick had been drawn to Austin way back, with long-ago trips there for youth hockey tournaments.
“The thing that makes places like Austin and Rochester special is that there’s community pride there,” Patrick said. “You want what you’re doing to be cool for the town and you want people to feel good about the team being part of their community. We try to do as much good as we can.”
Bruins and Grizzlies co-owner Cooper, a California transplant who’s lived in Austin the past 23 years, owning various restaurants, got into sports ownership for the same reasons as Patrick, with his ever-building passion for hockey and the Austin community. The 47-year-old signed on as co-owner of the Bruins seven years ago. In 2018, Cooper and Patrick added the Rochester Grizzlies (formerly the Rochester Ice Hawks) to their ownership list.
“I just wanted to be involved in any way that I could and be involved in something that’s great for our community,” Cooper said. “Like most amateur sports franchises, you’re not in it from a money-making aspect. You’re not going to get rich owning a junior hockey team. But it’s an opportunity to get involved in the community and watch great kids from all around the world chasing their dreams.”
'Why are we doing this?'
Frank Spaeth is in his fifth year of owning Med City FC, a franchise he built. He was given the idea of starting something in the fall of 2016 by a couple of friends who’d imagined minor-league soccer flourishing in Rochester. They nudged Spaeth to become a soccer owner, knowing his passion for the sport (a former college player at Concordia University, St. Paul), aware of his many soccer connections in Rochester as past director of the Rochester Youth Soccer Association, and also aware of his sports management background. Spaeth was the general manager of the Minnesota Chill professional women’s volleyball team in Rochester, which folded after one season, in 2002.
For a couple of months, Spaeth sat on the idea of purchasing a soccer franchise in Rochester. The mulling stopped when he learned that it could land in the respected National Premier Soccer League.
Though that clinched things for him, his reasons for saying "yes" were multiple.
“I’d always been hearing that there weren’t enough things to do in Rochester,” Spaeth said. “I figured I can continue to hear that or I can do something about it. I also saw this as a great way for our youth players in town to have something to gravitate toward and buy into. You can go up to the Twin Cities and spend something like $200 for a family of four on a Minnesota United game. But (minor-league soccer in Rochester) could be a great alternative, costing a lot less and much closer to home. And it could show kids that they can play above and beyond high school and even college soccer and help them try to reach the highest level.”
For Spaeth, too, this has not been a money-making venture. He minimizes costs as best he can, including employing the same host-family setup for players as the Honkers, Bruins and Grizzlies do. Spaeth’s players come from all over the world.
But as the lone investor in this venture, and hosting only about 10 games per summer, Spaeth keeps costs down even further with no paid workers. All of the help he gets is from volunteers, with about 10 regulars selling tickets and merchandise, operating the scoreboard, and doing live streams and public-address announcing. The Med City FC head coach is also a volunteer, third-year man Neil Cassidy, a highly respected former women’s head soccer coach at Saint Mary’s University in Winona.
Spaeth’s two biggest helpers when it comes to this operation are his wife, Jen, and 18-year-old daughter, Addy. Son Owen, 14, also pitches in, mainly as a ball chaser during games.
Spaeth says the franchise couldn’t exist without those volunteers. And no doubt, Jen and Addy head that list.
“Once my wife got on board, she never looked back,” Spaeth said. “She is sort of my assistant general manager, taking care of so many things. And Addy is an amazing daughter, taking care of everything from ticket sales, to helping behind the scenes. It’s morphed into a family affair. I couldn’t do it without them.”
And even with them, Spaeth admits that there are times when he wonders if it’s all worth it. The hours it takes to keep things going are endless, and it’s nothing more than a break-even operation.
“Sometimes I’ll ask myself, ‘Why are we doing this,’” he said. “And the reasons are that I’m crazy, and I still have a desire to do something for the community that adds value. I think we have done so many good things (with Med City FC). Now, I want to see how much further we can take it.”