Camden Riversharks may be leaving town

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Students from around the region attend the Camden Riversharks' Baseball in Education Day game at Campbell's Field on May 7, 2009. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer)

The Camden Riversharks, the independent professional baseball team that has played at the city's waterfront Campbell's Field for 15 years, may leave next season, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Two people with knowledge of the situation said Camden County officials were working to bring in a team with a major-league affiliation next year.

No agreement is in place for the Riversharks to play at Campbell's Field next season. The team and the county are in negotiations.

The Riversharks have long struggled with low attendance and financial troubles. Lindsay Rosenberg, the team's general manager, would not say whether the team was leaving, but acknowledged that its lease expires this year. There are two weeks left in the season.

"We want to stay," she said Thursday. "We want to be here another 15 years. We're dedicated to this community. Great things are happening in Camden, and we want to be a part of it."

Louis Cappelli Jr., director of the Camden County Board of Freeholders, said the county was talking to several prospective parties, including the Riversharks.

"The Freeholder Board wants to secure a long-term viable relationship with a tenant for Campbell's Field for years to come, so we can protect a valuable waterfront asset," he said. "In addition, we want to ensure that baseball continues to be played in the city for the foreseeable future, and that a prospective lessee has the wherewithal and resources to support itself."

The Hartford Courant on Wednesday reported that the Riversharks were a "likely" candidate to replace the New Britain, Conn., Rock Cats, who are leaving that city next year. Riversharks owner Frank Boulton did not return a call for comment.

The 6,500-seat Campbell's Field is most likely to attract a team that plays at the single-A level of minor-league baseball. Teams at that level typically play in stadiums the size of Campbell's Field. The Phillies would have to approve any deal with a team affiliated with Major League Baseball because Camden County is within the Phillies' territory.

The Riversharks, members of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, ranked second to last in their eight-team league this year in published attendance. According to their league website, they drew just over 3,100 people per game.

Actual attendance has been estimated at far lower in recent years, because many free tickets are distributed through sponsorships.

The picturesque $20 million ballpark, which sits near the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge, opened in 2001 with great fanfare as the Riversharks played before a sellout crowd. The stadium was owned at the time by Rutgers-Camden, whose teams also use its fields.

County officials hoped that bringing professional baseball back to the struggling city, after it had been gone for close to a century, would foster civic pride. Many also hoped the stadium would be a catalyst for a revitalized waterfront, joining what are now the Adventure Aquarium and Susquehanna Bank Center as major attractions for visitors in the region and leveraging millions in additional development.

But within a few years, the team was in such dire financial straits that it almost was forced to forfeit its 2004 season. Predictions by the stadium's backers, who said the city would earn hundreds of thousands of dollars through a ticket surcharge, fell far short.

The team has had few winning seasons, and its league is unaffiliated with MLB's farm-team network, which some say has been hard for the Riversharks to overcome.

After the team was sued in 2013 by Santander Bank, which financed the stadium's construction and claimed it was owed more than $4 million in back rent, the Camden County Improvement Authority bought the stadium for $3.5 million. The agency said the transaction would ensure that the stadium remained a viable part of the waterfront.


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856-779-3876 @AESteele

Inquirer staff writer Matt Gelb contributed to this article.