Camden Riversharks cease operations

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Camden County officials hope to sign a team with a major-league affiliation, sources said.

Camden's Riversharks are gone.

The independent professional baseball team, which for 15 years played in the picturesque Campbell's Field on the city's waterfront, said in a statement Wednesday that it would "cease all operations immediately."

The statement on the team's website said the Camden County Improvement Authority, which bought the land in April, did not offer it a new lease.

"We would like to thank our partners and fans for supporting the club for 15 memorable seasons," the statement read. "We did everything we could to keep affordable, family entertainment alive and well in Camden."

Representatives from the Riversharks released a statement on the decision shortly after a call Wednesday asking for information about the team. General manager Lindsay Rosenberg did not return requests for comment.

Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said Wednesday that negotiations with the Riversharks reached "an impasse," and that county officials are talking with several prospective replacements.

"The CCIA is moving in another direction and will continue to negotiate with other parties to ensure the property is being utilized to its highest potential and to protect the taxpayer," he said. "The county will be exploring all alternatives to the site."

People with knowledge of the situation have said county officials are working to sign a team with a major-league affiliation. Last month, a group of South Jersey businessmen, Camden officials, and a Philadelphia developer announced plans to build shops, offices, homes, and a hotel on the Camden waterfront - a proposal that has drawn interest from additional parties who are interested in the stadium, county officials say.

In recent weeks, the Riversharks released most staff members from their contracts, according to one former employee, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the matter.

"They're all pretty bitter about how things went down," he said. "They seemed to have an idea ahead of time that something was coming one way or another, but they weren't given a whole lot of time to digest the situation."

If another team moves in, the 6,500-seat Campbell's Field is likely to attract a club that plays at the single-A level of minor-league baseball, which typically use stadiums that size.

However, it could be more than a year before a new professional team plays in Camden. There are no affiliated minor-league teams with expiring player-development contracts this year, according to the industry magazine and website Baseball America. The Phillies have locked their five minor-league affiliates into their current locations through at least 2016. The Phillies would also have to approve any deal with a team affiliated with Major League Baseball, because Camden County is within the Phillies' territory.

If officials are unable to secure a professional team for next season, the field would likely be used mostly by teams from nearby Rutgers University-Camden, which formerly owned the land and has played there for years.

It was unclear whether the Riversharks would relocate to another state, such as Connecticut, where the team had been floated as a potential replacement for the New Britain Rock Cats. The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, of which the Riversharks were members, this month approved bringing a franchise to New Britain, but no details have been announced.

The Riversharks played their final game in mid-September. A merchandise sale will be held at the ballpark Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, according to the team website.

When the $20 million ballpark opened in 2001, the Riversharks played before a sold-out crowd that delighted in the return of professional baseball to Camden after a century-long absence. Local leaders said the field would engender civic pride, and many hoped the stadium would spark more waterfront revitalization, joining the Adventure Aquarium and Susquehanna Bank Center as attractions for visitors and leveraging millions in additional development.

But the team was soon in such dire financial straits that it almost had to forfeit its 2004 season. The stadium's backers predicted Camden would earn hundreds of thousands through a ticket surcharge, but the money never materialized and the organization fell behind in tax payments. The team also 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.

The team ranked second to last in its eight-team league this year in published attendance. According to the league website, the Riversharks drew just over 3,100 people per game, but actual attendance has been estimated to be far lower because free tickets are distributed through sponsorships. Wednesday's team statement said that more than 3.5 million people had attended games over 15 years.

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 CCIA bought the stadium for $3.5 million, saying the transaction would protect the stadium as part of the waterfront.

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @AESteele

Inquirer staff writer Matt Gelb contributed to this article.