March is one of the busiest months of the year for a minor league baseball team. Not only are employees in the mode of selling tickets and sponsorship packages for the upcoming season, they are also working on their game-day preparation, which includes training additional staff for games that start in early April.
It’s not as if California League staffs were unaware of the developing COVID-19 crisis just weeks before opening day, but until they knew otherwise, they had to prepare for a season.
“In March, I don’t think anybody was buying this (as a problem),” Inland Empire 66ers General Manager Joe Hudson said.
Shaun Brock, in his first year as CEO and Co-General Manager of the Lake Elsinore Storm, envisioned the virus affecting the season, but not in the way it ultimately did.
The Storm’s stadium, The Diamond, was going through the final stages of some offseason renovations and Brock feared some of the upgrades — namely the stadium’s new video board — wouldn’t be completed until the team’s second homestand. Some planned promotions had issues, too.
“We had started to get rumblings (there were problems) in early February,” Brock said. “Some of our suppliers (in China) were having an issue hitting some of the (delivery) dates.”
Then Major League Baseball shut down and California’s stay-at-home order was enacted.
“I would say with the timing of this pandemic, it could not have been worse for the sport of baseball,” Hudson said. “We were two weeks out from our first event at the stadium (County Clash, a day of high school baseball games). We were a month out from our first game.”
EVERYTHING CAME TO A STOP
The 66ers had just received their shipment of pocket schedules, which were obsolete almost as soon as they arrived. Hudson was thankful that magnet schedules, a popular giveaway for teams during their first homestand of the season, were not part of the 66ers’ promotional calendar this year.
With ticket and advertising sales halted and merchandise sales limited to online only, the stream of revenue slowed to a trickle.
And now, with Major League Baseball scheduled for a restart in July, there has been no real talk about a 2020 Minor League Baseball season. Whatever hope remained for a season is gone.
“It’s fair to say there is a zero chance that minor league baseball has a chance to play this season,” Hudson said.
Major League Baseball can operate without fans because there are lucrative national and local television contracts.
That is not a revenue stream for Minor League Baseball.
“In fact, we have to pay to be on the radio,” Brock said.
With social distancing rules in place, fans aren’t expected to be allowed to attend sporting events in California anytime soon.
So, no fans means no games and no revenue.
And with no games, there are fewer jobs. Teams don’t need the additional staff they usually hire for various jobs during the season. Teams have also reduced their full-time staff. The 66ers initially started with unpaid furloughs but have since reduced staff. The Sixers and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes have reduced staff approximately in half, down to eight people. By early June, the Storm had reduced their staff by about a third.
“We’re hoping to be back in the 13 to 17 range (of full-time employees) in October,” Quakes Vice President/General Manager Grant Riddle said.
TIME TO GET CREATIVE
Teams have had to come up with new ideas to either make money, remain active in the community or both.
Shortly after the shutdown, the Storm helped one of their partners, Shamrock Foods, sell food to customers after Shamrock’s usual restaurant clients shut down. The Storm also made meals available to the community, donating one meal to someone in need in the community for every five meals sold through its meal relief program.
“It wasn’t about making money,” Brock said. “It was about helping out our partner and the community.”
Teams participated in the Feeding America program, soliciting donations through their websites.
“We helped raise over 50,00-60,000 dollars,” Riddle said. “And we’d donate tickets to frontline workers.”
The Quakes have limited opportunities to hold additional events at LoanMart Field because the stadium is run by the City of Rancho Cucamonga.
The Storm turned their parking lot into a drive-in movie theater, with proper social distancing protocols in place. The 66ers hope to do something similar.
The Sixers had their mascot, Bernie, deliver yard signs to graduates in San Bernardino and surrounding communities.
The Sixers have planned a bigger project, in keeping with the team’s history of hosting a game and fireworks on July 4. Fans can buy a parking spot for $40 at San Manuel Stadium on July 4. (Early-entry and VIP tickets have already sold out.) The ticket covers a parking spot and an additional empty spot that can be used to set up lawn chairs to watch the fireworks show.
“We have 1,600 parking spots and we’re selling a little less than half that,” Hudson said. “This is where the community goes for July 4 fireworks. There are only two fireworks shows in the Inland Empire and we’re one of them.”
But with fans in the parking lot, the fireworks will need to be bigger and higher.
“The fireworks are twice as expensive as last year,” Hudson said. “We want to have people enjoy it.”
There could be some baseball played at the area stadiums. Hudson said there have been discussions about a wood bat collegiate summer league playing games without fans at San Manuel Stadium.
Hudson and Riddle said there have been preliminary discussions about their stadiums hosting minor league players to use to stay ready in case they are needed by their major league team. The 66ers are an Angels affiliate, the Quakes are affiliated with the Dodgers.
The players would likely only be practicing at the stadiums and the arrangements wouldn’t include fans or games.
MORE TROUBLE AHEAD?
It’s a bleak outlook not only for this season, but for the future of minor league baseball.
“Minor League Baseball will be going 18 months without any revenue and that’s a severe hit for any business,” California League President Charlie Blaney said. “Fortunately, our clubs have been able to apply for loans and come up with other sources of revenue. Each club has to be creative.”
The 2020 season was scheduled to be the last under the 10-year Professional Baseball Agreement, the working arrangement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. Blaney said he did not know if the agreement would be extended to 2021 if there is no 2020 season.
But for the next PBA, a proposal was leaked that called for a reduction in the number of minor league teams across the country. One proposal called for the elimination of the Lancaster JetHawks from the eight-team California League, with a team in Fresno (currently a Triple-A franchise) taking its place.
“MLB was talking about contracting 42 teams,” Blaney said. “That’s just one proposal and nothing is a done deal.”
— to www.pe.com