This time of year, the yard should be opening its yawning gates to thousands of Arkansas Travelers baseball fans for what’s arguably the best part of the season, the cool spring home stands that welcome baseball back.
Coronavirus has changed all of that, of course, for both the Travs and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals based in Springdale, fellow members of the Texas League and tailor-made in-state rivals. Between Opening Day and end of May, each squad should be exactly 50 games into a 140-game schedule; instead, more than a third of the season has gone uncontested.
Travs General Manager Paul Allen knows the question on everyone’s mind — when, or if, the season will start — a question for which he has distilled an answer as insightful as it is concise.
“That is the million-dollar question,” he said.
It goes without saying that with each lost game, the state’s two Double-A franchises — the Travs of Seattle, the Nats of Kansas City — lose money, but exactly how much is hard to calculate. Professional sports teams craft multiple streams of revenue beyond ticket sales, including food and beverage, merchandise and sponsorships, not to mention fees from special events held in their home stadiums.
But some quick math and extrapolation give one an idea of the financial impact of canceled games. Both squads target about 300,000 fans per season; spread out over 70 regular-season home stands, that averages 4,286 in paid attendance. Even at the median single-game ticket price (around $10, give or take), the losses pile up in a hurry. And that doesn’t factor in-game purchases of food and beverage, souvenirs, team gear or the extended economic hit taken by vendors and the local business community.
And even if the season started tomorrow, proposals that severely curtail or prohibit live fans are basically a different verse sung to the same financial tune.
“The tough part for us is, there really isn’t going to be a season without fans,” said Justin Cole, vice president and general manager for the Naturals. “One of the big things about our industry in particular is, we don’t have a TV contract so there isn’t any TV revenue we can tap into to try and pull back some semblance of what we would have had for a season. We do need fans in the park, and we need to have that revenue stream to make everything go.
“We’ve taken a very proactive approach and followed what a lot of other clubs have done, which is letting people know we’re hopeful we can still play, and here are the options when we do. We try to let them know we’re going to be as flexible as possible with the money you trust us with to put on these great events. We’ve tried really hard to let people know that if they need us, we’re here, and we’ve basically maintained a tether almost every 10 days where they hear from us by email or phone. And that’s across the spectrum — sponsors, season-ticket holders.”
Technically speaking, the clubs have been allowed to resume operations under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines since May 5 when Gov. Asa Hutchinson said outdoor stadiums could resume hosting events. However, additional restrictions — specifically the rule that players or performers must maintain 12 feet of distance — effectively kept team sports on the bench. Subsequent easing of restrictions on certain team sports including baseball, announced May 21 and effective June 1, applied to youth and community sports.
All are largely moot points at present, as the fate of the minor league baseball season is subject to external forces beyond local and state government.
“We actually don’t have that final say on if we start or not,” Allen said. “It starts with Major League Baseball and the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association. They’re right now trying to figure out how they want to start with the health and safety of their players and their front-office staff. And they’re hoping to get started without fans.”
The outcome of those deliberations is far from assured. In a May 23 post for ESPN.com, Jeff Passen broke down the current state of professional baseball’s attempt to salvage the season. A plan from the owners was delivered to the MLB Players Association the week of May 25, a plan complicated by financial concessions, health concerns and dealing with multiple state jurisdictions, each with varying requirements for sporting events. Not to mention the contentious history of the two entities involved that doesn’t naturally lend itself to a quick resolution, per Passen.
“In any accelerated timeline, two overriding elements must exist for a deal to come together: motivation and trust,” he writes. “The first is easy. Both sides recognize that a 2020 deal isn’t just a deal for 2020; the short- and long-term futures of the sport ride on it.
“Trust, on the other hand, is hard to come by, and if this thing falls apart — if the absence of a good-faith negotiation dooms the 2020 baseball season — it won’t be directly because of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be because the erosion of trust in recent years among the leaders on both sides poisoned and polluted the landscape to an extent that a deal never was going to happen in the first place.”
When and if the national game gets on track, then a trickle-down effect would happen for minor league teams, something far more complex than what the average fan sees, Allen said.
“Being a minor league team affiliated with a professional team, we don’t own the player’s contract,” he said. “We’re the Double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, so the Seattle Mariners are the ones that contract the minor league players. They pay their salary and their benefits and all that and they send us those players. We can’t look at the Mariners, and say, ‘We don’t want that guy. We want a different guy.’ They just send us whoever we get, whoever’s in their developmental system.
“When you think about them sending players to us, it’s not just one market they have to worry about. Our league has eight different teams, so that’s eight different markets. But then when you expand out into Triple-A, the rest of Double-A, Single-A, short-season baseball, there’s 160 minor league teams. Major League Baseball’s worried about trying to get their 30 teams going. But then you have to think about the logistics of 160 minor league teams and those communities and where they are health-wise and which state is open more than others. It’s a logistical nightmare.”
As such issues work their way through the system, both Allen and Cole said their respective staffs have remained busy. Both clubs have used downtime for additional stadium work, and their marketing teams have turned their attention to promotions that impact the community. Since Opening Day, both franchises have held special sales of branded items with proceeds going to local charities.
The teams have also begun to look at creative events other than baseball to give people an entertainment outlet and, in some cases, generate a little revenue. Staying busy has sustained the spirits among the clubs’ permanent employees, roughly 30 in total.
“[Coronavirus measures] happened so fast,” Cole said. “Our office talked on March 11 and 12 about if we had to take some time away from the office what that would look like, and then March 13 our ownership, [Buffalo, N.Y.-based] Rich Products did a work-from-home for the entire company and that included us. It happened so fast there wasn’t a ton of emotion other than, all right, what have we got to do to make sure we can stay on task?
“At that time, I don’t know that any of us thought it would be extending for even this long. I think some of us probably thought our season will probably still start, and we’ll still get everything moving on time. I think everybody’s just taking it in stride; we’re still working with that hope that we have plans in place for the season to start at a certain point. Everybody’s staying really engaged.”
As May melts into the heart of summer, Allen fields another million-dollar question, one he is more loathe to think about. Taking everything into account, what are the odds the entire 2020 season will be lost?
“That is a very good possibility,” he said. “We’re doing our best to stay optimistic. When you hear good news about Major League Baseball that’s only good for us. We have a plan for half a season. We have a plan for a quarter of a season. We have a plan if we can get baseball going and play later into October and November; we’re ready for that. But we also have that plan in writing for if we don’t have baseball.
“Baseball will be back. The Travs will do everything in our power to make sure that it is safe for fans, and it is affordable. It’s about the community, and it’s about people getting together. We want to be a part of this healing, and we will make sure that our environment is safe and clean for everyone to enjoy.”