Over the winter the the Lake Elsinore Storm embarked on a $2 million project to renovate their minor league ballpark. The upgrades included a shiny, new $400,000 video board. These days Shaun Brock has been pondering some other uses for the screen.
“Maybe everyone will get a plot of grass six feet apart on the field and we’ll all watch Disney Plus together,” the chief financial officer and co-general manager of the Storm said.
Opening their stadium — The Diamond — for a movie night could be one way to generate revenue amid a crisis that threatens the business models of minor league baseball teams across the nation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down sporting events of all levels throughout the country indefinitely.
Major League Baseball is kicking around ideas of playing games in empty venues, which would at least recoup some revenue from television. That’s not an option for minor league baseball, which can’t survive without ticket sales.
“Minor league baseball is about community and affordable family gatherings,” said Brent Miles, president of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. “If you can’t do those things, playing the games makes no sense.”
The reality is that there is no timetable for the resumption of events with large crowds, especially in California.
“The prospect of mass gatherings is negligible at best until we get to herd immunity and we get to a vaccine,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday. “So large-scale events that bring in hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of strangers altogether across every conceivable difference, health and otherwise, is not in the cards based upon our current guidelines and current expectations.”
That casts a pall over the operations of the California League, the eight-team Class-A circuit in which games are typically played in front of 2,000 to 3,000 fans.
Half of its teams are in Southern California. The Inland Empire 66ers, who play in San Bernardino, are affiliated with the Angels. The Quakes are a Dodgers’ affiliate. The Storm is an affiliate of the Padres. The Lancaster JetHawks are a part of the Colorado Rockies system.
Top executives of all four teams said this week that they are doing their best to remain positive even amid a crisis that threatens their businesses.
According to the Wall Street Journal, minor league baseball teams average $5.4 million in annual revenue, almost of all of which comes from ticket sales and concessions on the days they have games. Full-season minor league teams have 70 scheduled home dates a season. This year that number will almost certainly be sliced significantly, and perhaps reduced to zero.
If Major League Baseball decides to resume its season in empty ballparks, but minor league teams still can’t host games with crowds, organizations may have their minor league players work out and play exhibition games at their spring complexes in what would amount to an expanded version of the fall instructional league.
The prospect of empty ballparks all year in the minors is one that club officials have been forced to ponder, much as they try to stay positive. Miles said he won’t even try to guess if or when they’ll be able to have games this season at Rancho Cucamonga.
“I am trying to avoid playing that game, to be honest with you,” Miles said. “We get asked all the time. I think we’re just trying to do keep our head down and do what we can do to get ready. It’s not like the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes are making this decision. We’re going to get told what to do by MLB and the government.”
So far the clubs have only missed about a week of the schedule, and the four Southern California teams have managed to keep all of their full-time employees on the payroll. The Storm have the most full-time employees, at 25. The JetHawks have 14, the fewest.
All four teams have applied for help via the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which is intended to help small businesses keep their employees during the Covid-19 crisis.
“That program is probably the main reason we still have our employees,” said Andy Dunn, president of the JetHawks.
If the ballparks remain empty for too long, though, the clubs are likely to have to trim their staffs. Teams generally reduce their staffs in the offseason, only to rehire around January, so they might have to go to winter-time staffing in the summer if the pandemic doesn’t subside enough to open the gates.
In the meantime, those employees are mostly working at home, waiting for the green light to have baseball.
The Storm have kept busy supporting the community in a couple ways.
Since March, the parking lot at The Diamond has been used as a drive-through Covid-19 testing site. Brock said about 250 to 300 people per day have been getting tested in their cars. The tests are performed with appointments only, which can be made by calling 800-945-6171. Symptoms must be present in order to make an appointment.
The Storm employees have been feeding the workers administering the tests twice a day.
They have also been feeding the community. In partnership with Shamrock Foods, which supplies food for the ballpark, the Storm has been repackaging bulk foods into household-size portions to sell. They are also donating a portion of the food to those with a need.
Joe Hudson, general manager of the 66ers, said they are exploring opening up the ballpark to corporate events once they are cleared to have gatherings smaller than a normal game.
“Most of the time it’s tied to a game, but we’ve talked about doing those things without a game,” Hudson said. “Allowing access to the field, and that kind of thing. It really allows a company to have a great time and thank their employees and their customers.”
The Quakes have a slightly different challenge because their lease with the city of Rancho Cucamonga is simply for 70 baseball games, so they don’t have the option to use the ballpark as a revenue-generator without a game.
At this point it’s clear that the teams won’t be able to get a full schedule of games, but there is hope that they could replace some of the games they are missing now with an extension of the schedule at the other end. The minor league regular season normally ends around Labor Day. If Major League Baseball extends its season, as has been proposed, there could be a longer minor league season too.
Brock said his staff is ready to do whatever it takes: “If we’re playing around Thanksgiving, we’re playing around Thanksgiving.”