Minor league baseball fans are welcoming America’s pastime back to towns across the country.
Minor league teams can be true community staples. The more laid back atmosphere attracts kids and families, and the developmental prospects on the teams bring out baseball diehards wanting a glimpse at future Major Leaguers.
These fans didn’t get to see their teams play at home or on TV last year. Due to Covid-19, the minor league season was canceled. Therefore, the start of the 2021 season marked a return to some semblance of normal for clubs and towns alike.
Yet, all isn’t as it was before the pandemic struck. Here’s a roundup of some local media reports on the return of America’s pastime.
In Frisco, Texas, the Frisco RoughRiders’ unique outfield lazy river and their stadium itself now lack sponsors, according Meredith Yeomans of NBC DFW. Team president Victor Rojas told her some businesses aren’t comfortable returning as sponsors at the start of the season, blaming safety and liability concerns.
Money problems are a common issue across the minor leagues. Spokane Indians senior vice president Otto Klein told David Nichols of the Spokesman-Review that the loss of ticket sales and sponsorships hurt the bottom line of his team and most of the club’s counterparts. Per Nichols, the Indians sold takeout ballpark-style meals and created an open-air dining venue in the infield as innovative ways to recoup lost revenue.
Fans’ return to the ballpark hasn’t looked exactly like it did in pre-Covid times, either. Masks (especially early in the season) and digital tickets were common sights across stadiums. Cash, however, is a less common sight as venues are moving to cashless food sales. In an interview with the Springfield News-Leader’s Wyatt D. Wheeler, Springfield Cardinals general manager Dan Reiter said some of those changes could be here to stay.
“I am beyond excited about this change (to cashless concessions) because it shows your wait time is less and that the customer satisfaction scores increase. I think this is going to be an amazing long-term change,” he said.
Other clubs are embracing cashless concessions as well. Stockton Ports president Pat Filippone told Justin Frommer of The Record, “Fans were great and understanding and they recognize a lot of this stuff makes a lot of sense moving forward.”
Per Frommer, the Ports must follow the rest of the state of California and wait until at least June 15 to drop their mask mandate.
As cases have gone down, masks have come off and seats have filled up in many places, but safety is still a paramount concern.
“We work off of a simple business concept: safe, clean and fun,” Iowa Cubs president and general manager Sam Bernabe said to Jimmy Lynn of the Des Moines Register. “If it’s not safe and it’s not clean, then we don’t have to worry about fun because no one’s coming anyway.”
According to Lynn, Cubs majority owner and chairman Michael Gartner kept the whole ballpark staff on full pay with benefits, a $4 million loss. In addition to being generous though, it allowed the club to more easily adapt to returning to play in a difficult job market.
The Norfolk Tides had to temporarily let some of their staff go. Grounds crew assistant Justin Hall, who took a temporary gig with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, told David Hall of The Virginian-Pilot that an early-season game with no fans was “kind of eerie.” He added, “Getting the fans back in here is going to be huge.”
For some fans, returning to the ballpark was a question of when, not if. 71-year-old Iowa Cubs fan Karen Franklin – a ten-year season ticket holder along with her husband, Paul – told Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register, “We’ve been married over 50 years. We don’t have a date night. The Iowa Cubs are our date night.”
Per Birch, pregame events like the national anthem happened in the concourse instead of on the field and other on-field events like the first pitch were scrapped or altered. Fortunately for the Franklins, before the mask mandate was lifted, fans were allowed to remove their masks for the kiss cam.
As more fans can now attend games and more locales lift their Covid restrictions, teams are turning to creative promotions to get fans back in ballparks. Oklahoma City Dodgers president and general manager Michael Byrnes told Emily Collins of Fox 25 OKC that the team added a new, fancier concession stand with “specialty or craft hamburgers and cheeseburgers, some specialty hotdogs,” and hand-cut fries.
According to Alan Blondin of Myrtle Beach Online, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans have added fireworks shows every Friday and on holidays like Independence Day and Labor Day. They have also started drink promos like “Thirsty Thursdays” and “Sipping Saturdays.” Blondin says the Pelicans also plan to pilot in-stadium concession delivery.
A Personal Touch
While teams have followed CDC guidance and taken many steps to make fans be and feel safe, some fans may not be ready to attend a gathering as large as a baseball game just yet. For those people, the Pelicans are taking concession delivery to the next level.
The team’s $15 novelty “beer bats” went viral on social media, but a licensing hiccup means they can only be directly sold in the stadium. As a workaround, fans can Venmo general manager Ryan Moore, and he’ll buy and drink one for them and then put the bat in the mail.
It’s hard to imagine a Major League general manager making him or herself that accessible to fans, and Moore’s gesture just goes to show how personal a connection fans can have with their minor league clubs.
Even the biggest of televisions can’t provide that personal touch, and cardboard cutouts can’t replicate it. Minor league clubs, like all other sports franchises reopening their stadiums, know safety must come first in order to get fans through the gates again. But that sense of connection and community can go a long way toward keeping fans engaged once they’re back – and it might even make them some new fans, too.
As sports venues return to full capacity, industry leaders trust IIFX and their Return to Work, Play and Spectate guide for reopening. Get the guide here.