As Restrictions Ease, Minor League Teams Find Ways To Attract Fans
Each year at the league’s promotional seminar, promotional directors from teams around the country meet to brainstorm ways to utilize their ballparks on days without baseball. With the season currently suspended and extremely unlikely to begin at all, executing those ideas has become paramount.
No games means no fans, which means almost no revenue for each of the 160 teams in the minor leagues. Layoffs and furloughs have been commonplace across the industry, but the employees who remain are hard at work trying to make the most of their facilities as states and cities begin easing the social distancing restrictions that were put in place to try to quell the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
In most years, these types of events were supplementary. Now, with a probable 19 months between games, they’ve become essential.
Teams like the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and the Fort Wayne TinCaps, for example, have put together meal kits so their cities’ residents can assemble ballpark staples at home. A five-night kit from the TinCaps costs $185 and serves between 4-6 people.
One example of a kit includes tacos, teriyaki chicken, pulled pork sliders, barbecue brisket, and hot dogs over the course of five days. The package also includes complementary pieces, like buns, chips, cookies and soft drinks.
“We’ll do 100 and something meal kits again this week. It’s not just a single meal, it’s five kits for everybody and it’s like a week’s worth of food,” TinCaps president Mike Nutter said. “The Round Rock Express deserve credit for this idea. In that great metropolis that is Austin, Texas, they’re doing 300-350 kits a week … It’s big business.”
But you don’t have to go home to enjoy ballpark food. The Blue Wahoos, among other clubs, have found a way to turn their stadiums into restaurants while also adhering to all local social distancing requirements.
More than just a meal, the Wahoos also are offering their guests as close to the normal game-day experience as can be replicated without players.
“We’re doing the show just like a Wahoos game. We have in-game entertainment, things like the dizzy bat and the racing mascot, we have our man in the stands, really making it a full-out dinner show basically,” Pensacola president Jonathan Griffith said. “In between the time we play a baseball game on the video board from 2019.”
Sticking with the culinary theme, the TinCaps also have opened their doors to the Fort Wayne Farmers Market. While admission is free, the team used the opportunity to welcome roughly 2,800 fans.
“We did a rental of the venue with somebody that we’ve been with for a long time,” Nutter said. “They’re going to take at least the next couple of weeks and they may stay here all summer, so that would be an every Saturday type of thing—2,800 people was a good number.”
The Fourth of July is huge in the minor leagues. Schedule makers ensure that each club has a home date either that day or the day before so they can pull out all the stops and fill their park to as close to capacity as possible.
Baseball isn’t likely to be played in the minors on the holiday this year, but that won’t stop teams from trying to maximize their ballparks as much as guidelines will allow. Outside the ballpark, a sizable parking lot gives each team a big leg up when it comes to what it can pull off.
The Northwest League’s Salem-Keizer Volcanoes are a prime example, and they will try to find ways to use their ample blacktop to their advantage this summer.
“We are looking at our promotional schedule and see how we can re-package or re-invent our biggest promotions. We have a 12-acre paved parking lot on-site and are considering and studying how events could be held ‘drive-in’-style,” Volcanoes president Jerry Walker said, via e-mail. “We have already committed to hosting our national award-winning Fourth of July Patriotic Tribute—whether a game is being played or not.”
The drive-in idea is gaining steam around the sport. Multiple teams, including the Blue Wahoos, the Daytona Tortugas and the Rocky Mountain Vibes are planning to use their massive video boards to show feature films.
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On May 22, the Tortugas will screen “42” at Jackie Robinson Field. Eight days later, the Vibes will screen “Back to the Future” at UCHealth Park. At the event, which is already sold out, fans will be allowed to drive their cars onto the outfield grass to watch the movie.
Beyond that, the Blue Wahoos have tapped into the star power of two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, also one of the team’s co-owners, to bring live sports of some kind into the ballpark this summer.
Earlier this month, the team unveiled a nine-hole disc golf course that spanned its entire playing surface.
“We have done a lot of cool things at Blue Wahoos Stadium before, but creating a disc golf course may be one of our most creative ideas,” Watson said in a team release. “I don’t think any other baseball team has ever done this. For anyone who has not played disc golf, it’s a great way to spend some time outdoors and an easy game to learn, so anyone can come out and play. I’ve been playing it with my friends for years when I’m not on the golf course or at a Blue Wahoos game.”
In the interest of safety, disc golfers were encouraged to bring their own discs or purchase a pack of three from the team for $25.
The element of safety is, of course, key. Restrictions are being lifted and gatherings are being allowed to varying degrees across the country, but it’s very clear that the virus is still a threat. So even as they work hard to come up with creative ways to keep fans engaged during what is looking like a very long layoff, teams are making sure to balance their ideas with the utmost caution and concern for their fans’ health.
“We worked with the city officials. We have a meeting with the fire department and the police every two weeks just to make sure we’re understanding what the new regulations and rules are—as well as the city representatives—we work as a team for all of those things to make sure we’re doing it safely,” Pensacola’s Griffith said. “The city of Pensacola’s No. 1 priority is the safety of its citizens, and we agree.”