COVID-19 Outbreak Hits Hard In The Minor Leagues
Although it appears to be in the early stages, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has already touched every aspect of life around the globe. People are quarantined, either voluntarily or otherwise, in their homes. When they do go out, they’ve been asked to practice social distancing by staying 6 feet away from others.
Baseball, of course, has been hit hard as well. Spring training has been halted. The major league season has been postponed indefinitely, and players across the country have been asked to head home until further notice.
The players and coaches are the first group of people who come to mind, but the outbreak has affected everyone who works in and around the game. That includes the minor league broadcasters, some of whom work only seasonally and are now seeing their income stopped until play resumes.
“I think it’s hit me in various stages,” said Josh Maurer, who broadcasts games for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox. “The first reaction that I had when it looked like they were going to start playing games in multiple sports without fans, I thought ‘Well, that doesn’t seem all that smart either,’ and then I started thinking ‘They’re going to have to cancel all these games regardless.’
“It was kind of gratifying that sports came to the right decision. Then I woke up Friday morning, I think, and was like, ‘Well, s---, I don’t have a job.’ I wasn’t even thinking about myself and then I was like, ‘Well, all right, I don’t have any job and I don’t have any income.'”
Maurer isn’t alone. There are plenty of broadcasters across the minor leagues whose jobs are contingent on games being played. They supplement their income in the offseason by working for local colleges calling football, basketball, hockey, and any other fall and winter sport that needs someone to provide play-by-play.
When the season shifts, so do they. But if the season gets stopped for some reason, their income immediately dries up.
“The problem is: I don’t have a contract. And that’s the issue with other people who are in similar situations throughout the minors as broadcasters,” Maurer explained. “At least the players have a contract. I don’t have anything in writing that says I’m even supposed to work for the team this year. You’re an at-will employee who shows up, and when you show up they start paying you.”
Many broadcasters do more than just call 140 games per year. Some, like the West Virginia Power’s David Kahn, have a variety of other tasks despite being seasonal employees. Kahn is a studio host for Learfield IMG College during the offseason, which means he spent the offseason setting up shop in the company’s headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., once the minor league season concluded.
The COVID-19 outbreak cut that part of his year a bit, but he’d already gone back to West Virginia to do his part to get things ready for the 2020 season.
“For the Power, I manage all the broadcasts and the media relations stuff and I also coordinate team travel—preseason and during the season—I also do corporate sales, mainly with our media clients,” Kahn said, “and I handle most of our advertising for radio and digital and most of our print stuff too, including creating our programs, creating our media guide, all that stuff. And I also help out with running our social media accounts.”
Now, obviously, all of that has to be adjusted. With the minor leagues on pause indefinitely, there’s no way to print an accurate pocket schedule, produce an accurate media guide, or reassure fans and businesses that have already purchased tickets or advertisements.
The trickle-down effect from the outbreak is going to create a steady stream of unanswerable questions throughout the sport. Because he’s one of the main points of contact between the team and the public, Kahn is going to have to try his best to explain the unexplainable.
“We’re trying to basically say, ‘We’re experiencing this along with you. We want to make sure that everything you wanted out of this season as fans, we can give to you no matter what happens to the season,’” he said. “Here’s the thing: The reason that most fans are understanding is that this is out of our control. We can’t control this from an organizational perspective because we’re respecting the decisions of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, Minor League Baseball and Pat O’Conner.
“We are all in agreement across Minor League Baseball that this is the right decision for the health and safety of our fans, our players, our staffs, etc., but it’s still not great and it’s still tough to deal with.”
Beyond the people who work directly for and with the team—the front-office executives, the seasonal employees, the game-day staff—there are the businesses who have a symbiotic relationship with the team. By staging an event during the season, the team can put more people in the seats. Those people will then become exposed to the wares of the vendor du jour.
In the Power’s case, that means their fifth annual CharlieWest BrewFest is on hold. The event brings local breweries to the ballpark for a postgame tasting. The events brings people to the park, then possibly pushes them to the brewery to get another taste of something they sampled at the game.
This year, that event was scheduled for April 11, which was to be the Power’s only Saturday home game played at 2:05 p.m.
"So now we have to look at the rest of our promotional calendar, where we’ve already scheduled out every Saturday for the rest of the season,” Kahn said. “Keep in mind that the rest of the Saturdays are at 7:05, so we have to adjust the game time in order to replicate what we’ve done in the past.”
If the stoppage goes on much past the midway point of the season, it will also wipe out school days throughout the minor leagues. Those are the day games when the stands are mostly filled by children who, in some cases, are getting their first taste of the minor leagues. If school is out by the time the season returns, then hosts of kids will lose out on that chance.
Those are small pieces of the puzzle, but they clearly illustrate just how many ripples a prolonged stoppage will have throughout the minors. It’s not just the players and the coaches or even the people who work for the team. It touches all parts of a team’s community.
“Every facet of the organization is affected by this, and the problem is that this is an unprecedented situation. Nobody was really expecting something of this magnitude to happen with the Coronavirus because you haven’t really had a national emergency like this since the 1918 flu,” Kahn said. “You can talk about swine flu, you can talk about Ebola, you can talk about other things, those are not as much of a national crisis as this is.”
For now, baseball is on indefinite hiatus. For some broadcasters, that means a chunk of their yearly income is gone and they’ll have to survive on whatever savings they’ve squirreled away for emergencies. The others will continue to head to work, preparing for an Opening Day that might be months away. They’ll try to create content to keep their team in the minds of their fans, so when the all-clear is given and things can return to normal, they’ll choose the ballpark for their first night out in months.
"I feel like that’s the best way I can help my community: Continue to do my job, continue to help our team get ready for the season and continue to put out whatever I can put out in any kind of fashion, just because it’s better than nothing," Kahn said. "You have two options here: You can either sit and wait it out, or you can take action."
“I’m choosing to take action and continue to do my job and get ready for the season and support everyone else that’s trying to get ready for the season and support my friends and colleagues in the industry who are either still working or trying to find work. It’s certainly two sides of a coin, but I’m trying to stay heads-up and hope for the best