How Will Coronavirus Change the Minor League Baseball Fan Experience?
Whenever it resumes, Minor League Baseball is going to look nothing like it did at any point in our lifetimes.
The Professional Baseball Agreement between the league and Major League Baseball expires on Sept. 30, 2020, and a proposal by MLB would slice 42 teams from the minors and realign the remaining clubs before the beginning of the 2021 season.
Even if the two leagues reach an 11th-hour agreement to either extend the PBA or save the condemned clubs from the chopping block, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is likely to have drastic effects on the 2021 season. Without an effective, widely disseminated vaccine, everything about the game day experience will be fundamentally altered for the near future.
From the box office to the turnstiles to the suite level to the seating bowl to the restrooms and everywhere in between, a day at the ballpark will be forced to strike a balance between entertainment and caution.
To get an idea of what the new normal might look like—whether that’s this summer or in 2021—Baseball America spoke to operators across the country about the changes they anticipate making before the next time fans are allowed into their ballparks.
One of the first things that has to happen—to the best of a team’s ability—is to make sure the fans they let through the gates are healthy. Greater access to testing would make it easier, but it isn’t foolproof. There are already parks around the country which require fans to clear metal detectors before entering, and temperature checks might be the next step.
After a season spent ramping up the excitement in the area, the Rocket City Trash Pandas were slated to open their gates for the first time this spring. Their new ballpark was replete with all the modern amenities fans have come to expect—four-top tables, a 360-degree concourse, bars and other social areas in the outfield.
Now, the team might have to consider adding a new feature for the immediate future in order to allay any fears fans might have about coming to the park.
“We were probably going to shatter attendance records. Now, are people going to be afraid to come to the ballpark?” Trash Pandas president and CEO Ralph Nelson said. “So, we’re talking to health officials, we’re talking to the county, we’re talking to the state, and I know that we’re talking about taking people’s temperatures before they come to the ballparks. They’ll go through metal detectors and they’ll have their temperature taken, and if they have a fever they’ll be sent home.”
Once the fans are deemed safe for entry, the next step would be to get their tickets scanned and let them walk through the turnstiles. In the age of coronavirus, even something as simple as that could prove tricky.
Even before the breakout, some teams had been pushing toward digital tickets which could be quickly read by a barcode scanner. With an emphasis on as little contact as possible, the new reality might give other teams a big push in that direction.
“We’re trying to work through contactless things, with the potential for considering how to get all our tickets onto mobile devices for people so that there’s no ticket changing hands,” Columbia Fireflies president John Katz said. “People hold their phones like they do when they get on a plane and you put it up to the scanner and the scanner lets you through.”
Teams with multiple entrances are going to be at a big advantage because fans are going to need to maintain social distance while waiting to get through the gates, which could lead to some very unwieldy lines on particularly popular nights.
Perhaps the biggest question teams will have to answer—with guidance from local, state and federal officials—is just how many fans will be allowed into their ballparks. If people are still required to socially distance themselves, then the concept of a sellout will become very loose.
Katz and his staff have tried to picture what a full ballpark might look like before a vaccine is widely available.
“We’ve even gone so far as to walk out in the stadium one day and figure out, ‘OK, so we need to have a 6-foot gap between people. What does that look like?’ It’s really changed the way you’d have to sell tickets, because let’s say you’ve got a family of four, well we can seat the four of you together, but the next person that comes in might be by themselves, so there has to be a four-seat gap between people,” he said, “not to mention that it would have to be two full rows clear between where anyone’s sitting just to maintain the 6-foot social distancing guidelines, so we’ve done those exercises.”
The problem goes beyond the seating bowl. Most new parks are outfitted with plenty of places for fans to mingle with one another while the game goes on in the background. That includes bars, playgrounds for families with children, and even swimming pools and lazy rivers. None of those areas lends itself to a lifestyle built around social distancing, which might further limit the amount of tickets a team can sell on any given night.
Ultimately, the number is going to vary from team to team depending on the stadium’s layout.
“We have a 7,500-capacity ballpark, so you’re looking at cutting that down and telling people they have to keep their distance from one another. It would not be easy. Four-tops become two-tops,” Nelson said. “If you (sold) every other seat—we have 5,500 traditional stadium seats—so I guess you’d cut that number in half.
“It’s just so ironic that the remainder of the stadium is what they call ‘social areas.’ I’ve been quoted in 50 stories about the socialization aspects of our ballpark. We have four-top (tables), we have party decks, we have suites, we have the berm, we have this beautiful bar in right field called the Rock Porch, which was patterned after the Band Box in Nashville.
“It’s about people standing shoulder to shoulder and enjoying baseball.”
Once the fans are in the park, simply getting them to their seats while maintaining the required space between each other is going to prove challenging. Ushers may have to guide people to their seats in the same fashion as a host at a restaurant. The family of four would get settled, while the next person or group of people waits for the usher to return to bring them to their seats.
The process would repeat until each section is “full,” the definition of which might change on a nightly basis. One thing is clear, though: No park will be completely sold out until the threat of outbreak is in the past.
“I think we may be asked to sell tickets in every other row, every other seat, which would severely impact capacity,” said longtime minor league executive Chuck Domino, currently the CEO of the Richmond Flying Squirrels. “That’d be like 25 percent of your capacity.”
Minor league teams make most of their money by bringing fans into the park—an extra rainout here or there can mean the difference between finishing in the red or the black—so the prospect of not being able to sell all of their seats is daunting.
Even the tons of flashy new merchandise available every year won’t make up for drastically fewer people in the stands.
“Certainly with merchandise you’re making 50 cents on the dollar and it’s a nice thing—you’d rather have it than not,” Domino said, “but it’s nothing that really effectively helps the bottom line to the extent where it’s going to keep you in business or keep a few people employed for a little bit longer. Fifty cents on the dollar on online sales is not really going to save anybody.”
Even the Trash Pandas, which have moved hats and jerseys and other branded apparel at a higher rate than anyone could have fathomed, really need to start putting people in the seats in order to realize the goals they had for their inaugural season.
“Restaurants are not making the money they were making, but they deliver meals. And I’m sure there are other businesses that I’m not thinking about, but Minor League Baseball revenue sources are (roughly) 65-70 percent ticket sales, and then the rest of it is food and beverage that you sell to the people who bought tickets and merchandise,” Nelson said. “I’m guessing, because we’ve sold $2.6 million of merchandise and haven’t thrown a pitch, but at some point we were really counting on fans coming to the ballpark. It’s a captive audience, so this is a difficult, difficult time for this particular industry.”
Selling merchandise in the park won’t be without its hassles, either.
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The capacity in the team store will likely be limited because of the need for social distancing, and fans will certainly not be allowed to handle merchandise they don’t intend to buy. Fans will be required to keep six feet between one another in lines, too, and teams will try to take as much contact as possible out of the actual transaction.
That goes for concessions, too, which present a host of new challenges.
“I think it would almost be easier to do in-seat service, whether it’s through a (point of sale) company or another company that has an app that lets you do that,” Katz said. “You put in your seat number, you pay for everything on your phone and a runner brings you your food.”
Some teams have systems like that in place already, but others would have to quickly make plans to get one set up. No matter how the food gets to the customer, there are other variables to consider that require tedious, cost-inefficient solutions.
Take a hot dog, for example. Some people like theirs with mustard and ketchup, which is most cheaply dispensed in self-serve pumps on the concourse. Others like relish, onions and sauerkraut, which most commonly come either in packets or salad bar-style, with communal tongs and scoops.
In a world where the threat of coronavirus still looms, pumps and anything with shared utensils are too risky. That leaves packets—the most expensive option for teams—which still would need a level of safeguarding.
“(Packets of) ketchups, mustard and all that stuff, that’s great except for one thing: You have to hand them to people. Someone behind a counter in gloves is going to have to hand them to people, because, let’s say I’ve got dirty hands and I reach in and I touch 12 other ketchup packets, and then you reach in,” Katz explained.
“It goes beyond just how you’ll do it and the theory behind it, because, again, you have (packeted) condiments that are much more expensive than pumps, but again you can’t have things out in the open where they’re going to be essentially things that can be contaminated.”
Even if food and merchandise can be delivered to fans by stadium workers in masks and gloves, there’s no way around fans having to leave their seats to go to the restroom. Even in the pre-coronavirus world, stadium bathrooms were already a veritable petri dish of potential contaminants, but teams are going to need to find ways to maintain as sanitary of conditions as possible when the game returns.
Katz mentioned the possibilities of having entrances and exits propped open so fans don’t have to touch them, as well as taking every other urinal out of service so fans can keep their distance from one another during the process. Automatically flushing toilets would also remove another bit of contact from the process as well.
And that’s just during the game. What happens when the last out is recorded and fans want to get home as quickly as possible? The usual gaggle of fans flooding toward concourses and parking lots can’t happen while maintaining social distance requirements.
The new exit strategy, much like the pregame entrance, is going to take time and patience.
“That kind of goes into this concept of orderly ingress and egress. How do you do that in such a way that Saturday night here with 5,000 people, the fireworks end, and guess what: 5,000 people want to leave at once,” Katz said. “They don’t want to wait and they don’t want to line up and queue. They don’t want someone standing there saying, ‘OK, how many people are in your family? You four can walk out as soon as this person hits the blue line.’ And then you have to wait behind them until you can queue out, so it’s going to fundamentally change the way we operate.”
All of the scenarios that make up what executives see as the new normal, while frustrating, could be a reality the next time gates open at parks around the country. Fans will be asked to temporarily sacrifice convenience in the name of safety, which calls to mind the ways airports have changed over the last 19 years.
“The easy comparable to how the world changed before we pivoted and got adjusted and moved on was Sept. 11 travel,” said Pat Filippone, who is part of the ownership group for the Delmarva Shorebirds, Stockton Ports and Everett Aquasox.
“If you and I were to have this discussion on Sept. 10, 2001 and said every time you get on a plane you have to take off your shoes, you have to wait in line to go through full-body scans and can’t bring liquids, can’t do this, can’t do that, we would have said ‘No way,’ but, guess what, we’ve adjusted just fine and moved on.”
Filippone comes at the problem from a two-pronged perspective. He’s got his hands in three teams, two of which are currently missing games while the season is suspended. But because one of those teams is the Stockton Ports, he’s also seen the incredible impact the coronavirus can have on a person.
Webster Garrison managed the Ports for four seasons (2011-13, 2019) and was hit hard by the virus. He’s breathing on his own again, but had reached the point where he needed the assistance of a ventilator.
So while Filippone would very much like to open the gates in Stockton and Delmarva and have business return to normal in Everett, he’s well aware of what could happen to people if the sport were to re-open too soon.
“The health element of this is way more important than any inconvenience operators or facilities are going to face,” he said, “so let’s get through the healthy part and let's make sure we keep people alive and keep people’s ability in the future to get back to a new normal.”