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Survey Says: Anonymous Executives Discuss The State Of The Minors Entering 2021

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Editor's Note: The story initially listed an incorrect team in the 2019 Triple-A Championship game. Baseball America apologizes for the error.

At long last, after a nearly 600-day absence caused by the pandemic, minor league baseball is back. Full-season teams across the country are opening their gates on May 4, marking the first official action since the 2019 Triple-A Championship Game between Columbus and Sacramento.

Even though the games are back, Opening Day will be far from a return to normalcy. Between 2019 and 2021, Major League Baseball moved forward with its One Baseball plan, which rearranged the minor leagues.

The Rookie-advanced Pioneer League is now a professional partner league with ties to MLB but unaffiliated players. The short-season New York-Penn League has dissolved. Three of its teams jumped up to full-season ball. Other former NYPL teams joined summer wood bat amateur leagues. The Rookie-advanced Appalachian League retained its league identity but now operates as a summer wood bat amateur league. Six of the eight teams from the old short-season Northwest League are now High-A affiliates.

Beyond the restructuring, rule changes will be sprinkled throughout the minors. Included among those rules are the implementation of the automatic ball-strike system, larger bases, new regulations on pickoffs and plenty more.

The biggest differences between this year and 2019, however, revolve around the effects of the pandemic. A year with little to no revenue has wrought immense havoc on teams and their front offices, and the continued threat of Covid-19 will mean teams have to shake up the way they do business both in and out of the public view.

With that, Baseball America asked minor league front office executives around the country a series of questions about the issues facing the sport now and in the future.

Even though minor league operators have sustained great financial loss in the past 20 months, many were quick to highlight their resiliency in getting to this moment.

“Despite the struggles we were all having financially and all the staff we had to let go, teams still found ways to make huge impacts on their community to help ease the pandemic,” a Triple-A general manager said. “It just shows that the resiliency and creativeness is as strong as ever.”

1. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the operations of your team?

This was the question whose answers showed the least amount of variance. Quite simply, the pandemic wrecked the operation of minor league teams throughout the country. They were left with virtually no income, meaning that teams were forced to lay off or furlough staff members and drastically pare their operations.

“It was four times as bad as the great recession after 2008,” one Double-A GM said. “We are stripped to the bone with regards to staffing and morale could not be much worse.”

As the season neared, teams began rehiring some members of their staff, but some admitted it might take a while before their team can recoup enough revenue to add everybody back to the fold.

“(The pandemic) created the need to lay off staff and rethink how we do business each day,” one Triple-A GM said. “We are just now staffing back up for 2021 and will continue to do so for a year or so before we reach pre-Covid levels again.”

2. It will take until what year for your team to dig out from the economic hole created by the lost 2020 season?

Baseball is back, but it’s not all the way back. Capacities will vary across the country, and some of the fans will be using tickets bought before the 2020 season. Those costs were rolled over to 2021, which meant that clubs didn’t have to refund the money to those fans, but they also weren’t going to earn any new revenue on those seats in 2021. The same principle was true for things like advertisements and sponsorship deals.

A majority of the answers centered around the 2022 and 2023 seasons, though some executives pegged as late as 2025 for when their team’s finances would begin to approach pre-pandemic levels.

The variable in all this is how quickly the world at large returns to normal. The slower that happens, the more time it will take to recover.

“Who knows? It will depend on how quickly this season we can get to a capacity level that will enable us to survive the season and throughout next offseason,” another Triple-A executive said. “2021 is all about getting to 2022, when hopefully we will all be back to full capacity allowed at our ballparks.”

3. So far, what are your impressions of MLB’s governance of the minor leagues?

Under its One Baseball plan, MLB took over day-to-day operations of the minor leagues. Instead of presidents of every league, executives in the MLB office in New York are now responsible for things like branding, sponsorship deals and scheduling.

There have been some hiccups along the way, but the response around the minors is pretty split.

“I don’t believe they have a firm grasp of what it takes to run a minor league team,” a third Triple-A executive said, “the (lack of) resources we have in comparison to MLB teams, or what the experience is about for fans.”

On the other side, some executives seemed to enjoy being somewhat unburdened from aspects of the day-to-day operation that might have otherwise gone through the league.

“I have been very impressed at their response time to any inquiry. I think it shows a great commitment to wanting to be great partners and helping us to get through this and to thrive beyond this,” the second Triple-A GM said. “We’re all doing our best to navigate through this difficult time and we’re all really busy getting ready for the season, but they always get back to us in a very timely fashion.”

4. The six-game series for 2021 is a big change. Do you like or dislike the six-game series? Do you hope it continues?

Another big change coming to the minor leagues in 2021 is the six-game series. Constructed as a way to reduce travel—and the associated costs—during the pandemic, the rule means teams will play six games against the same opponent, instead of the traditional three or four. Each league also has one off day a week—Monday in every league but Triple-A West, which will use Wednesdays.

While teams certainly understand the reasoning behind the schedule tweak for 2021, they are mixed about whether it should stick around as a permanent feature.

“I absolutely love it. It allows for less road trips, reduced miles traveled, saves on travel costs, gives the players a day off and travel day,” a High-A GM said. “It also really takes the worst (revenue) day, Monday, off our calendar. Fans, outside of autograph seekers, really don’t care who we play.”

The caveat is that teams would rather not have two six-game series played back-to-back. Twelve games is an extraordinarily long homestand even during normal times, but given the pared-down staffs of some teams, playing a dozen games in a row would be taxing to the game day operations crew.

At the same time, teams also don’t want back-to-back road series, either. Two weeks on the road is a long time to be away, and you always want to stay somewhere in your fans’ minds.

Overall, teams tended to skew toward wanting to keep it for the coming years, though some were more cautious in their optimism. The rationale behind the support was pretty straightforward: Even when the pandemic is over, the tweaked schedule will still go a long way toward slashing travel costs.

As another GM put it: “I will fight hard to keep it. To give you an idea, our 2020 miles traveled would have been 11,500. In 2021, (the total) is 6,500.”

5. How are you adjusting to the Covid requirements and what they will mean for between-innings entertainment and other aspects of your fan experience?

At its heart, Minor League Baseball is in the entertainment industry. Countless hours and funds are directed toward being fresh, creative and fun before, during and after games. Some of those ideas simply don’t mesh with existing Covid protocols.

Dizzy bat races will be out. Kids running the bases will be off the table. Dueling hamster balls won’t happen either. Once again, teams will have to work with what they’re given to put smiles on fans’ faces all season, but it’s not going to be easy.

“The fan experience is going to take a major hit. We are looking to create a better atmosphere in other areas of the park, since we can’t do on-field entertainment,” another Triple-A GM said. “We will try to keep some of our between-innings promotions, but they will be shown on the video board. The Covid requirements in many cases just don’t make much sense.

“You can tell it is all about protecting from legal action instead of having common sense measures that keep people healthy but also allow teams to put on a show.”

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6. Will you have a radio and/or TV broadcast in 2021? Is that a change from 2019?

This might seem like a surprising question, but between Covid protocols and new requirements of MiLB.TV, broadcasts across the sport might not look the same. Some teams will drop their broadcast entirely, while others will look to move to streaming-only. Other teams will not send their broadcasters on the road.

At least eight teams from a variety of classifications answered the survey that at least some aspects of their broadcasts will change in 2021, either as a result of Covid protocols or as a measure to reduce costs after so long without revenue.

7. What kind of upgrades in terms of tech and staff do you anticipate needing to get up to the new MiLB TV requirements?

As part of MLB’s takeover of the minors, MiLB.TV is getting an upgrade. Teams will be required to meet a uniform standard of presentation, which for a lot of teams will mean adding staff and investing in new technology. Specifically, teams must have three cameras, instant replay and a score bug graphic. Currently, teams’ MiLB.TV presentations vary widely. Some teams have incredibly clear shots with excellent score bugs and multi-camera operations. Others are more bare bones.

Many teams at the higher levels responded that their tech was already up to code and the new rules would be fine. For some teams at lower levels, this could require a lot of time and money, which presents a bit of a challenge after so long without much revenue.

One club noted that it had already invested $300,000 to get up to speed, while a pair of others said they had hired an outside firm to produce their games remotely. Even those who already had the equipment in place said the regulations might add a bit more cost to simply maintain their technology.

8. Are you going to go cashless this season? Is cashless going to become the norm in
your opinion?

This was likely going to be a trend no matter what, but the pandemic has hastened that move for many teams. Simply not having to handle cash and coins helps from a sanitation perspective, but it also reduces the day-to-day jobs of emptying registers and making sure everything balances at the end of each game.

By relying solely on various cards—credit, debit and gift—teams have an automatic ledger available to check all transactions. Of the 30 respondents to the survey, 17 said they either planned to go completely or nearly cashless—or had done so already.

“We will be cashless this season and plan to remain that way going forward,” another Triple-A GM said. “This was a long-term goal of ours that was accelerated by Covid.”

Even those whose teams had not gone cashless acknowledged that the industry seemed to be trending that way.

“We are not going to go cashless this season but do feel teams want cashless to be the new norm,” a High-A GM said. “We still have kids’ days, and even on normal games, lots of kids head to the concessions to buy food. Mobile ordering might help with some of that.”

9. What do you think is an aspect of day-to-day ballpark operations and/or the gameday experience that might go away forever as a result of the pandemic?

The pandemic has forced a lot of companies to re-think aspects of their operations. Baseball, of course, has been affected in many ways, meaning there are going to be big changes about day-to-day game presentation.

As a result, some things might go away forever. Though nobody can be exactly certain how things will go, many of the results to this question centered around fan interaction with players, mascots and team staff members.

“Traditional, over-the-rail, player and fan interaction was already going to be challenged by our extended netting (which was done in time for 2020). With the pandemic causing more consciousness of close interaction, that interaction is likely to be even more limited,” one Triple-A GM said. “We’ll have to get creative to facilitate safe ways to still make that possible in the future because it’s such a big part of the experience for young fans especially.”

Another Triple-A GM had similar sentiments about what might go away.

“Hopefully nothing, but possibly inflatables for kids zones, mascot high-fives and hugs,” he said. “Like I said, hopefully we can get back to normal, because everything we do makes it special for somebody.”

Other answers included pocket schedules, printed tickets, access to players for autographs, vendors patrolling the stands selling food and merchandise and bags being allowed into the ballpark.

10. How long do you expect the required renovations to your stadium will take? What will be the most difficult requirement to meet? Is a new ballpark a possibility if the renovations are too expensive/expansive?

As part of MLB’s takeover of the minor leagues, teams will be required to make significant updates to their ballparks. Some of those upgrades include better lights, expanded locker rooms, space for women on staff to prepare and many others.

Nobody expects everybody to be up to code by 2022, but teams have a deadline of 2025 to make all the changes. Some teams won’t have to do much, but others will require significant time and money to complete.

Stadiums are required to have significantly larger visitor’s clubhouses—1,000 square feet is the new standard—a locker room for female staff, dining areas for the teams as well as training areas (batting tunnels) and expanded weight rooms that go significantly beyond the previous requirements.

“A new ballpark is not possible or necessary,” a Low-A GM said. “Due to the expenses associated with it, it will likely take until 2025 to complete. Luckily, we have the space for just about everything, including the things that will be the ‘hardest’ and the things that will be the most expensive, such as padding on the outfield wall.”

The estimates as far as the timeline was concerned were wide-ranging. Several believed they could complete their renovations by next season, but many others suggested that they would take all until the 2025 deadline.

Some of the most difficult items on the agenda included adding second batting tunnels, expanding
the visiting clubhouses and upgrading the lighting in the outfield.

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