Major changes await Minor League Baseball.
The minor league system will likely look vastly different in 2021. MiLB is expected to see a 25% reduction to the number of affiliated teams, down to approximately 120 from 160 squads. The Professional Baseball Agreement proposal, which introduced the changes, will effectively eliminate short-season and rookie minor league baseball leagues across the country. That means two of the six levels from Rookie to Triple-A will be erased, leaving just Low Class A, High Class A, Double-A and Triple-A.
This, however, shouldn’t negate the value of rookie and single-season leagues. They serve as important introductory levels for players in professional baseball, and an important part of the social fabric within the local community.
The institutional changes are combined with impacts of the pandemic, which has inflicted serious financial struggles for many. According to Sports Illustrated, at every classification level, in markets ranging from metropolitan cities to rural outposts, front offices are worried about their clubs’ survival. Teams were even more bearish about their fellow organizations’ prospects: 48 teams (74% of respondents) thought lost revenue would significantly impact other clubs’ abilities to operate in the future, answering with a seven or higher. Of those teams, 26 put their concern at a 10.
How can minor league baseball teams strategize accordingly in an attempt to weather the shifts?
Keep Prioritizing A Safe Fan Experience
At the end of November, Dr. Fauci and the CDC gave a timeline for the return of sports with filled stadiums. Based on his reporting, the United States could start seeing arenas filled as early as the end of April. As a result, we’ve seen many minor league teams reaching out to us, in order to learn more about what infrastructure and amenity upgrades they need before fans return.
Fans are still very cautious, despite being eager, to attend outdoor live sports events. That puts a safe and re-assuring game day experience the top priority for minor league front office staff. According to a survey by ESPN, The majority of American sports fans are waiting for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine before they feel comfortable returning to the bleachers. For outdoor sporting events, 58% of all respondents said they also were waiting on a vaccine rather than trusting personal protective equipment or social distancing to keep them safe in a large crowd.
That means even in the presence of a vaccine, teams have to make sure they’re doing everything to give fans the peace of mind to enjoy themselves and make purchases once at the ballpark.
Offer Contactless Options
Wherever possible, minimize any physical interaction between fans and staff, or between fans themselves. That includes ticketing (enforce e-ticketing), ticket scanning (scan the phone screen), flyers (rather than handing out flyers or leaving flyers at the seats, use posters, banners and seat stickers), concessions (use contactless mobile ordering), payment (use mobile ordering and remove cash / card handling), and more.
Eliminate Congregation and Traffic Bottlenecks
On game days, certain areas within the ballpark are just always more crowded than the others. That includes the entrance, concession area, bathrooms etc. To support social distancing, ballparks have to rethink the fan journey and traffic flow within the ballpark and make adjustments accordingly to prevent congregation or long lines from forming.
For example, at the concession stand, implement mobile ordering so fans don’t have to wait around to order or pick up their orders. Rather, they can order from their seats and get notified to pick up by receiving a text message. Even better, if you have enough staff to implement in-seat delivery, fans don’t need to leave their seats at all.
Establish Sanitary Protocols and Enforce Them
Install more portable hand-washing stations around the ballpark and disseminate the information so fans are aware. Also, make sure you’re communicating any new policies to the fans, such as strict hygiene standards enforced among concession staff, or how frequently the ballpark is being sanitized. It’s not just about doing these things to keep the fans safe, but also about letting the fans know that they’re taken care of. It’s crucial to give fans that peace of mind so that they feel comfortable attending games.
Keep Engaging with the Fans
In a podcast episode of The Playbook, we interviewed Jeff Lantz, Senior Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball, on how minor league teams can continue engaging with the fans even when no games are going on.
“Most people when they come to my baseball games, I always tell people when the fans are leaving the stadium, if you pulled a hundred of them, as they’re walking out of the gates and said, who won tonight? Probably 60 to 70% of them could tell you who won, but then if you ask them what the score was, probably 90% wouldn’t have any idea what the score was. Then you asked them, did you have a good time? And they’re like, Oh, absolutely.”
That’s why according to Lantz, the most important thing for MiLB is making sure everyone at the ballpark is having a good time, baseball fans or not. It’s important that people can let their kids roam around without having to worry about their safety.
Even before the game day actually returns, it’s important that minor league teams continue serving as an integral part of the community and engage with people in other ways. Some of the things that teams have been doing during the pandemic include offering ballpark food as carry-out; organizing a big PPE mask drive for hospital workers and first responders; doing fundraisers around the country for charity organizations; donating tickets to first responders and frontline workers that are battling coronavirus.
The value of teams staying involved and staying in the public eye is going to be long-lasting. The social interactions will help you build the team brand, and establish a fan base (even if they aren’t baseball fans) that’s willing to support you through the difficult times.
Look For Cost Reduction Options
One of the highest cost in a ballpark operation would be labor, including all staff who need to be present on game day for the general admissions fans and servers needed to staff the luxury suites. In an article by Fortune, it’s found that teams an actually turn a profit by playing at an empty ballpark, with a huge reason being there’s near zero labor cost when there’re no fans.
That’s why we strongly encourage ballparks to use technology and reduce staffing costs. Particularly in the area of concessions operations and suite services, our digital order management system and self-ordering capability means fewer suite server and cashiers would be needed to take orders and perform transactions. Guests and fans can place orders on their phones and have them sent straight to the kitchen.