Sunday, September 19, 2021

'We're just going one day at a time': Michigan's minor league sports teams holding out strong amid COVID-19 pandemic

April 22, 2020
<p>Gabriel Moreno (23) pitches during the 13th annual Crosstown Showdown on Sept. 3, 2019 at Cooley Stadium in Lansing. The Lugnuts defeated the Spartans, 5-1. </p>

Gabriel Moreno (23) pitches during the 13th annual Crosstown Showdown on Sept. 3, 2019 at Cooley Stadium in Lansing. The Lugnuts defeated the Spartans, 5-1.

Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

No business in the United States is immune to the troubles brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, least of all the sports world. With sports being suspended for the foreseeable future, college athletic programs and professional teams have had to make adjustments to the way they do business. This has included pay cuts for high ranking executives such as the Los Angeles Lakers front office being asked to defer up to 20% of their salary for the time being, and colleges like the University of Cincinnati cutting their men's soccer program. 

However, the most vulnerable in the sports world are the minor league teams. While franchises in the NBA and other major sports leagues get a large portion of their money from TV deals, minor league teams' money comes from sponsors and ticket sales, something that is hard to come by with no games and business across the country struggling. 

President and General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers single-A affiliate Great Lakes Loons Brad Tammen says that the prospect of no season, or a season without fans would be devastating financially.

“It would not be an ideal model, that’s for sure,” Tammen said. “We need fans, no doubt about it. ... If we played without fans — we obviously could do that, we will be ready if that becomes a situation, but I think ultimately, we need to have the fans for us to really thrive.” 

Call it luck or disappointment in an opportunity missed, the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings AHL affiliate) were still able to go through a majority of their season before things were shut down. However, a huge opportunity was lost as Senior Director of Media Relations for the Griffins Randy Cleves points out, as the Griffins were in prime position for a playoff run. 

“Our biggest games are later in the season as far as attendance and big promotions and stuff like that,” Cleves said. “We are fortunate that we got that much of a season in, but from a revenue standpoint it’s too bad that we lost the games that we did, but obviously there's much greater concerns for us and for everybody else than missing a few home games.” 

One thing that fans might overlook in a time without teams playing games is the other events hosted by the minor league teams, who also host concerts and large events in their arenas and ballparks. 

“We have weddings, we have boat shows, hot tub shows, we have proms, you name it, anything you can do from a big event standpoint,” Tammen said. “This is also affecting that side of the business, so all of our special events are now on hold.” 

The Lansing Lugnuts (Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays) are having some of those same issues in their ballpark as well. 

“We’ve got events that we scheduled and so we rescheduled them, for example Nitro Circus was scheduled in May, and it’s been rescheduled now for October.” Lugnuts Media Relations and Radio Broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler said. “That's the way that we're looking at things is we're going ‘Anything in April? Okay, it's off. What are we going do? Anything in May? All right, let's talk about this,’ because we don't know, we could plan May, it's conceivable, but it very much is rescheduling, that's how our business has been affected.” 


As of now though, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as none of the teams have laid off or cut salaries to non-playing staff thus far.

“We've been fortunate that at this point we don't have any immediate needs or plans to do so (layoff, furlough, reduce pay) with our staff," Tammen said. “We've been very fortunate here, so far we have all of our staff members working hard and continuing to plan and save at the same time. So hopefully when we do return in the office, we'll be ready.” 

In addition to not making any cuts to the staff or reductions in pay as of now, minor league teams have been a huge part in assisting in their community. The Griffins, for example, have been doing everything from livestreaming their players playing NHL 20 on Twitch and allowing fans to play with them to making schoolwork for teachers and even donating personal protection equipment and hand sanitizer to Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.  

The Great Lakes Loons have continued to do the same, donating approximately 13,000 sanitary gloves according to Tammen, as well as disinfectant totaling up to over 1,000 gallons. 

“I think we've been very proud and how our community is responded in helping out the people in need,” Tammen said. “One thing that I would continue to encourage other businesses if you haven't done so and you can, please dig deep and take a look at how you can help people that are in need and also thanking all the medical personnel, your doctors, the people on the front line, your nurses, all those folks in the nursing home, and all the people that are in need there.” 

While all teams want the ability to play as if things were normal, things aren't up to them.

“That's basically the way that we see it right now, is the decisions coming from above us,” Goldberg-Strassler said. “It is the CDC, it is governmental and then from them its Major League Baseball, and Minor League Baseball, and they'll let us know and then we'll be ready.” 

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“The baseball cliché is that ‘let's take it one day at a time, it's a marathon not a sprint,’ that's us right now, we're just going one day at a time,” Goldberg-Strassler said. 

The Lugnuts want to reassure the community though, that when the time comes, they will still be here. 

“We miss baseball as much as everyone else, but this is much more important than baseball,” Goldberg-Strassler said. “That all of us stay inside, that we shelter in place, that we take care of one another by remaining apart. When we are ready, once again, for shelter in place to be rescinded, and for society to resume with all of us getting back together, we will be ready to open the gates wide in Cooley Law School Stadium and celebrate with our community.” 



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