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Tournaments, Weddings, T-Shirts: NC's Minor League Baseball Teams Get Creative To Keep The Lights On

disc golf
Courtesy of the Charlotte Knights

At first, back in April, Anderson Rathbun was optimistic.

Like many of the countless folks who make their living by working for one of the 160 Minor League Baseball teams across the U.S., the general manager for the Burlington Royals was hopeful that his club would play baseball in 2020. Eventually, for Rathbun and everyone else, the reality of the pandemic settled in.

“As time went on, our hopes kind of dwindled,” Rathbun said. “So, we started planning on ‘What could we do if there’s not a season?’ and that’s what led us to the random things we’re doing now.”

Those out-of-the-box ideas include hosting group batting practices, letting local high schoolers use the Burlington Athletic Stadium for showcase tournaments and selling shirts inscribed with positive messages like, “Everybody Love Everybody.”

In recent months, Rathbun and many like him have been wondering what can happen in a baseball stadium when there’s no baseball being played? When balls aren’t being pitched, when homers aren’t being slapped over fences, when strikes aren’t being called – what can the field, the seats, the luxury boxes and parking lot be used for?

Minor League Baseball club employees are finding out this summer. Many teams throughout the country – including 11 in North Carolina – are getting creative to find ways to generate a little bit of revenue, to put their employees to work and to stay plugged into the community without baseball.

While Major League Baseball began last month in big cities across the U.S., many of the smaller towns and tight-knit communities – such as Hickory, Zebulon and Kannapolis – are going to miss out on seeing live baseball this summer. On June 30, for the first time ever, Minor League Baseball canceled its 2020 season for teams in all 17 leagues.

Luckily, several clubs like Rathbun’s Royals, the Charlotte Knights and the Asheville Tourists were prepared with a few unorthodox ideas.

“No team is going to do well without having a season,” Rathbun said. “But I think they’re doing better off than what they could’ve done if they hadn’t been planning.”

Credit Courtesy of the Burlington Royals
Courtesy of the Burlington Royals
Thomas Vickers, the assistant GM for the Burlington Royals, hands out face masks to Alamance County residents.

Thinking outside the box to keep the lights on

In Charlotte, where the Knights drew an average crowd of more than 8,500 fans per-game last season, Dan Rajkowski and his staff have tried a little bit of everything. The stadium has hosted games for the Piedmont Pride, a wooden bat league made up of college players. One night, they had a stand-up comedian come in for a show on the field. Youth baseball camps, frisbee golf, trivia nights and watch parties for White Sox games have also called Truist Field home this summer.

“We want to keep the lights on. I want my staff employed, and the way they stay employed is – we’re not selling baseball tickets or sponsorships, so they’re out there trying to open the gates to 200 people, doing dance recitals on the field and anything else we can do,” says Rajkowski, the chief operating officer of the Knights. “This is not a big money maker for us. We’re just trying to keep the payroll. We own this building, so we’ve got to keep the building up and pay the bills.”

Major League  teams do make a decent chunk of their money from ticket sales – about 29% of their total revenue – but the other 71% of revenue comes from television contracts, licensing, merchandising and other sources of income, accordingto FiveThirtyEight. MLB teams can survive – and profit – without fans in the stands.

The minors are much different. These clubs rely heavily on people coming to games – ticket sales, local sponsorships and ads, and food and drink sales. The Knights, Royals and Tourists don’t have an ESPN or FOX television contract. They need butts in seats. They need to sell beer, hot dogs and souvenirs. This is very much, as MiLB presidentPat O’Conner called it, a “fans-in-the-stands business.” According to the New York Times, teams in the minors make about $70,000 in gross revenue per home game, or about $5.4 million per year, and most of that money goes right back into the club to pay employees or rent.

“The reality is, you can’t sell tickets and concessions to an empty seat,” Rajkowski said. “And we were going to have a lot of empty seats. And we had to react by laying off – a third of my staff was laid off early on, in April. We’ve had to take some pay cuts here for the full-time staff, and you just have to adjust to a different set-up. But we’re trying to be creative within the CDC guidelines to get some activity at our ballpark.”

Burlington Royals MiLB
Credit Courtesy of the Burlington Royals
Courtesy of the Burlington Royals
The Burlington Royals have partnered with Impact Baseball to host showcase games, allowing high school players who had their seasons cut short by COVID-19 to get seen by college scouts.

Adhering to coronavirus restrictions

Minor league teams might have great, crazy and big ideas about how to bring in revenue, but in the midst of this pandemic, each club has to operate under their own specific local and state guidelines. The rules aren’t the same, for example, for the Montgomery Biscuits and the Norfolk Tides.

For the Burlington Royals, they can have 25 fans in the ballpark at one time. So, when they host showcase games for high schoolers, each team can have 12 parents come in. Everyone else has to post up outside the stadium, but a decent view is available along the left and right field lines. Signage used to be there to stop fans from getting a free look, but the Royals removed them for this summer.

“That’s one of the biggest things for us, just being able to provide an opportunity for these high schoolers – a chance to play baseball since they lost their season. A lot of them are looking to get picked up by colleges. So, that’s been the coolest part, honestly, just having baseball at the ballpark,” Rathbun said. “Money isn’t really at the forefront of our minds during this time. It’s really just being there for the community, finding ways to support Burlington, to support Alamance County, to support North Carolina.”

The Knights’ stadium in Charlotte is about three-times the size of Burlington’s, with a max capacity of 10,200 people, so they can have more fans come in and still be socially distanced. Piedmont Pride games have typically drawn 150 to 200 fans. The players are temperature tested before each game and they aren’t using the team clubhouses.

In addition to games for the Pride and other small events, the Knights raised some money through its “Knights Care 4 CLT” initiative earlier this summer. The club raised more than $125,000 for local healthcare workers, seven local charities and Knights’ employees who lost work due to the pandemic.

Credit Courtesy of the Charlotte Knights
Courtesy of the Charlotte Knights
Employees from the Charlotte Knights volunteered at Promising Pages, a non-profit in Charlotte, on Aug. 3.

“We’ve been fortunate. We’ve been successful here in Charlotte over the years, so we have a little money in the bank to kind of ride this storm out,” Rajkowski said. “But there’s other teams that may not have the means or support to do that. We’re a seasonal business, and the reality is, the last time we played baseball was September of last year and the next time we’ll play is next April. That’s 18 months of no revenue coming from game situations. That’s kind of hard to do.”

To, as Rajkowski said previously, “keep the lights on,” teams throughout the state and country are trying different promotions and events.

In Asheville, the Single-A Tourists turned their infield into a socially distanced pop-up restaurant, “McCormick’s Summer Grill.” Due to popular demand, it has returned several times, serving up a menu of hot dogs, sausages, beers, ice cream and other treats.

For Tourists’ President Brian DeWine, turning McCormick Field into a restaurant was one of the simplest things for the club to do.

"It was something fun to do. You could eat lunch at second base,” DeWine said. “We have all of our necessary permits for a restaurant, so it was an easy transition.”

The Tourists also plan to host some trivia nights throughout the remainder of the summer. Within the next month, a couple will be getting married at McCormick Field.

“Who else can take your 300 wedding guests and spread them around 3,000 seats and be socially distanced? We’re perfect for that,” DeWine said.

Other Innovation Across The Minors

  • In Kannapolis, 2020 was supposed to be a new era as the club changed its name from the Intimidators (a nod to NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt) to the Cannon Ballers. They can’t see their team playing ball in new uniforms, but local fans are still coming to the stadium for Thirsty Thursday’s and Taco Tuesday’s, where the ballpark’s vendors are still serving food.
  • The Durham Bulls have hosted a blood drive, and sold T-shirts emblazoned with apun-appropriate slogan for 2020: “This is some BullShirt.” The team also started a “Safer-at-Home” relief fund for its seasonal workers and have donated meals to local healthcare workers.
  • In Hickory, the Single-A Crawdads have plans to host a blood drive, a fireworks night and a youth baseball camp.
  • The Advanced-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers are trying to keep their fans entertained and engaged at home with a weekly podcast.
  • In Kinston, the Down East Wood Ducks have hosted youth baseball camps and are selling face coverings.

Across the country, every minor league team is anxious about what will happen next April, when the 2021 season is supposed to start.
“I think our fanbase will be hungry.” Rajkowski said. “We’ve got a very loyal fanbase. I think we’ll bounce back, it’s just – are we going to bounce back at averaging 9,000 people a night? I sure hope so, but I don’t know because that one is beyond our control.”

Rathbun remains optimistic: “Hopefully we can open up our gates next season. I’m counting down the days.”

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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