COVID threatened to strike Ohio minor league teams out. Now the state's helping them recover
Baseball season is in full swing, but some of Ohio’s minor league teams are celebrating a win off the field – in the statehouse.
The Ohio General Assembly allocated $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) COVID-19 relief funds in this year’s state budget to help six minor league baseball teams and two hockey teams recover from a major financial slump caused by the pandemic.
“It was like Christmas in June when we found out that we were going to be getting these funds,” said Jim Pfander, president and general manager of the Akron RubberDucks, the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians.
The RubberDucks will receive $3.8 million, which they’ll use to stabilize operating costs that took a hit over the past three years, Pfander said.
A pandemic-era hit
Just before their seasons started in March 2020, minor league teams had to postpone – and then eventually cancel – the games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pfander said.
In May of 2021, teams were allowed to play again, but with limited seating capacity in the stadium, he added. That sent them into a financial slump, Pfander said, reporting multi-million dollar losses.
“We really are a seasonal business,” Pfander said. “The times we generate revenue are April to September, and we were basically dark for almost two years. And that really did, you know, a lot of damage.”
Minor league teams across the state were hit hard. The Toledo Mud Hens, the Triple-A affiliate for the Detroit Tigers, had to lay off dozens of employees, according to the team’s vice president and general manager Erik Ibsen.
In 2020, the federal government offered relief funding to concert halls and movie theaters through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. While minor league teams and some politicians wanted sports venues to be a part of that relief bill - they weren’t included, Pfander said.
“As things happen in politics and going through Congress, all that fun stuff, we ended up on the cutting room floor,” he said.
Managers of Ohio’s minor league teams got together to advocate for financial relief at the state and local levels, Ibsen said.
“It was really just this group banding together … to tell our story and share what the true impact was of our businesses being impacted, by literally nobody being able to come into our building, and there being no season, and our business cycles being disrupted,” Ibsen said.
More than two years later, state legislators stepped up to the plate and allocated the ARPA funds, he added. The Mud Hens organization will receive $7.4 million, which officials will use to help build back its financial reserves, Ibsen said.
“More than just baseball”
In addition to helping the organization pay back pandemic-era loans, Pfander said the state funding allows the RubberDucks to continue to provide affordable family fun and give back to the greater Akron community.
The team’s name is an homage to the tire industries that put Akron on the map. There are Akron references throughout the ballpark; the local pizza shop, Luigi’s, even sponsors foul balls.
“We’re more than just baseball. We are part of the fabric of the community in Akron,” Pfander said. “We see ourselves as really stewards of the franchise and opening the doors for all of Akron, opening the doors for all of our community to be able to come in and to be able to, you know, really enjoy themselves and have a good time and we’re able to do that with these funds.”
Without the ARPA allocation, they may have had to raise their ticket and concession prices, he said, a huge hit for the team: for the RubberDucks to stay afloat, they have to be affordable.
The average ticket is $15, while the average Guardians ticket can be more than three times that depending on who they’re playing.
“We can’t compete with the level of baseball. What we can control is everything on the outside of the white lines … and it’s the fun that people have when they come to the ballpark. It's the sights, the smells,” Pfander said. “Being able to connect with folks on a really meaningful level that we're able to do at an affordable price. And if we start charging major league prices, we're going to charge ourselves out of the market.”
That sentiment was echoed by RubberDucks fans at a recent home game.
Season ticket holders Jason Heckman and Jason Carlisle met each other by attending home games frequently throughout the week. Now, their families sit together at the games and even travel to see the RubberDucks play out of state.
The team is a big part of the local community and culture, Heckman said.
“They treat us like family, and I think that’s … one of the biggest draws for us is, we can come here, we can talk to everybody. They know who we are. They know what we do. And you don't you don't get that ever at a place like Cleveland or Chicago,” Heckman said. “It’s really the only kind of thing that you'd find at a minor league ballpark.”
“You can't go to Cleveland and talk to the players and [have] them talk back to you. We've had players come to our little league baseball games and cheer on our son. Like, you can't get that anywhere else,” Carlisle added.
Ibsen says the same is true for the Mud Hens. The downtown ballpark has helped boost the area’s business and entertainment scene in the 21 years since it opened, he said.
“For a lot of people, it's community assets that help improve the quality of life in an area where people live, and so when you look at it that way, it's much more than baseball. It's an economic development driver,” Ibsen added.
State funding is based on the teams’ 2019 revenue. The full breakdown is as follows:
Akron RubberDucks – $3,869,612.21
Dayton Dragons – $6,208,396.14
Lake County Captains – $1,635,080.84
Lake Erie Crushers – $1,032,259.67
Mahoning Valley Scrappers – $927,487.38
Toledo Mud Hens – $7,414,769.06
Cincinnati Cyclones – $3,590,363.86
Toledo Walleye – $5,321,219.43