In a pandemic-free world, the Everett AquaSox would be holding a season-ticket “pickup party” on Saturday at Funko Field, a chance for their hardcore fans to claim their ducats, mingle and begin to rev up for the Northwest League’s June opening.
Instead, Everett general manager Danny Tetzlaff acknowledges that it’s “highly unlikely” the team will open June 17 as scheduled. Instead, he is preparing for a variety of scenarios for the staging of a season — and also for the worst-case scenario of no season.
“That is the one-million-dollar question,” he said. “We’re preparing for everything. That (no season) is not what we want to happen, but we understand if that’s what does need to happen to maintain the health of our community, then that’s what we’ll have to do.”
While the focus of the sports world is on the possible relaunch of the major-league season, baseball at the grassroots level is firmly in limbo. Minor-league teams cling to the hope of competing in 2020 while girding for the increasing likelihood that the season will be dormant, another victim of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The uncertainty is the biggest challenge for everybody,” Tetzlaff said.
MLB can conjure a return-to-work scenario that involves empty stands, reduced travel, isolation of players and frequent testing. But in a bus circuit such as the Northwest League that’s near the lowest rung of professional baseball, the logistics are much more daunting.
Furthermore, and perhaps most telling, the economics of playing without fans just don’t work in minor-league baseball. For MLB teams, a substantial portion of their revenue comes from broadcasting deals. In the minors, virtually all the revenue stems from ticket sales and game-day concessions.
“All our revenue is generated from having actual people in the stands,” Tetzlaff said. “So an option for us to play in an empty stadium with just ballplayers on the field would really not make a lot of sense. As much as I’d love to see ballplayers running around Funko Field, if I don’t have some people in the stands to watch them and buying a hot dog, we’re just not in a position to do that.”
It’s hard to imagine that scenario under the shelter-at-home orders of Gov. Jay Inslee. It’s only when the state reaches “Phase 4” of Inslee’s reopening plan that gatherings of more than 50 would be allowed — “and everything’s a moving target — we don’t know if that’s going to be in July or if it’s a month from now before they allow Phase 4 to take place,” Tetzlaff said.
Mind you, all this comes at a tense time for minor-league teams even without a pandemic. With the Professional Baseball Agreement that governs the relationship between MLB and MiLB set to expire at the end of September, negotiations have been contentious.
MLB is aiming to reduce the number of affiliated minor-league teams from 160 to 120 next year — a proposal that the minors initially fought but are now prepared to agree to, according to The Associated Press and Baseball America.
Everett was not among the 42 teams listed in November by The New York Times as being on the chopping block, though the Northwest League could be altered when all is settled. Twenty-eight of the 42 targeted teams were either in rookie level or, like the NWL, short-season Class A ball.
Tetzlaff said of Everett’s place in the minor-league restructuring, “I’m pretty confident we’re in good shape moving forward,” but declined further comment.
The AquaSox are one of three teams in the ownership group of Seventh-Inning Stretch, fronted by principal owner Tom Volpe. The other teams in the group, both Class A, are the Stockton Ports in California and the Delmarva Shorebirds in Salisbury, Maryland.
Minor-league baseball has been part of the fabric of Everett since 1984, when the Giants placed their short-season Class A team there. The Mariners took over the affiliation in 1995. Attendance in 2019 was about 116,000 — just under 3,000 a night.
But now ticket sales are essentially on hold. Season tickets purchased for this year would be transferred to next season.
“I had someone reach out to me who wanted to buy season tickets,” Tetzlaff said. “I flat-out told him, I said, ‘I will happily sell them to you, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.’
“I said, ‘If for some reason we unfortunately do not have a season in 2020, then your season tickets will be paid for next year.’ He said, ‘That’s fine.’ I’m very up front with them.”
Meanwhile, the AquaSox do what they can to remain connected to their fans. They have conducted a fundraiser for a local food bank, made donations to the rescue mission and held a virtual 5K to raise money for the YMCA of Snohomish’s COVID Relief Fund.
An online trivia night for fans is in the works “just to keep them in our thoughts and let them know we’re still here for them,” Tetzlaff said.
But if the doors don’t open this year, it would be a major blow for the AquaSox, who have already had to cut back hours for some staffers. Essentially, all their revenue for a full year would disappear, except for merchandise sales.
“Will it be devastating? It won’t be devastating,” Tetzlaff said. “It will be very challenging to maneuver through a year without (games). But we’re no different; every business out there is really suffering through this.
“The only difference for us is, hey, when it’s time to open, if we can’t have a season, we can’t open up. Other businesses can, and start the road back to recovery for them. I’ve got to wait a few months or a year before we can really say we’re open for business.”
For now, though, Tetzlaff works on plans and contingencies, because if they do get a positive development that leads to an actual season, “It’s going to happen fast,” he said.
“But right now there’s just lots of unknowns. We’re hopeful and optimistic something will work out, but whatever happens, we’ll live with it. We’ll be here, and we’ll be ready to open the ballpark — if it’s this year or next year.”