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For Rays’ minor-league affiliates, no baseball forces a squeeze play for survival

Thanks to the pandemic, clubs have to go back to their roots and seize the creativity that makes the minors a unique, fan-friendly experience.

The Durham Bulls are minor-league baseball’s most recognizable brand, thanks to Hollywood’s portrayal of the team three decades ago. Annually, they are one of the minors’ top-drawing clubs in terms of attendance, and in an area of North Carolina that is heavy on college sports and has an NHL team, they’re the main ticket in town filling the summer sports scene.

But like other minor-league ballparks across the country, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park has sat dark, empty of fans, absent of games since the end of last season.

When the coronavirus shut down the sports world and the major-league season was postponed, so was baseball’s minor-league counterpart. But unlike the majors, minor-league teams depend on fans being in the stands, and without games to bring them there, they’ve been hit hard financially.

And while Major League Baseball will return in July, the minor-league season officially was canceled on Tuesday.

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In cities that host Rays minor-league affiliates — places like Durham; Montgomery, Ala.; and Bowling Green, Ky. — the teams are a part of the communities they represent. In all three cities, the ballparks are the centerpieces of downtown development. And in this time of need, they’ve worked to balance preparing for an uncertain baseball future with supporting their communities.

The Bulls raised $30,000 to the local United Way by selling “Wash Your Horns” T-shirts. The Biscuits Charitable Fund teamed up with Bama-Q TV, a streamed show that follows barbecue competitions throughout Alabama, to hold an onfield burger cookoff fundraiser at Riverwalk Stadium.

This is already a tenuous time for minor league baseball as MLB attempts to shrink its structure by eliminating some 42 teams.

And now in the midst of a pandemic, the teams are fighting to save themselves. It hasn’t been easy. And like other small businesses, minor-league teams had to cut staff. The Bulls furloughed about 55 percent of their staff in April. The Biscuits have been aided by one of the Paycheck Protection Program loans awarded to small businesses during the pandemic.

“It was a really tough time,” said Mike Birling, the Durham Bulls vice president of baseball operations. “It’s like any business, you see what the future is going to hold, and we didn’t see any revenue other than our retail store. So we needed to find ways to cut back as much as we can and now we’re trying to slowly find some revenue sources to try to get us by.”

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A look at Bowling Green Ballpark in Kentucky, home of the Rays' minor-league affiliate, the Bowling Green Hot Rods. [ STEVE ROBERTS/CAL SPORT MEDIA | ]

This was expected to be a big year in Bowling Green, where the low-A Hot Rods play. The Bowling Green Ballpark was slated to host the Midwest League All-Star Game in June, and week-long festivities — which included a high-school showcase and a beer and bourbon festival — were expected to generate $2.5 million in economic impact on the local economy. All were canceled because of COVID-19.

“One of the things we pride ourselves in is being ahead of the game,” Hot Rods general manager Eric Leach said. “And in some ways it kind of hurt us because I’ve got player gifts and awards sitting here in our office in our stadium with nothing to have for it.”

Bowling Green, where many of the Rays’ top prospects have come through, most recently Wander Franco last season, is the fifth smallest market in Class-A. But its county, Warren County, is one of Kentucky’s fastest growing. And minor-league baseball is a big part of it — there are 133,000 residents in the county, but the Hot Rods drew nearly 191,000 last year.

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The Hot Rods will have the chance to host the all-star game next year, but their more immediate focus had been getting through this year preparing for not having baseball. Still, they do their part in the community while maintaining their brand. The Hot Rods, who Leach said donate $350,000 locally every year, has Wave Wednesdays when the team’s mascots parade through town.

While the community involvement continues, the absence of baseball makes for huge losses in revenue.

“We’re probably on Plan T at this point, working through the alphabet,” Leach said.

“I’m going to be 100 percent honest: there is no way to recoup those losses. The season comprises about 80 to 85 percent of our total revenue. So when you talk about that type of scope, there really is no way to replace it. We are doing little things here and there. … But right now, that’s kind of a Band-aid. ... With no season, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions and I’ve kept in touch with some of my staff and they’re well aware of those. We’re looking at the potential of 18 months without significant revenue.”

Montgomery, where the Double-A Biscuits play, took a hit in May. There was an event scheduled for every day in the month except one thanks to Biscuits games, state high school baseball tournaments and the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

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The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, seen here at sunset, will soon re-open ... to show a movie on July 4. [ BRIAN VILLANUEVA | ]

While preparing for a lost season, these teams had to become creative to survive. In Bowling Green, where youth sports have returned, the Hot Rods successfully petitioned Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear to open the stadium beginning this week to host high school baseball showcases at 50 percent capacity (which will be no more than 1,500 fans). With restaurants closed because of the pandemic in the Raleigh-Durham area, the Bulls partnered with a local chicken processing facility to sell chicken that would have gone to waste.

“We had 40-pound boxes of frozen chicken,” Birling said. “You drive up, we put it in the back of your trunk and you’re on your way, and those were very good for us in a tough time.”

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An unexpected e-commerce spike also helped the Bulls, as sales on the team’s online store rose 25-30 percent, Birling said, but few teams have Durham’s notoriety.

Durham Bulls Athletic Park will open for the first time this year on July 4, as fans will watch Captain America: The First Avenger on the outfield video board from socially-distanced pods along the stadium field.

These are the type of improvisations minor-league teams must lean on without a season.

“The challenge is what can we create that’s not baseball,” Biscuits general manager Michael Murphy said. “What are the things we are good at? So you think of promotions. How can we make some of these events that would have been a game-day promotion and turn them into a promotion without a game?”

If there are fans in the stands at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Ala., this summer, it won't be to watch a Biscuits baseball game. [ JULIE BENNETT/JBENNETT@AL.COM AL | TNS ]

Murphy said the Biscuits have several ideas, like turning the Riverwalk Stadium into a huge dog park on the night slated to be their Bark in the Park night or having a movie/trivia night that correlates with popular theme nights focused around Star Wars or Harry Potter.

“We’re not in the baseball business, that’s up to Tampa,” Murphy said. “The baseball on the field, that’s the Rays. Let’s stay out of their way. We’re also not in the entertainment business necessarily. We’re not a movie theater who is going to say, ‘Here’s your ticket, sit back and enjoy.’ We want it to be a little more interactive. So we say we’re in the memory-making business. What we do every day, it’s going to be different from each person’s perspective as they come in, but we want you to come to the ballpark and take back a memory with your friends and family. I think we can still accomplish that without the baseball.

“There’s a ton of stats that get thrown out that most of the time when fans go to a minor-league game, they don’t know the score, a lot of times they don’t know who won. They just know they had a good time.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.