The financial bleeding is about to begin for the three Red Sox minor league affiliates in New England.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic put the sports world on hold, Thursday was supposed to be Opening Day for the Pawtucket Red Sox at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I., with the Portland Sea Dogs beginning their own 70-game home slate a week from Thursday at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine.
The June 18 start date for the short-season Lowell Spinners is still on for now, but with the coronavirus outbreak yet to reach its peak in Massachusetts, nobody can guarantee that LeLacheur Park will get to host all 39 scheduled regular-season games.
For a business model in which even one rainout that’s not made up can affect a balance sheet, losing all of April’s home games, and likely May’s as well, means the potential elimination of roughly a third of expected revenues for the full-season leagues.
The full-time staff members on the three teams still have their jobs for now, but with no games to host, teams are redeploying personnel on a number of fronts dragged to the foreground by the pandemic.
“We continue to employ everyone as before, but we’re turning them into sort of footsoldiers in the war against the virus," said Larry Lucchino, principal owner and chairman of the PawSox, "and I think that’s what most companies are doing. Whether they’re shifting their product or shifting their services, that’s taking place.
“This is not the time to be selling tickets or promoting the kinds of stuff we’d normally engage in.”
The PawSox and Spinners have donated their stocks of rainy-day ponchos to area health-care personnel and first responders for use as personal protective equipment.
The PawSox have provided lunches to Pawtucket police and fire personnel, donated food to Rhode Island’s Elisha Project, and partnered Thursday with Ocean State Job Lot to allow needy people to drive through the McCoy Stadium parking lot and pick up free food.
“We’re doing all the goodwill we can think of,” said Charles Steinberg, president of the PawSox.
Radio commercials aimed at potential ticket-buyers have been re-cut as messages to deliver health recommendations and thanks to front-line workers such as health-care and grocery-store workers.
The shift of focus and energy is as dramatic as the elimination of revenue is real.
“We will no longer be receiving the regular revenue that’s coming in from games, although our April schedule is fairly light,” said Lucchino. “I think the real effect will hit us pretty hard in May.”
The PawSox are set to become the WooSox next season, but the statewide construction ban has brought the work on their new Polar Park in Worcester to a halt.
“Unquestionably this is a serious blow to our construction schedule,” said Lucchino. “It certainly will slow construction down. We’re hoping there are some things we can do this month in terms of planning and coordination that might help us, depending on when we get back to active construction."
The Sea Dogs and Spinners are pushing community-minded, health-oriented messages on their social media platforms, including child-oriented lesson plans and trivia contests meant to relieve pressure on teachers and parents.
Before the shutdown, Spinners GM Shawn Smith said, the team’s sponsorship had been “very strong” before slowing down.
“We’ve been working with our sponsors very proudly to understand their cash-flow needs and to understand their business," said Smith. "Our partners are our friends, too. It’s important they understand we care about them and we understand their needs.”
Sea Dogs president Geoff Iacuessa said the team understands the pressure every local business is experiencing.
“There’s not a business we deal with that’s immune to it and hasn’t been impacted by it, so everybody’s been pretty understanding and pretty sympathetic, and the sympathy goes the other way, too, because everybody’s been impacted,” said Iacuessa.
Thanks to commitments from all three ownership groups, the 40 full-timers with the PawSox, 18 with the Sea Dogs, and 11 with the Spinners have been assured that their jobs are safe. The Sea Dogs and Spinners have vowed to guarantee those jobs through the end of the season in September, with the PawSox expressing hope that they can do the same.
The Sea Dogs took their commitment the furthest. They informed their approximately 215 part-time concessionaires and ushers Tuesday that they would be compensated for each game they miss.
The PawSox and Spinners have not yet come to a decision about how to address their game-day staffs, which number 100-150 for the former and 200 for the latter.
Dave Heller owns the Spinners and three other minor league teams in Delaware, Iowa, and Montana, with a total of 55 full-time employees.
“I’ve told them I’m committed to keeping everybody; even if we don’t play baseball this year, I’m not going to fire anybody,” said Heller. “If I’ve got to get a loan, I’ll get a loan.
"I can’t bring myself to tell somebody that I’m firing them or furloughing them or laying them off or cutting their salary. I can’t do it. Not these people.”
The impact to the Sea Dogs’ full- and part-time staff will be negligible, thanks to owners Bill Burke and Sally McNamara, his sister.
“It’s certainly one less thing to worry about for everybody that’s involved, and that’s just a credit to Bill and Sally making a commitment to the people,” said Iacuessa.
“It’s unprecedented and challenging times, and we’re fortunate that our owners are so committed, and I wouldn’t begrudge anybody for the tough decisions they have to make.”