Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
The Durham Bulls are in limbo, awaiting a decision by Major League Baseball about starting a shortened season this summer. But the vice president of the Bulls said Tuesday night that he’s hopeful the team can resume games with fans in July, although social distancing will require the stadium be kept at no more than 50% of its capacity.
“If you’ve been following in the news, Major League Baseball is looking at a condensed season,” Mike Birling, the minor league club’s vice president for baseball operations, told fans in a Zoom call. “They’re negotiating right now with the Players’ Association, so really until that gets figured out, we’re kind of stuck.”
Birling said that although major league teams could survive without fans in the stands, minor league teams depend on revenue from fans.
“We have made it very clear to Major League Baseball that in no way do we want to have a season if there are no fans in the stands. It just doesn’t work,” he said. “At the major league level it works because you have hundreds of millions of dollars in TV revenue. The amount of money we are losing already, and then if you throw in team travel and everything else, no team would be able survive that.”
The Bulls held the town hall meeting Tuesday night for 919 Club Members, fans that buy season tickets or other ticket packages. The meeting gave fans a chance to ask questions about everything from merchandise to what mascot Wool E. Bull is doing to pass the time.
Birling said the Bulls are preparing for all scenarios.
If there is a season, Birling said there is a possibility of games resuming in early July and stretching into late September or early October, rather than ending in late August. It’s unclear if there will be minor league playoffs because league officials may decide playing more games is preferable to crowning a champion.
If there are games, fans should also be prepared for a new normal at the ballpark, including social distancing in the stands.
Durham Bulls Athletic Park can seat up to 10,000 fans, but Birling said that the capacity would be maxed at 50% – and that he would be shocked if they were allowed to have even 5,000 people in the stadium.
Fans would be spread out throughout the stadium, but families and people that have purchased tickets together would not be required to social-distance.
“If you had four season tickets, we’d skip a couple seats, and skip the row behind you,” he said
Birling and other team employees in the meeting said the Bulls are doing as much as they can to assure season ticket holders that if they are assigned new seats, they will be as close to their original seats as possible.
Birling said fans will not be required to wear masks in the ballpark (although the Bulls just began selling masks with the team logo).
“We will require our staff [to wear masks], but we will not require fans to do it.”
There also will be extra precautions with food and drink sales. The Bulls are looking to expand their use of FanFood, a mobile app that provides a contactless and cashless way to order food in the ballpark.
If the MLB decides to return to play, there are several challenges unique to the minor leagues that will need to be sorted out.
Compared with other leagues with nearby opponents, the Durham Bulls would need to face teams from Toledo to Buffalo, which brings up the challenge of traveling.
“The difficult part from our perspective is how spread out our league is. In a lot of these leagues, you’re kind of closer – it’s only a few states. But in Triple-A baseball, obviously, we’re everywhere” Birling said. “We got to go to Toledo, we got to go to Buffalo. So each one of those situations is different, and that’s the challenge we have at Triple-A baseball and that’s something we’re all trying to figure out.”
Birling thanked Durham fans for their support and said team officials are still hopeful they will be allowed to play this summer.
“You can’t get a better opportunity if you’re Major League Baseball, to put aside your differences and figure out how to play for the good of the game, for the good of the country.”
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