The excitement had been building for years. The Rocket City Trash Pandas were going to bring professional baseball to North Alabama.
Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fans will have to wait another year to see the home team.
Minor League Baseball announced Tuesday the cancellation of the 2020 season, which would have been the opening campaign for the Trash Pandas. Instead, 2021 will serve as the inaugural season for the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels.
“Obviously, this is an incredibly disappointing day for our fans, staff and partners,” Trash Pandas President and CEO Ralph Nelson said. “But the health and safety of our families and community is paramount. Baseball has always been a part of the healing when our country has come back from tragic times, and I firmly believe the Trash Pandas will help heal North Alabama when we come out on the other side of this pandemic an even stronger community.”
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor league governing body founded in September 1901, made the long-expected announcement of the league’s cancellation. The minors had never missed a season.
“We are a fans-in-the-stands business. We don’t have national TV revenues,” National Association president Pat O’Conner said during a digital news conference. “There was a conversation at one point: Well, can we play without fans? And that was one of the shortest conversations in the last six months. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
O’Conner estimated 85-90% of revenue was related to ticket money, concessions, parking and ballpark advertising. The minors drew 41.5 million fans last year for 176 teams in 15 leagues, averaging 4,044 fans per game.
Major League Baseball teams are planning for a 60-game regular season, and most of their revenue will derive from broadcast money. Minor League teams, such as the Trash Pandas, don’t have television deals and can’t survive without fans in the stands, O’Conner said.
“I had a conversation with the commissioner, and we weren’t unable to find a path that allowed us to play games,” O’Conner said. “It wasn’t an acrimonious decision on our part.”
O’Conner said many minor league teams had received money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act.
“That was a band-aid on a hemorrhaging industry,” he said. “Many of our clubs have gone through one, two, maybe three rounds of furloughs. In our office here, we’ve had varying levels of pay cuts between senior management, staff, and we’ve furloughed some individuals, as well, and are just about to enter in a second round of furloughs.”
He hopes for passage of H.R. 7023, which would provide $1 billion in 15-year federal loans from the Federal Reserve to businesses that had 2019 revenue of $35 million or less and “have contractual obligations for making lease, rent or bond payments for publicly owned sports facilities, museums and community theaters.”
In addition, the Professional Baseball Agreement between the majors and minors expires Sept. 30, and MLB has proposed reducing the minimum affiliates from 160 to 120.
“There’s no question that what the pandemic has done is made us somewhat weaker economically,” O’Conner said. “I don’t think it’s challenged our resolve. I don’t think it’s impacted our desire to stick together and get a good deal.”
There have not been substantive talks for about six weeks.
“There are very many teams that are not liquid, not solvent, not able to proceed under normal circumstances, and these are anything but normal circumstances given the PBA and the uncertainty of the future for some of these ballclubs,” O’Conner said. “So I think the coronavirus has really cut into many clubs’ ability to make it. And I think that we’re looking at without some government intervention, without doing something to take on equity partners, you might be looking at half of the 160 who are going to have serious problems.”
MLB already has told clubs to retain expanded 60-player pools, of which 30 players can be active during the first two weeks of the season starting in late July.
Conner said the financial impact of the pathogen might extend until 2023.
“As serious as the threat from Major League Baseball was,” O’Conner said, “this threat from the coronavirus, it transcends any list that anybody wants to make with respect to the possibility of teams not being around in the future.”
The Trash Pandas will soon announce policies and procedures as it relates to tickets purchased for 2020 baseball contests. Fans will not lose any value for the tickets they have already bought, the team said.
“These are unprecedented times for our country and our organization as this is the first time in our history that we’ve had a summer without Minor League Baseball played,” O’Conner said. “This announcement removes the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.