In past times of crisis in our country, sports have been a place people turn to as a diversion from the realities of life. After a brief shutdown of the sports world after 9/11 in 2001, baseball and the World Series that year were often credited with helping America move on from the tragedy and return to normalcy. With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down sports stadiums along with all sorts of other venues across the globe, that option has been taken off the table for the foreseeable future. The question remains: Will we see the Charlotte Knights play in 2020?
Since the NBA announced it would shut down the entire season on March 11, with other leagues following suit, the option for people to distract themselves from their concerns and fears as they lose themselves in a sporting event for three hours has not been available. When and how sports will resume is still in question, and Charlotte Knights Chief Operating Officer Dan Rajkowski is still waiting for answers.
According to Rajkowski, the team laid off about a third of its 45 full-time workers right around the time of the first stay-at-home order, knowing that Triple A baseball wouldn’t be making a return anytime soon, and that the Charlotte Knights may very well not play in 2020 at all.
Most of those affected held entry-level positions, and Rajkowski hopes to bring each one of them back at some point. He mentioned that he’s kept in touch with many of the workers, some of whom have been able to collect unemployment and are doing okay with the federal incentives currently in place.
While the team retained about 60-65% of its staff thanks to a first-round Payroll Protection Program loan, about 450 part-timers were not so lucky, as their only chance for revenue came from working the games at BB&T Ballpark.
Knights launch campaign to help laid-off employees
To help those employees left on the outside — including food service, ticketing, and media press box employees — the team launched “Knights Care 4 CLT,” selling T-shirts and masks online to bring in money for the cause. The campaign also raises money for health-care workers and a bevy of charities that the team would usually donate to through in-game promotions and events.
“We knew we needed to do something. We can’t fully subsidize what they have lost, but we can hopefully offset some of the losses they have had,” Rajkowski said, acknowledging that many of the part-time workers hold two or three jobs in order to make ends meet.
With many of those jobs being in the hospitality industry, some folks have lost all their income. Rajkowski ensured that the Knights will continue raising money for part-time staff through the pandemic and until baseball returns.
As for when that will happen, Rajkowski and the Charlotte Knights are as much in the dark about 2020 as anyone else.
“There is nothing definitely set until Major League Baseball (MLB) and the players agree on some type of concept of revenue sharing and when to start,” he said. “We’re at the mercy of Major League Baseball, so the goal is once they get a plan and announce it, hopefully we’ll follow with a plan for minor league baseball. As every day goes by, it becomes more challenging being able to set this up.”
Minor-league teams wait for word from above
MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have been negotiating since March about what a shortened season would look like if baseball were to return this year, and more importantly, how players would be paid. On May 26, MLB team owners presented a plan that would drop the revenue-sharing plan offered by the MLBPA, replacing it with prorated salaries, giving the highest paid players the biggest cuts. The players and owners have been in a stalemate since.
If minor-league teams are eventually allowed to play, Rajkowski said, the schedule would be shortened to coincide with the MLB plans.
“As I understand it, they’ll be going to not much later than the end of September with a reduced schedule of 82 games, so we wouldn’t be extending into October, which means we would have a reduced schedule,” he said. “If you get into mid-July, I think you’re in a real problem being able to mobilize players to get them in here and being prepared to play.”
If there is to be a season for the Knights, it won’t be without fans.
As Rajkowski explained, “Major League Baseball can certainly [play games with empty stadiums] because they have TV contracts. Unless we get a TV contract, we’re not playing in front of an empty stadium. Our business model relies on merchandise and season tickets — ticket sales and concessions — so if you don’t have anybody buying a ticket or a hot dog, it makes no sense because all we’ve got is expenses putting players on the road, hotels, and those types of things. Reduced capacity makes sense and that’s what we have to figure out, whether it’s 25% or 50%, and then you social distance.”
Knights make preparations for the return of fans
If games are finally placed on the schedule for 2020, the team is prepared, Rajkowski said. The Knights have been working closely with the International League, looking at the protocols related to sanitizing and cleaning to add to what they already have in place for food-service employees and other staff.
“It’s just a whole new way of doing business and entirely different than how it was done before, and some of it is going to be here forever,” Rajkowski said before referencing the ways 9/11 permanently changed our country’s airport screening system.
Even if the Knights are able to play in Charlotte in 2020, however, will fans be open to returning to games?
“That’s the million dollar question,” Rajkowski replied. “This is not a thing where you’re going to turn a switch on and off. It’s going to be gradual. Hopefully they will come out, at least a decent number where we can pay the bills.”
The Knights surveyed about 3,500 fans to get a grasp on their feelings about returning to the stadium. In the survey, carried out in early May, 36% of respondents said they would be ready to attend a game at the ballpark within two weeks of the state launching Phase 1 of its reopening plan on May 8. More than 70% of fans said they are likely to spend money on sporting events and entertainment as soon as they are allowed to do so.
With Gov. Cooper implementing Phase 2 in his plan to reopen the state, the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in Mecklenburg County and the percentage of tests that come back positive are both on the rise, according to the most recent data released by the county on June 5.
One of Rajkowski’s final sentiments in our conversation was that, “Sports have been able to unite our country at many times.” And yet perhaps the biggest question of all those that remain on the table is whether our country feels safe enough to unite at all.