Nothing signifies the end of winter and the beginning of spring more than hearing the words, “Play ball.” Minor-league baseball towns around the country never experienced that spring transition in 2020, as the Charlotte Knights and other teams around the county saw their season end before it could begin.
On Feb. 18 of this year, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that Minor League Baseball will be returning, and almost immediately, the Charlotte Knights released their upcoming schedule. The team will start its season April 6 in Jacksonville before hosting the Durham Bulls for their home opener on Tuesday, April 13, at Truist Field.
[UPDATE: On March 3, the Charlotte Knights announced they had been informed by MLB that the season for Triple-A East baseball, in which the Knights play in the Southeast division, will be delayed until May 6. A statement from the team read: “We will have more details soon on how that will impact our 2021 schedule and what that will mean for our fans and partners. We appreciate the community’s support and look forward to welcoming Knights fans back to the ballpark in the near future.”]
On Feb. 24, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a loosening of statewide COVID-19 restrictions, including increasing the capacity percentage allowed at sports stadiums such as Truist Field to 30%, which translates to just over 3,000 Charlotte Knights fans.
Following those announcements, we had the chance to speak to Charlotte Knights Chief Operating Officer Dan Rajkowski about how the team plans to implement COVID-19 guidelines while still giving fans the best possible experience. We also discussed the effects of a completely canceled season in 2020, a new Professional Developmental League (PDL) license between the Charlotte Knights and MLB, and other topics.
Queen City Nerve: What was your first reaction to the news that you will have baseball this year at Truist Field?
Dan Rajkowski: Great news! We’ve been working awfully hard through our health director here locally and through the governor’s office to try to get increased capacity to where we could afford to open and pay our bills, and 30% gets us awful close to that. We are very excited that we are able to get the capacity to be able to open this building safely and with some decent numbers.
Do you see the return of baseball as the start of a return to normalcy?
I don’t think we’ll be close to the word normal through 2021. Listening and observing and reading, this is going to be a slow process. You see we’ve gone from 0% to seven to 30 [percent capacity] and maybe we’ll get to 50 at some point late spring or early summer. This is going to be a process and a challenge for 2021, and 2022 is going to be a challenge as well reintroducing people. People may be without baseball for a year and a half or two years and habits change, so we have to reconnect with our fanbase and reenergize the thought of watching baseball games.
Will Charlotte Knights players be doing anything different concerning their training?
It’s significantly different. There’s flow charts when you take infield and batting practice and where you stand, and the changing out of baseballs and not drinking out of the same water bottles. In the clubhouse, there will be restructuring of spacing and how you eat your meals. How you come to the ballpark, what you eat at the ballpark, what you do after the game. Right now they’re going from the ballpark to the hotel, that’s it. Two months from now it might be different. There are a lot of pretty detailed protocols and guidelines to follow.
What will the experience be like for fans reflecting the current situation attending the game?
I honestly think they’re going to be thrilled. People are anxious to get out. We’re social as people, and we haven’t been able to do that. I think people are going to embrace it, and as long as they feel that we have been making every effort to keep them safe, I think they’ll respond.
What will those safety measures look like?
The first is a 108-page protocol book from Major League Baseball that tells us how we have to take care of our players. It’s very detailed. It’s a good template for the safety of the players, and the fans that are near the players, and what can be on the service level and how you sanitize the clubhouse, etc.
As it relates to the fans, we’ve been doing this because we’ve been putting events out here. You walk in, your bag is checked, we have been temperature testing for the smaller [events]. We don’t know if that will be required for the 3,000 [fans allowed in the ballpark each game]. There are hand-sanitizing stations throughout the building, and all the health department protocols regarding food preparation, whether it’s plexiglass or face guards.
We have someone out here today looking at elements for our press box and the Plexiglas and to put that up. We’re going to require that you wear a mask in [the ballpark]. Not at your seat if you’re eating, but once you get up, you have to wear a mask. The seating bowl will all be social-distanced at 6 feet, so when you go to your seats with two to four people, there will be social distancing and there will be markings on the floor.
When the Charlotte Knights last played in 2019, they competed against 13 different teams. This year it will only be five, including Jacksonville and Nashville as new opponents. Why was that and what are your thoughts on the new teams?
The number one way this virus is transferred is through travel. It was just to reduce the amount of travel among selected teams, and we had a very short window between when the [PDL] license was signed and when the schedule was made. We fully expect that will be expanded in the future, but that’s not my call, that’s what we’re being told, so 2022 will look different. I don’t know a lot about their affiliations at this juncture, but Jacksonville is now newly elevated from Double A to Triple A, and Nashville’s got a nice ballpark and a great city, so we’ll look forward to traveling to those cities and starting those relationships.
The scheduling is quite different, with teams playing six-game series between Tuesday and Sunday, and Mondays off. What was the reasoning for that?
You’re getting your teams earlier in the city. You’re customizing your clubhouse and gaining a routine of what you’re doing. There’s always been an interest to get additional off-days for the health and well-being and the welfare of the players. While they had a number of off-days previously, it just appeared the best day to have one off a week is Monday. They were able to work the schedule around it and we will see how it works. We’ve never had more than four games in a row by the same team, but this is a lot of smart people putting these schedules together. People know they’ve got a consistent Monday off all season long.
Between season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors and casual Charlotte Knights fans, how is it determined who gets to attend games?
We’ve already issued a letter to all of our season-ticket holders asking them, based on the information you have now, would you like to opt in or opt out of your season tickets for 2021? We just sent that out, so I couldn’t give you a number right now. Then we will evaluate them based on the years they have been season-ticket holders, the amount of usage that they’ve had, their desire to have a full season [or] a half season, so it’s going to be a fairly detailed process.
We do have about 3,000 season tickets, the hope is we can have the season-ticket holders who don’t want to opt in. They will not lose their priority seating for 2022, we’ll just roll it over, and I think with the 3,000, we’ll get a decent amount of season-ticket holders. We may have some game day [tickets] for sale, and we may have some small group areas we are able to sell. How the suite owners respond will be something different. We’re prepared to get all of this information out, but it’s such a moving target, and there could be an end-of-March evaluation by the governor’s office that may increase or decrease depending on what’s happening.
Is there the possibility that people will be able to buy tickets the day of the game that are not season-ticket holders?
At this moment, I wouldn’t be able to confirm that. The priority is our season-ticket holders and our suite holders. In a perfect world, if all of them would opt in — and I don’t think that’s going to happen — then we wouldn’t have any tickets to sell to the public. I suspect we will have a small percentage of it. Our season-ticket holders have been wonderful through this process and understanding. There may be some game-day tickets available, but at this juncture, we don’t have enough information from our ticket holders to tell us that.
Not playing last season had to be tough with the lost revenue and everything else entailed. How is that going to affect the coming season, if at all?
It’s going to cost some reductions and it already has in staff, with about a third we have already laid off and we probably won’t bring many of them back. The news of getting from 7% to 30% might change our mindset a little bit on the operation of how we run the game day. We’re going to make adjustments to cashless, touchless systems, a digital program, a lot of things that will be the new normal for our sport.
You’ve got to look at everything you do. Naturally you’re not going to bring in the same type of revenue with 3,000 as you did with 9,000, so we’ve had to make some adjustments. We’ve been very fortunate that this community has done a great job of supporting us, and we had a little money in the bank to keep our head above water and to keep the lights on. It’s not going to be easy but we’ve got very supportive ownership and [the Feb. 24] news with at least 30% [capacity] enables us to pay some people with the hopes of it getting better as the season goes on.
Is 30% enough to cover the costs with everything you have to do with the team?
Not for an entire season, no. What I think it would do — and I haven’t officially run the numbers but I did a pro forma [financial statement] on 25% because we were hoping for at least 25% by the time we start the season and play baseball. Our expenses are significantly more, and we own this building and operate it, so the expenses and the onus is on the Knights, so if the air conditioning unit goes out for 25 grand, I don’t go to my landlord and ask him to repair it. I go and pay for it, and we have debt service on the building, so we have principal payments and interest payments for this building, so those don’t go away either.
We have some fixed expenses that we can’t control. What we can control is the expenses on game day, while still providing great service, and we’ll see how people respond. We don’t know how people are going to respond in a group setting. Our group areas, suites and picnic areas, those are really critical for a part of our business — the social part of watching and viewing a baseball game. We have to see how the human reaction is to that, and I don’t know what that’s going to be.
What realistic number would get you to a more comfortable point compared to 30% capacity?
I think 40 to 50% would make it to where we could continue to operate the way we’re doing things. Without crunching the formal numbers, 30% is a decent number. The question is, will we sell 3,000 seats a night? Will our season-ticket holders take those seats and utilize them, and then, how many tickets will we have for sale for the public, and will the public feel comfortable coming out? All those things are variables that we don’t know. I think people, from what I’ve seen, are really anxious to get out. People have cabin fever and they’re tired of this virus and they want it gone and if they’re vaccinated or they feel safe, I think people are going to come to ballparks in droves later on in the summer. I just don’t know how early that’s going to happen.
What do you anticipate your staff load to be to start the season, and do you anticipate that would change if restrictions ease up a little bit more?
From a full-time staff we’re going to be reduced and there are people we’re not able to bring back. Many are in the season-ticket department because with season tickets and limited walkup, we don’t have a lot of tickets to sell. A lot of our younger employees are right out of college or first- or second-year employees and are not working right now. Our full-time directors have had to work hard. From the part-time perspective, you’re looking at less concession stands open, which means less people, and less tickets to offer so that means less ticket salespeople. With less people, you need less security and less police, so we just kind of pared it down, still safe, but recognizing that the lower volume of people just results in a lower volume of working.
Do you know the percentage of Charlotte Knights staffers that won’t be coming back to work?
I don’t know that at this point. With the news that we will be able to have 30%, I was quite pleased. I know we worked very hard to lobby to get a larger percentage. I’ll be meeting with my staff in the next couple of days. We have been planning for these types of things. The other part of this, which is the real wild card, is these players just got out to Arizona and Florida. They just started spring training and, like many other sports, they’ve had outbreaks. In baseball we haven’t heard of many. If there are outbreaks, that may slow the start of the season.
Who did you petition to increase the capacity for your ballpark?
We had a consortium of the 10 minor-league teams in North Carolina and we hired representatives in Raleigh on our behalf to help us open some doors in the governor’s office to at least be able to convey the message, and we were able to do that effectively I think over the last several weeks, and then working closely with the local health director.
We’ve had events out here with 735 people, which is more than most places have, and we’ve done it according to the guidelines, with social distancing and masks and temperature checks and all of the things that you need to do and sanitizing, and we have been successful at it, so I think we have a track record locally, and hopefully a proponent when it comes to asking the question: Who’s been abiding by guidelines and who hasn’t? I would like to think we’re one of the group who has, and I think that’s helped us communicate our message both locally and at the state level.
To operate a minor league club in 2021, the Charlotte Knights accepted an invitation to become Professional Development League (PDL) license holders as a partner with major league clubs. How is that different from how you operated before?
There’s a lot to it. In essence, Major League Baseball is taking the lead in this. It eliminated what was before the National Association of Professional Baseball, which is the minor league baseball office in Tampa. For all intents and purposes, it eliminated whole leagues. They’re renamed, so you don’t have league presidents and bylaws and it’s really more mainstreamed under the Major League umbrella to assist with facility standards, to assist in nutrition and health and welfare for these players; to help streamline it so pay is better for the players; traveling; and the digital marketing aspect of it and utilizing the resources out of New York and Major League Baseball so there’s one baseball.
We’re all under one umbrella, and I think that there’s going to be some growing pains anytime you do this and take over 120 teams, but at the end of the day, I think we’ll get to a point where it will be much better for our minor league franchises. The license is for 10 years, which coincided with the Knights’ recent extension of their affiliation with the Chicago White Sox through 2030.
There were recently a couple of stories written about MLB expanding in the future and mentioning Charlotte as a possible candidate, which seems to be a perennial topic. What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t put too much thought into that, because I don’t believe it’s anytime quick in our future. Charlotte has been mentioned in conversation for Major League Baseball as long as I have been here and that’s been 15 years. I don’t know if expansion is right on the horizon. Charlotte is a wonderful market, it’s a major league market, but I think it’s perfect for Triple A. We’ve got several major league markets with another one coming in with the MLS. If it comes in, the
Knights would have to relocate, but right now I’m working as a Triple A operator and that’s how I intend to work for years to come.
April 13 is your home opener. Do you have any special plans for opening day?
Two days ago it was different than it is today. When it was estimated at 735, you’re probably not going to do the flyovers and things of that nature. The question will be, how do you do it? You can’t have anthem singers on the field, because you can’t get the public that close to the players. For a lot of the on-field stuff, it won’t be allowed early on.
Now how do you creatively do an anthem, you do it somewhere outside the playing field and video it. There’s a lot of different ideas out there. We know the first responders, the health-care workers, there’s going to be an emphasis on the wonderful things they have done putting themselves in harm’s way. Those will be some of the focuses we have. What do you do for 3,000 people? You want them all to feel special, but it’s just a matter of what you can do.
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