NILES, Ohio – Government-mandated health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted harm on minor league sports.
The Mahoning Valley Scrappers baseball team suffered a 95% loss of revenue during the canceled 2020 season. The team was able to earn 60% of its normal profits in 2021, says the general manager of the Scrappers, Jordan Taylor.
Taylor is also vice president of HWS Baseball, which is part of Massachusetts-based HWS Group, a sports management firm that owns and operates professional sports franchises.
Concessions were up 12% compared to 2019, he says, while merchandise sales rose 15%.
Online merchandise sales currently account for about 18% of sales but will most likely jump to close to 25% by year’s end.
“We usually do a lot of online sales over the holidays,” Taylor says.
Eastwood Field, the home of the Scrappers since the team’s inception in 1999, is leased from The Cafaro Co. The current agreement runs through 2033.
Cafaro spokesman Joe Bell says the company understands finances are not going to return to 2019 numbers until the 2022 season at the earliest.
The Scrappers were originally among the minor league teams eliminated by Major League Baseball. But the team became one of six founding members of the MLB Draft League on Nov. 30, 2020.
A Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians from 1999 until 2020 and a member of the New York-Penn League, the team is now in a league controlled by Major League Baseball.
Cafaro is glad the team is up and running, Bell says, and is looking forward to the 2022 season.
“If they could live up to the kind of crowds that they were getting in 2019, that would be just fine,” he says. “That would probably suffice for them. As long as they’re meeting their obligations in terms of the rent of the facility, we’re fine as well.”
Attendance averaged around 2,400 for each of the 34 home games in 2021, down from the approximately 3,000 per contest in 2019.
Taylor says there were a lot of carryover ticket sales from the 2020 season to 2021.
COVID-19 restrictions limited capacity to 30% for the first few home games in the 6,000-seat stadium, while coronavirus outbreaks canceled end-of-the-season contests. It didn’t hinder the team’s progress.
“The other thing that was really helpful for us this year was our paid to actual attendance [ratio] is the highest it’s been since I’ve been general manager,” he says. “So people were using their tickets at a really high rate compared to some previous years.”
After attracting 1,000 to 1,200 people in some groups this season, Taylor is confident of the 2022 projections.
“We have a positive feeling that having a full offseason, and the certainty of knowing what we are, we have the team moving forward,” Taylor says. “[This] is going to give us a chance to build the season appropriately and have more time to do so, which will lead to higher revenue.”
A new scoreboard, clubhouse facilities, and a weight room, along with upgraded drainage and sound system and other improvements were added to Eastwood Field before the 2018 season.
“They had already done or were in the process of doing some of the major things that needed to be done to make that a really competitive ballpark,” Bell says.
Game day operation costs range from $3,000 to $15,000 for the team, which spends a couple of million dollars per year.
Games are longer in this MLB-funded format than they were in the New York-Penn League because of the many pitching changes.
“On some nights, that’s a really good thing, giving people extra time to buy concessions or merchandise,” Taylor says. “If it’s a slow night, you don’t want the game to drag out as long.”
Eastwood Field hosts other events, including entertainment and Youngstown State University, high school and amateur baseball games. The Wrestling Under The Stars show brought the biggest non-Scrappers attendance in 15 years, while the Aug. 19 show by comedian Jeff Dunham drew nearly 5,200 people, Taylor says.
The stadium hosted more than 100 events this season, and is likely to increase that number to close to 200 in 2022.
Taylor says HWS Baseball secured paycheck protection program loans of $223,996 and $129,700 for the Scrappers. And the Minor League Baseball Relief Act introduced in Congress is slated to give $550 million to clubs around the United States for help with business expenses.
“That type of funding will be significant and it’ll help ensure that these teams are on stable footing for years to come,” he says.
Six Scrappers players were selected in this year’s MLB Draft, while seven others signed either Major or minor league free-agent contracts as of Aug. 24. The team lost 14 of its 15 pitchers after the early-July MLB draft, leaving the team depleted in talent for the remainder of the season.
“I think what you’re going to see is a pretty big jump in terms of overall talent and depth of draft picks moving forward,” Taylor says.
In addition to the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the founding members of the MLB Draft League are Williamsport, Pa.; West Virginia (Granville); Frederick, Md.; Trenton, N.J.; and State College, Pa.
The league could expand, Taylor says.
“You’ve got a strong group of owners in this league,” he says. “I think when you’re expanding you want to make sure you’re bringing in comparable markets and ownership groups to add long-term stability.”
Taylor did not rule out the Scrappers being affiliated with an MLB team again.
“We feel good with the facility we have here,” he says. “The market certainly could support affiliated baseball again and hopefully at one point that can be an option. I don’t think it’s anything on the immediate horizon.”
Pictured: Mahoning Valley Scrappers General Manager Jordan Taylor talks about the finances of his team following the 2021 season, the first for the Scrappers in the MLB Draft League.