For the first time since 2019, fans are excited to hear the words, “Play ball!” at Werner Park. While baseball enthusiasts missed watching the sport on the field, for employees of the Omaha Storm Chasers, the canceled 2020 season hit closer to home.
As the Triple-A affiliate for the Kansas City Royals prepares for their 2021 season opener tonight against the St. Paul Saints, the team’s 18 employees are excited and relieved to see play get underway, said Martie Cordaro, Chasers team president.
As soon as the 2019 season ended, the team turned its focus to 2020, the 10th anniversary of the team playing at Werner Park. Ten years already? Then, the baseball world stopped. Along with the rest of the world. A virus put the celebration on hold.
Canceled season, layoffs
When the pandemic hit the United States hard, it didn’t overlook baseball. The Omaha Storm Chasers felt it, just like any other business. The team, with 31 full-time employees, did its best to keep its head above water. But, as the 2020 season was canceled, the Chasers realized they had to let some people go. The Chasers reluctantly cut workers to about seven, Cordaro said.
“Each of the last three years was distinctly different,” he said. “A normal 2019. Then a normal 2020 up until March. And then this season. It won’t be normal, but it will be different. I’m not even sure 2022 will be normal. We’re kind of projecting 2023 as the return to some normalcy.”
The canceled 2020 season cost the Storm Chasers 70 home games. It’s impossible to recover the revenue from that many events, Cordaro said.
“It will be 20 months between pitches from Labor Day weekend 2019 to May 4th,” he said. “There are very few businesses that could go 20 months without being in business and stay open. But, we were fortunate that we had several sponsors stay with us and act like there was a 2020 season.
“But, that’s different than 97 percent of our sponsors, who rolled their sponsorships over from the 2019 season to 2021. And we’re gracious for that support. We had a significant number of companies stay us like we had a 2020 season.”
The team received Paycheck Program Protection (PPP) funding, but that only lasted a few weeks, Cordaro said.
Minor League Baseball teams haven’t been included in recent funding packages, even though the team offered catering services and on-field performance sales, similar to concerts at theaters, clubs and arenas.
“We’re still sitting in the dugout, if you will, waiting and working with groups and politicians on both sides of the aisle, where we have support, for some funding that is sorely needed,” he said.
Minor league baseball teams enjoy a different relationship with communities than Major League Baseball franchises, Cordaro said. Teams tend to be a part of the community rather than just a sport, he said.
“It’s more about everything off the field,” Cordaro said. “That’s been extremely frustrating. That’s why I look to 2023-24 as a true recovery.”
Other revenue options
Without a product to put on the field, the team turned to other ways to bring in revenue and keep people employed.
“We did special events to keep the community spirit going, but more to provide safe, outdoor events, like drive-in fireworks, play catch on the field, play soccer on the field,” Cordaro said.
High school and college baseball showcases helped in attracting 93,000 people to the baseball park during the summer, he said. While it’s a far cry from more than 630,000 fans who could have attended games (based on each game selling out), it helped with the team’s marketing.
Along with charitable events and Union Omaha soccer games, Werner Park hosted more than 180 events, Cordaro said.
Union Omaha soccer
While baseball didn’t take the field, professional soccer did play a few games during Union Omaha’s inaugural season. Attendance was limited.
“We didn’t have any Covid trace cases among our players or among our fans,” he said. “We did it safely.”
Another revenue source was online merchandise sales, Cordaro said.
“We did have some significant online sales initially, through June,” he said. “But, that flattened out. We did see an increase as spring season start.”
2021 park changes
As the Chasers turn their focus to the 2021 season, fans will notice several changes, on and off the field.
Gone are the on-field promotions and events. Minor league administrative staff and fans aren’t allowed on the field during games, Cordaro said. In-game promotions will continue, but they’ll be handled differently, he said. They’ll likely take place on Borsheim’s whiffle ball field and broadcast on the scoreboard screen.
Concession stands will be markedly different. Concession stand choices will be limited, with about 65-70 percent fewer food offerings, Cordaro said. Gone will be multiple options, such as additional toppings. Fans will be able to get a hamburger, cheeseburger or hot dog, but they just won’t have the number of toppings they’ve had in previous seasons.
The team put vending machines on the concourse behind home plate for people wanting a soda or water, he said. They won’t have to worry about standing in line at a concession stand.
Leave your cash at home, as the concession stands and parking lot have been converted to accept debit and credit cards only. But, if you do bring cash to the park, don’t despair.
“I hate to say we’re cashless,” Cordaro said. “If someone does bring cash, they can come to the team store and convert it to a gift card, which can be used anywhere in the stadium.”
The stadium will be limited to about 4,500 fans to open the season, Cordaro said. But, he expects attendance numbers to increase as the season progresses, he said.
Fans are required to wear facemasks inside the stadium unless they are eating or drinking. Union Omaha’s fans were good at following the process, so Cordaro expects that to roll over with Storm Chaser fans.
New league opponents
Fans will see some major on-field changes, as in the teams the Chasers will face. During the offseason, Major League Baseball assumed control over minor league operations, eliminating the Minor League Baseball brand. MLB reduced minor league teams from 160 to 120, averaging 30 teams in four levels. Minor leagues are now known by their levels– Triple A, Double A, High A and Low A .
Triple-A is divided into two leagues – the 20-team Eastern League and 10-team Western League. Omaha plays in the East’s Midwest Division. In an effort to practice safety, as well as reduce teams’ expenses, teams will only play divisional opponents in 2021, Cordaro said. The teams in Omaha’s division are the Iowa Cubs, St. Paul Saints, Columbus Skippers, Indianapolis Indians, Louisville Bats and Toledo Mudhens. Only the Cubs are a carryover from the Pacific Coast League with Omaha.
Omaha plays Iowa (Chicago Cubs affiliate) and St. Paul (Minnesota Twins) 72 times during the 120-game season. It does give Omaha 18 home games each against both the Cubs and Saints, giving local fans of those Major League teams an opportunity to see their teams’ players. Omaha will also face former American Association member Indianapolis for the first time since the late 1990s. Teams play a six-game series, with Monday an off-day.
Future seasons will see familiar teams Nashville and Memphis return to Omaha, but fans will have an opportunity to see new teams this season, with former Eastern League teams Columbus and Toledo in the division.
The new alignment will offer Omaha fans chances to see historic teams play at Werner Park.
“In future years, it will be fun to welcome teams like the Durham Bulls to town, and the history that brings,” Cordaro said.
As attendance numbers grow this season, and the Chasers host new teams, Cordaro offers ideas on how fans can help support minor league baseball.
“Come to a game,” he said. “If you didn’t attend a game in 2019, come to one game. If you attended one game, attend two. If you attended four, attend five.”
The Storm Chasers are offering a book of tickets that give fans an opportunity to attend games when they want, Cordaro. The Blue Book includes vouchers, so fans bring them to the park and exchange them for seats. Books also include 10 parking passes. Blue books are available online.
“If you’re going to spend $60-70 for a game, I really encourage people to use the blue book,” he said. “Exchange the voucher for tickets.”
If people are comfortable, companies and groups are still encouraged to attend games, which start at 20 people. It helps with employees’ attitudes and allows people to get together in a safe environment, he said. Individually wrapped meals or served buffet meals are available, Cordaro said.
“We are a safe outlet and venue for people to do that,” he said.