The Idaho Falls Chukars minor league baseball team has been a part of the town’s landscape for 80 years. Recent negotiations between Major League Baseball and the minor leagues have threatened that relationship after MLB proposed to contract the minors by 42 teams after this summer. The list for teams to be cut includes the Chukars.
While discussions are ongoing, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into the 2020 season and any plans for the future of both the Major Leagues and the minors.
Chukars’ President and General Manager Kevin Greene recently spoke to the Post Register about the team’s outlook for this summer and beyond.
Q: What’s the latest on the negotiations and how will it impact the Chukars? Will there be a 2020 season?
A: Unfortunately, there’s just too much uncertainty to give you a straight answer. We simply do not know. If I was to call the president of minor league baseball right now, he wouldn’t know. If I was to call the commissioner of Major League Baseball right now he wouldn’t know.
I think their priority is to establish what a Major League Baseball season might look like for this summer, and then once they determine that, then they can determine what a minor league baseball season will look like this year.
We’re hopeful that they might be able to play some Major League Baseball in front of fans by sometime in July, and if that’s the case, then will they then let all of their minor league ballplayers go out to cities across the country and play minor league baseball in front of fans?
We don’t know the answer to that. It’s the uncertainty that makes it difficult for us. We have a lot of season seat holders and fans that want the answers, and unfortunately, I have no answer to give other than to sit tight, and when we know, you’ll know.
Q: The negotiations between MLB and MiLB were already contentious and hanging over the 2020 season. What has coronavirus done to put that on the back burner?
A: It’s done just that. Put it on the back burner. Minor league baseball to some degree is just an extension of Major League Baseball and the most important thing for Major League Baseball is to get up and running, and once they figure out what that looks like and they establish policy, then they will deal with the minor leagues. We’re back burnered until that issue is resolved. And then we’ll have to wait and see what they’re going to do as far as sending us players.
It would be wonderful if it was something as simple as saying ‘Well you know Idaho Falls has a very low incidence of coronavirus, therefore we feel comfortable putting players there in July.’ It’s not that simple. They’re not going to open up one league and not open another because of where they’re located geographically or based on the amount of cases of COVID-19. I think it’s going to be an all or nothing thing, and we just have to sit tight and say ‘Are they prepared to put players in 162 cities.’
And frankly this could go either way. It’s 50-50 and I’m hoping to have a straight answer by this time in May. I’d love to find out by May 20 that we’re set to open on July 10, for example.
That would be awesome, but that would be the best-case scenario. I do think if we do have a season, it wouldn’t start until mid-July and then you take the current end date which is Sept.12 and move that to the end of September so everything pushes back maybe three or four weeks.
Q: If it came to having to play in an empty stadium, is that something you guys could do?
A: I don’t know what value that would be other than for the purpose of straight player development. Unlike (MLB) we don’t have any TV revenue. So there’s really no benefit to us or our fans. But if Major League Baseball says ‘We’re going to send you players and we want them to play in front of no fans,’ I guess we would theoretically have that obligation … to put them out on the field and maintain the field for you. We do videostream our games … but at that point we could step up production, theoretically, and make something that would be available to anybody online.
Q: There’s been talk of a smaller draft or pushing the date back or even eliminating it for this year. How does that impact the Chukars?
A: For 2020 I don’t think that’s too much of a concern. Usually coming out of spring training a lot of players who were here or with other short season clubs with the Royals, many of them may have gotten released to make room for the 40 rounds of drafted players. But if there’s no draft, a lot of those guys who may have gotten released at some point in spring training have not been (released) and continue to be employed by the Royals. Theoretically, we would see a lot more returning players than we’d see in any other year.
Q: So bottom line, you have enough players in the pipeline that you might not need new draftees to play this season?
A: There should be enough players in the system to currently be able to provide us a roster of players.
Q: I saw a story recently where a minor league GM was quoted as saying that the entire business model is based on having people in the stadium. Do the Chukars fit that business model?
A: Absolutely. Everything we do is tied into food and beverage, ticket sales, and sponsorships. If somebody pays us to have a sign on our fence, I’m not going to be able to offer them any value if there’s no one in the stands. Even if it’s just a sponsorship, an ad in our game program or a billboard at the ballpark or an on-field promotion, those are essential revenue to us, but they have no value if I have nobody in the stands. So not only do I lose the ticket and food and beverage revenue, I’ll lose the advertising revenue as well because that would offer no value since there’s no one there to look at it.
Essentially, all of our revenue would be eliminated without fans in the stands.
What do we do if we’re told in mid-May that there’s no 2020 season?
We’re going to have a number of fans and sponsors who are going to ask for their money back. We’re going to say to them ‘Folks, because of this we’d like to take your 2020 ticket package or sponsorship package and roll it into 2021 … Some people are going to need that money back and in that case they’ll get a refund. In other cases, they’ll say they had it in their budget and they don’t want to lose their spot out there so they’ll say hang on to it and we’ve already prepaid for 2021. I’m hoping if we get to that point that we can convince enough of our supporters to let us retain that revenue to get us through to the following season. That’s what we’re hopeful of.
Q: But you can’t really guarantee a 2021 season. How would you sell that?
A: This still has to be negotiated out, but most people in baseball seem to think that if there’s not a 2020 season, then it would be likely that Major League Baseball would agree to take the 2020 season and extend our Professional Baseball Agreement, which is set to expire this fall, and give us one more year on it.
Q: Would that be a silver lining if there’s more time to negotiate the PBA?
A: I think so because there’s a lot of things that logistically need to be thought through before you just (constrict) 42 minor league teams out of the system.
Q: For the readers wondering if there’s going to be a season, what would you say to them?
A: I’d say sit tight and be patient. We think we’re going to have a solid answer in a month’s time. If it’s before then, we’ll certainly let everyone know what we’ve been told.
It’s the uncertainty; I can’t give you a real answer.
Q: How would you describe what the Chukars mean to the community?
A: Well, we are the hometown team. This is our 80th year of professional affiliated baseball. I’ve known many of the season seat holders and sponsors that I first meet in 1993 when I first moved here. We’ve built strong relationships … Baseball is our national pastime, you take your kids out there, it’s something that’s been a part of our country for 160 years or so, and it would just be a shame to see all that tradition and all that family enjoyment just disappear.