No games, no money: Coronavirus threatens workers who depend on baseball

VARIOUS CITIES,  - MARCH 12:  Fans look on from their seats after a Grapefruit League spring training game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on March 12, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The MLB suspended the remaining spring training games due to the ongoing threat of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Empty ballparks could have devastating ripple effects for workers in a host of industries fueled by baseball games. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The country as a whole is about to get a crash course in why sports are important, even amid the coronavirus pandemic. And spoiler: It’s money.

The idea that baseball, or any professional sport, is a business is said almost exclusively with derision. As an explanation for owner greed when Mookie Betts is traded or broadcast opportunities when an expanded playoff structure is floated. It explains why minor-league players are paid so little and also, frankly, why stars in the bigs are paid so much.

Baseball is not a public institution but a corporate one. That’s a bummer but it’s also a welcome reality for a lot of people who find purpose and, crucially, paychecks working in sports. The reason professional game-playing holds such an esteemed place in our culture — the reason I can have a job simply opining about it — is not because it reflects something universal about the human spirit, but because it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. (Now, you could argue that the industry itself depends on something more romantic like the universal need for knowable narratives built on physical excellence, but that’s just smart business.)

From hot dog vendors to hourly broadcast support staff to freelance journalists, the existing slate of games canceled because of the coronavirus could devastate their financial situation. A longer hiatus could alter the industry entirely. That’s what’s at stake.

Incomes, college funds and financial security vanish

No games means no money.

This is true for ushers in Atlanta and concessions workers in New York and security guards in Oakland and freelance broadcast technicians in Secaucus, New Jersey. The details of why this is so difficult depend on whatever is happening in their individual lives. They’re saving money for college in the fall, they just had a root canal, they’re trying for a baby, they have bills to pay, life costs money. They’re all cognizant that someone has it worse: People who can’t lean on parents for support, or whose partners don’t have a steady job uncompromised by the coronavirus, people who rely more heavily on seasonal work to get them through the year.

The week that sports stopped, a lot of people found themselves facing uncertain futures that extend beyond listless boredom and the eeriness of turning on ESPN right now. This isn’t special to sports, but in an industry defined by the highest earners it’s important to remember that the bottom of the gilded pyramid is made up of hourly employees whose essential livelihoods depend on the continuation of “inessential” entertainment.

(The people who spoke to me for this story largely did so on the condition of various degrees of anonymity.)

One 18-year-old high school senior in Georgia was scheduled to work as an usher for March Madness and at the Braves’ Truist Park. Last Thursday, just hours before he was due to go to a tournament rehearsal, that all fell apart.

“When [March Madness] finally got canceled it was awful. It was right around the same time that baseball got postponed and I just began to scramble. I hadn’t heard anything from my boss and didn’t know where I stood at the company. For the next two to three hours I still didn’t hear anything and I wasn’t sure if I had a job. But, when he finally told me that I wasn’t needed anymore it crushed me.”

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 25: A hot dog vendor sells hot dogs in the stands during the game between the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 25, 2019 in Oakland, California. The Athletics defeated the Mariners 6-5. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)

He was hoping to make $11 or $12 an hour working for the Braves this summer. With school starting, he can’t work past August, which means a delayed start to the season eats into his potential earnings even if those games are tacked on at the end. A memo he received from the Braves includes a detailed explanation of best practices to guard against the coronavirus but offers only a process to “reach back out to you with the new training and onboarding schedule” and a request for recipients to “remain flexible.” There is no mention of compensation.

“My biggest concern is trying to pay for college,” he said. “The postponement of baseball and cancellation of March Madness cost me, and my family, thousands of dollars that I need to replace before the fall when I head to college.”

“I'd say I make about half my annual income at the ballparks,” said a 40-year-old concessions vendor who works at the New York stadiums. The past few years, he estimates, that’s come out to about $20,000 annually between working both Mets and Yankees home games. Missing two weeks might be fine — after opening day, April is pretty slow — but after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended canceling events with more than 50 people for the next eight weeks on Sunday, the original April 9 target is effectively moot.

“If this stretches past Memorial Day, for example, it will significantly impact my living situation,” he said. “I don't have anything that could possibly replace that income in my life, especially since almost all my other work is freelancing in video, or in large event work, which are both also being affected,” he said.

[Get the latest on how the coronavirus global health crisis is affecting sports]

“Obviously the reality of this crisis is bigger than my personal bills, people are sick and dying, the world economy is grinding to a halt. But we have a mortgage to pay, we have to buy food, the world won't stop because MLB becomes a 108-game season for 2020, starting June 1. If they don't replace the games, that's $3,000-$6,000 lost for me, and that's not an insignificant amount of money. So yeah, I'm nervous. I can't be mad at anyone or anything — it's not MLB's fault. It's just the right thing to do as part of society. But it honestly isn't going to be easy if this becomes months, not weeks.”

One of the complicating factors for potential relief efforts is that the impact stretches beyond people who work within the confines of the stadium or are employed by stadium subcontractors. The lack of games also puts freelance broadcast technicians out of work indefinitely.

A 29-year-old who works for New York-area regional sports networks as well as the MLB Network, handling Pitchcast and Statcast, is unsure when she’ll work again.

“My work calendar was just literally wiped clean for however long the baseball season is postponed,” she said. The broadcast work with the RSNs comes out to be $220-$270 per game after taxes. MLB Network pays $23/hour. Without either of those, she’s trying to make up the money as a shopper for Instacart or a dog walker on Rover, but services like that have also been jeopardized by the widespread self-quarantining and grocery shortages induced by the coronavirus.

“Baseball is typically my busy season. I just had to put $850 into my car and had a $1,300 root canal today, now I'm not sure when I'm going to make that money up.” She lives at home, which eases one of the biggest expenses and potential causes for panic. But no matter where you live, life costs money.

“I'm still panicked about my bank account while not having the burden of rent on my shoulders, so if I was still living in the city or on my own somewhere, I have no idea what I would do.”

‘In a weird way it is also partially a relief’

None of the people I spoke to for this story questioned whether canceling games was the right call.

“I try to keep reminding myself that public health and stopping the spread of the virus are the top priorities,” the broadcast freelancer said. “I just wish I had PTO/sick days or that there was some sort of safety net for times like these.”

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 12: An employee of Oriole Park at Camden Yards waits out the rain delay prior to the start of the game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Angels on May 12, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
A legion of hourly and freelance workers depend on baseball for huge portions of their income, or to lift them to financial security. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

Specifically, some people preferred that the seasons were suspended outright instead of going ahead with games played in empty stadiums, which would have necessitated going to work around diminished but still bustling crews despite the pandemic sidelining most people safely into quarantine.

A freelancer who works on both MLB Network and ESPN baseball broadcasts talked about how “in a weird way it is also partially a relief.”

“When the idea of playing in front of zero fans was being thrown around, I started to get nervous. If the whole country goes on lockdown because it’s the safest thing to do, but baseball games continue to be played in front of zero fans, theoretically I still have a job. But why would I put myself in any danger when the rest of the world is doing the opposite?”

While this confirms that leagues did the prudent and necessary thing, it also underscores how precarious these hourly and freelance positions are. He expressed concern that his particular unease — elderly parents with health issues, currently trying to have a baby — would force him to choose between work that seemed unsafe and losing out on opportunities that took years to secure.

“I’m just glad I didn’t have to make that call,” he said. “I really hope when games do return, they return as 100 percent normal. I don’t want to make the decision of dream job versus potentially getting sick and spreading it to my loved ones.”

Where will help come from?

On Thursday, hours after baseball canceled spring training and postponed the start of the regular season, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, speaking at the team’s Cactus League complex, addressed the hourly workers who will be affected by the lack of games.

“I don’t think we're at a point where then there are any answers, but it's been a big part of the conversation. The goal would be to make sure that as few people, if any, are impacted by this financially,” he said. “But I'm not sure how realistic that is as this goes on.”

That depends on whether anyone steps up.

In the NBA and NHL, a handful of players and owners have already publicly pledged six- and even seven-figure donations to cover the lost wages of hourly stadium workers. Thus far, there’s been hardly any similar action taken in baseball.

The Ilitch Company, which owns the Detroit Tigers and the NHL’s Red Wings, announced a million dollar fund to support “part-time event colleagues.” But while this covers spring training staff at the Tigers’ Florida facility, it does not include staff at Comerica Park in Detroit.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - MARCH 14: Aerial view of Comerica Park from a drone on March 14, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
While the owners of the Detroit Tigers committed to paying workers who lost games at their spring training facility, no arrangements have been made for those who would have been staffing regular season games at Comerica Park. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In Toronto, players, coaches and management across all leagues are encouraged to donate to a fund for workers of local venues. The Houston Astros’ George Springer is donating $100,000 to employees at Minute Maid Park. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer has set up a GoFundMe page where “all proceeds will be donated to support MLB game day staff during this trying time.” To date, it’s raised just about $23,000 of his $1 million goal.

Owners, reportedly, are unwilling to act because of all the uncertainty over how long they might be on the hook and the density of baseball games on the schedule. It’s a poor excuse, according to the UNITE HERE Local 11, the union for hospitality workers in Southern California — whose ranks include 5,600 workers in sports venues. Late last week, the union sent a letter to owners of the Lakers, Clippers, Sparks, Dodgers, Angels, Kings, Galaxy and LAFC asking them to continue paying the employees, often subcontracted, who work at their stadium.

“In this light and in a spirit of shared sacrifice, we write to ask that your company step in to help ensure that, in the event that games are closed to spectators or cancelled entirely, Dodger Stadium’s subcontracted food service workers are provided with the wages and healthcare benefits that they would have received were they able to work,” reads the letter sent to a member of the Dodgers ownership group. Since then, the International Union of UNITE HERE has created a petition calling on all sports owners to pay their food service contractors.

The 20,000 members they represent are a fraction of the all the people who won’t get paid until sports come back — and many of those who are affected, like broadcast freelancers, seemingly don’t fall under the purview of donations to in-stadium staff being made by athletes in other sports.

That people are turning to sports team owners at all speaks to the lack of social safety net in this country. The coronavirus and the ensuing, increasingly global lockdown is not, obviously, the owners’ faults. In many cases, they’re not even the ones who typically sign the paychecks of people staffing their stadiums. They’re facing the same semi-apocalyptic uncertainty — with crashing stocks and no baseball-related revenue — that the rest of us are. But they’re doing so, by and large, as billionaires with the ability to insulate themselves and bail out at least some of the most economically vulnerable people who make baseball seasons possible.

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