Smokies react to curveball that is COVID-19


SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – At the end of February, Smokies President Chris Allen sat in a room preparing for the start of the Appalachian League season. The group discussed vendors, ticket sales and their promotional schedule – notably, the coronavirus wasn’t mentioned.

“We heard about the situation and what was going on in other countries but we didn’t think for a second it would impact us the way it has now,” Allen said. “Fast forward a few weeks later and look where we’re at.”

Now, Allen doesn’t finish many sentences that don’t, in some way, pertain to the virus.

Uncharted waters

The sun was shining bright, as were the rings on the field. Allen was in Arizona alongside the Cardinals rookie league team – one of Boyd Sports four minor league teams – as they received their rookie league championship rings from the season prior. The celebratory end to one season followed shortly after by the uncertainty of another’s start as Major League Baseball announced they were suspending spring training.

We had a sense of a lot of uncertainty from these players,” Allen recalled. “They’re scared to death because you know these guys are definitely without pay. I know major league baseball agreed to pay them through April 8th to give them their stipend for spring training, but what happens after April 8th?”

That question one of many Allen has asked himself and has been asked since Baseball suspended play. Another, frequently asked by the staffers in the Smokies front office: What do we do without baseball?

“Anytime you make money off of baseball games that’s your revenue stream baseball games,” Allen said. “When you have no baseball games that obviously creates a financial shortfall.”

Allen has been working alongside CEO Doug Kirchhofer to comb through the Smokies finances, working through refunds for corporate partners, group sales and ticket plan holders.

“We’re making sure they understand the situation and we’re trying to put their minds at ease,” he stated. “We have to refund whatever money is being paid into us and we’re trying to make good on that.”

And then there are the vendors.

“The vendors I’ve spoken to I’ve tried to hear their issues and their challenges as they’ve done for me,” he explained. “They understand obviously everything is on hold for us when it comes to purchasing products.”

That’s just a dent in the long list of issues Allen and the Smokies front office are addressing during the postponement.

“We’re trying to tackle those issues now and we’ll get to the bottom of it,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to do right by our employees the best we possibly can. It just depends on how long the shutdown really lasts.”

The return of baseball

It’s a date Allen can only guess but at this point, in his mind, he’s planning for June 1st – a seven and a half week delay to the scheduled start of the season.

“With that said, come June 1 are the fans in the community going to be ready to go to a baseball game where you have four-thousand people closely sitting side by side watching a baseball game?” Allen asked. “That’s something we’re going to have to factor in.”

The Tennessee Smokies also needing to factor in the potential loss of games. While there has been talk among baseball to maintain a full 140-game minor league season with no timeline for the COVID-19 pandemic, Allen doesn’t know how feasible that is the longer the postponement lasts.

If the season does start June 1st and baseball doesn’t fulfill the full 140-game season, that would mean 25 of the Smokies 70 home games would be lost.

“Every time we lose a home game that’s a loss of revenue coming into our company,” Allen said.

There are more questions than answers, and likely more questions to come. All Allen, the Smokies, Minor League Baseball, and the world, in general, can do is take it one day at a time.

“I’ll tell you you’re never prepared for something like this he said. All we can do is have compassion for our people and try to understand their challenges.”

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