No matter what happens to the Northwoods League season, Michael Rosenzweig wants Duluth Huskies fans to know that the baseball club is not going anywhere.
“God forbid that we don’t have a season, but we will be back next year,” the Huskies’ owner said Tuesday.
Like all other sports organizations in this era of coronavirus, the summer collegiate league is waiting to learn its fate for the 2020 season, its 27th overall.
If and when Major League Baseball decides to begin, the Northwoods League expects to follow suit.
“We are planning to have a season,” Rosenzweig said. “Will it be shortened? We don’t know yet. If Major League Baseball says they are going to start a shortened season in mid-June or July 1, fine. If they plan on opening the season in Arizona in front of empty ballparks, I don’t think that is going to fly for the fans.”
According to reports, MLB is considering playing at Arizona spring-training sites in front of no fans. A similar situation is not on the table in the Northwoods League.
“The teams cannot survive without that ticket revenue,” Huskies general manager Greg Culver said. “There is no revenue coming in to support the team. Everything has come to a grinding halt.”
League officials concur.
“A fanless environment is not a model that works in the Northwoods League,” Gary Hoover, president and commissioner of the league, said Wednesday.
Hoover says there is no consensus on a deadline when a decision must be reached.
A minimum of 40 games — 20 at home and 20 on the road — is thought to be needed for the Northwoods League, which is scheduled to begin a 72-game season in late May. A July 1 starting date likely would accommodate a 40-game regular season, plus playoffs.
“We need to have the fans in the stands,” the 67-year-old Rosenzweig said by phone from his East Duluth home. “I don’t think there’s any sports team out there that could not have a season and not have it affect the bottom line.”
While Rosenzweig does not publicly discuss the financial state of the franchise, he does acknowledge that the current pandemic has created uncertainty in every aspect of the business. For example, fans are not purchasing season tickets and instead are more likely to buy tickets on game nights, Rosenzweig said.
“When you set up a business plan, who plans for this? Nobody,” he said. “It makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep.”
Culver is the team’s only full-time employee right now and he has been in contact with the Huskies’ 25 full-time players to prepare them for what might be a quick turnaround.
“It’s going to be a knee-jerk, last-minute reaction because that’s how it’s shaping up now,” Culver said.
Rosenzweig said the team is working closely with Duluth officials in regard to the safety at city-owned Wade Stadium. Social distancing guidelines may be needed at home games.
“The Huskies will do everything we can to make sure the ballpark is as safe of a venue as possible for people to come to,” Rosenzweig said. “We have a lot of seating areas. Will we put x’s where you should sit? Possibly. We will be working closely with the city to make sure we have as many hand-sanitizing pumps as we possibly can. It will be up to people how they feel whether they want to come to the ballpark. We have to make sure the people are safe.”
Even if the Northwoods League season gets the green light, the 22-team league still must adhere to any stay-at-home orders, which vary across the seven states that have teams. If baseball is not deemed an essential business by those states still in a shutdown, that complicates matters.
As of Wednesday, neither Iowa (Waterloo Bucks) nor North Dakota (Bismarck Larks) had stay-at-home orders. Meanwhile, Michigan, which has three franchises, is under an extreme mandatory lockdown and teams in the United States are not allowed to cross the border to play the team in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of pieces have to fall in place,” Culver said.
Hoover says the league has contingency plans that address what to do if certain states are not open for business.
“We’re waiting to see if we will even be allowed to play in May based upon those governmental restrictions,” Hoover said. “The league spans several states. It’s 3-D chess. There are so many variables because there are so many jurisdictions. It’s not made simpler by that fact.”