How much of a difference will having fans make?
It obviously makes a big difference, when it comes to fans in the stands. I think we’ve already seen that in spring training. Just a different feel in that ballpark. We’re used to having 14-15,000 at Salt River Fields; even having 2,200 certainly helps. Last year, we had the canned-in noise and crowd applause; it was a little different and sterile, it wasn’t the same. But we’ll see. We’ve been told at this point we can have appropriate distancing, which ends up at about 25% for us.
We’ll watch some of these other venues; we have heard some are going to be at capacity. But I think it’s more important for us to take a smaller step at first, and watch. Do it in a very responsible way, and hopefully see these numbers dwindle in our market and in our state, and hopefully elsewhere too, as more of these vaccinations kick in. See the rate of infection lower, and the hospitalizations lower, and deaths lower. That all hopefully bodes well for us to expand and loosen the restrictions, but in a way that fans still feel safe and comfortable coming to Chase Field.
Do you thnk 25% is a “locked-in” number for the beginning of the season?
I think there’s always a chance to move that number. However, we’re getting so close to Opening Day, we really have to plan. We’re also looking right now, actively, at seating and moving some of our season ticket holders around, so that we do have that spacing. I think we get to a point where we have to go with our plan. We’re comfortable with that plan right now. Let’s look at the second month, when we get into May or June - if things are continuing to improve, and we don’t see any outbreaks anywhere else, that should help.
As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve seen a lot of success outdoors, especially with the NFL... We’ve seen these reports where you have nearly 20% greater protection outdoors from infectious disease. So those things are all, again, positive signs for us to be able to loosen up in the future.
So will we see the roof open almost every night?
We like to have the roof open as much as we can, we err on the side of keeping it open. But we do know in the early months, where it is much more comfortable and pleasant, we push it. We like to go into as much of June as we can, and open up as much of September as we can as well. So I think we have enough months where we can have it open, and allow it to get to the point, hopefully, where there are enough vaccinations out there, where when we do close the roof, because it’s just too unbearably hot, there is a completely different environment. We’re going to have it open as much as we have in the past.
How much is even 25% going to help the revenue picture and uncertainty you’ve been dealing with, in terms of pay cuts, and effect on player payroll?
There’s still a great deal of uncertainty, obviously. We don’t know if it’s going to remain 25% for the whole season. We don’t know if we’ll be able to increase slowly, to 50% or 100%. We may have to pivot backwards if, god forbid, there’s some kind of an outbreak. We just don’t know. However, we have told employees, that when we start to see those revenues come in, we’re hopefully going to be able to take some steps and get them back to their original pay. We have taken their pay-cuts down, as much as we can at this point, trying to make it as easy as possible. However, they made it clear from day one, when you look at the front-office staff and our business staff, they wanted to be a part of the solution. I’m proud of them, but I certainly don’t want them to feel the pain any more. So as soon as we can get them back to normal and re-instate those salaries, we will.
When it comes to payroll, that too is a different situation. Obviously, it has been extremely fluid, and it’s not a normal year where we can say, “The payroll is X”. I think our baseball staff has known that all along. They know where the payroll is now, and they’ve been able to come to us on a case-by-case request. If there’s a decision we have to make - just as we have up until now - we’ll grant them permission and allow them to make those decisions and commitments. And we’ll continue to, throughout the season: if things change, so will the payroll. If there’s needs during the season, to improve the ballclub, we’re naturally going to be all ears, and try and give them all the resources they need.
How much does the reported return of revenue sharing change the equation?
Everybody’s going to be in a different position now, depending on what their jurisdiction will allow, when it comes to revenue - just being able to open up, even a little bit, does help. Going from absolutely zero fans, to allowing fans to come in, that’s going to impact everyone’s revenue. It brings us back to a little bit of normalcy. We don’t know what the entire revenue picture looks like yet. It’s an odd year, and another year of recovery. But every little bit helps.
Are you finding any challenges so far with regard to fans wearing their masks? How will you avoid confrontations between ushers and fans at Chase?
So far, at spring, we’ve had very few incidents where we’ve had to address it with a fan. Typically, our ushers and gameday staff with their signs of “Wear your mask”, has really worked - and it has worked at other venues locally too. But we’re going to enforce it. It’s important for us to make sure that everybody does wear a mask, unless they’re actively eating or drinking in their seats. When we do have a situation where someone’s not wearing a mask, we’re going to address it, and hopefully do it in a non-confrontational way.
But what we’ve seen is, everyone has been really co-operative. They realize the importance of wearing a mask, not just for themselves, but for everyone around them. I think there’s a little bit of peer pressure. If a fan doesn’t feel comfortable because another fan in a pod near them doesn’t have their mask on, that fan can then go anonymously and let our staff know and we’ll go address it. But we’re going to enforce it. We’re going to have to educate as best we can, and we will through signage and in-stadium announcements and instructions both pregame/in-game as well.
What have learned from this last year?
We’ve learned a lot. First and foremost, I think, we learned just how important our fans are, and that’s not just our sport, our team - it’s every team and every sport. It’s not the same without our fans, and it has been nice to have them come back. We also realized how important baseball is in the lives of our fans, that this is an important part of their lives, of feeling normal, and of getting back to that normalcy.
From a work and operational standpoint, we realized we can balance life with work a little better. I’ve been told for a long time that we should look at having the ability to work remotely, and I always thought, “No chance. It’s an excuse not to work as hard or to be at home”! But I have found that we are as productive, if not more productive, at home. Maybe too much, I think people are working too hard. They don’t have that commute to or from the office or the stadium, they don’t have that lunch break that they’re taking. But I think there is going to be a nice balance.
We’ve also realized we can take a lot of what we’ve done, in-game, with a virtual touch, and combine that now with fans in the stands. There’s a lot we can do virtually, with all of our business operations on a daily basis. We’ve realized we’re going to be doung business differently. The fact that when you come to the ballpark now - and it’s part of our health and comfort recovery plan - everything’s going to be cashless and contactless. We probably should have gone that way anyway, I think that’s the right way to do business: to take a cleaner approach and a safer approach is always a good thing.
How much have you interfaced with your counterparts at the other sports teams?
Quite a lot. We’ve obviously visited those facilities for games. We’ve been to Suns games, we’ve been to Coyotes games. They’re doing a phenomenal job, and we’re able to share best practices amongst ourselves, within the industries. I have conversations with my counterparts at all the other teams. The thirty of us are always getting together, talking about how we’re going to go about this, make sure it is very safe.
It’s all different everywhere, it’s not universal, when you look at each local government jurisdiction is going to allow. However, a lot of our approaches and treatment and how we’re going to accomplish what we’re going to accomplish, is similar and we’re learning from one another. You have to. We don’t have all the answers, a lot of this is brand new, obviously for us. Hopefully we never have to deal with this again, but if we do, we’re going to be prepared this time around, I can tell you. A year ago, we were shocked. We weren’t expecting to send everybody home, and literally not come back for almost a year.
Do you see the fan experience at Chase Field changing?
We’re going to try and make it as interactive and entertaining as possible. However, a lot of the “hands on” or up close [aspects], it’s not going to be the same. We’re going to have to wait until things are completely back to normal. I think it’s still going to have a look and feel of normalcy. However, the full-contact elements, we’re going to have to take a step back and make sure we wait until things are completely different.
Again, it’s for everybody’s safety and comfort. Although some may be okay with it, we want to make sure everybody’s comfortable when they’re at the ballpark. That’s why we’ll have markings and signage telling you, where to stand, when you can move forward, which entrances are open and closed, which bathrooms you can use, and inside the bathroom, what you can use, how you can approach the concession stands and merchandise, making sure everything is contactless and cashless. It’s just a new way of doing business, and it will be very different. However, the in-game entertainment will have a look, feel and sound like it did in the past, as far as dbTV.
What has the response been from your season ticket holders?
It’s been really good. We’ve giving season ticket holders the choice this year of whether they want to opt in, and take a location that would likely be different from what they’re used to. Right now, we’re around 50%, but we’re just starting on that process. It’s higher than we thought it would be, but we want to get through that now, so that number will continue to go up, obviously. When we’re finished, we’re going to have a pre-sale, for those that are registered, or season ticket holders that can go and get extra seats first. Then we’re going to have the open sale, which we’ll hopefully have in the week leading up to Opening Day.
Then we’re going to see a lot of activity in my opinion. You’re going to have single-game buyers looking to get in, because there is a supply and demand issue right now, with scarcity - we saw that in spring training, where we sold out so quickly. By the way, we are trying to find ways to release tickets. We’re finding tickets to release each game, so they can still go online and find tickets available.
The same will hold true at Chase. If we have tickets available that’s within our capacity that’s allowed, we’re going to release those each and every day. But I would encourage fans to get out there and get tickets. The one thing I’ve heard, over and over from fans is, “I wish I’d got my tickets the day that they went on sale, because now I can’t get any.” First, now you can get some because we’re releasing them. But secondly, don’t fall in that same trap, make sure you get out there and get tickets ahead of time. But it has been a good response up to now.
Are there going to be any limitations on the upper bowl this year?
Our plan is to have it open, as much as possible. There are going to be games where, if we haven’t sold seats up there, obviously we won’t. But we have plans to have it open, just as we do the rest of the ballpark, in configuration with all the other seats we’re allowed. Not all games are going to be in as high demand. It has to do with day of the week, opponent, just like any other game, and if we haven’t sold seats upstairs, we just won’t open it. But at this point, we have plans and we also have the pods to do so upstairs as well.
With only 25% capacity, will only 25% of concession stands be open?
We’re still trying to figure out what that will look like. We want to have as many stands open as we can, so that fans aren’t having to go all over the ballpark, to get something to eat or the merchandise that they may be looking for. That brings up another good point though: what does staffing look like? What do expenses look like? It’s going to be like a normal game. Even if you’re at 25%, you’re spread out throughout the entire ballpark. For that reason, you have to make sure you have your gameday staff in each of those sections, there to help. Your GSRs are available, security is there.
We’re still dealing with our concessionaire to see which ones will be open, especially the high-traffic areas we know will be. Let’s make sure if fans need to go get something, they’re not going to have to travel too far, depending on popularity of game, day of game and opponent.
Was there ever a situation where the baseball staff threw a concept at you, that you just had to say, “Look, I don’t think we can swing this right now.”
We have not had a situation where we’ve said “No,” or that it didn’t make sense. But I would also give them a lot of credit. They know the situation that we’re all in. However, if they see a situation that they believe it’s going to improve our ballclub or improve our roster and fit into the moves that we’ve made the last three or four years, then by all means they would bring it forward, and we would all discuss it.
Have you had any conversations about Torey Lovullo’s contract?
What I like about Torey is what I’ve always liked about Torey, and that is he’s as good and decent a person as there is. He’s a very honest communicator, motivator. The team, the players, they love playing for him - the staff is very loyal to him as well. He’s fantastic, a very good manager. The other thing you have to know about Torey is he’s not focused on [the extension], and we haven’t felt like it was something we needed to focus on. If it were something that bothered him, or something that Mike [Hazen] or Amiel [Sawdaye] thought that it was troubling him or the team, we would address it.
But I can tell you that at his point we haven’t even thought about it. He hasn’t thought about it, he hasn’t brought it up, and that’s a credit to him. He puts in as much preparation, as much pressure on himself, whether he has got a five-year contract or a one-year contract. But we love Torey Lovullo, and we’re glad he’s our manager. We’ve got a lot of faith in him.
On the field, what do you see so far in spring training, what do you like? And what do you say to fans who see the Padres and Dodgers being more active this off-season?
I’m very positive with what I’ve seen so far. A little slow start, we’ve played great of late. It’s still so early in spring, that you’re only seeing guys for three or four innings. Starting to stretch out a little bit more now, and it’ll start to feel more like our team as our pitchers will go four innings, five innings deep and our regulars will stay out there a lot more. I’m happy with the depth, I’m happy with the competition that we’re seeing right now.
As far as the activity and the aggressive nature of some other teams, I think it’s good for our division. It’s a very competive division, I think it’s the toughest division in baseball, and I look at that as a good thing for this group of guys. We were very aggressive the last couple of years in filling holes, we put together a team and a roster that we thought was going to be extremely competitive. Obviously, last year, we had our issues. But we didn’t feel like there was too much to change or tweak going into this year. We had to look at the bullpen, and we addressed a couple of holes there.
But I feel like it’s a very good, very balanced team, and we were able to see a lot of the young players last year, and we know that they can now perform at this level. So I think we have a lot of tough decisions to make, which you’re always hoping for. We definitely need to stay healthy, like any team, but I’m very encouraged with what I’ve seen so far, and I like the versatility of the roster. I like the fact that we have guys who can play so many different positions. I think, as I’ve thought going into the last couple of years, pitching is always going to be our strength, and it certainly is right now. I’m thrilled with what I’ve seen so far.
Would you guys like Torey Lovullo to be manager going past this season, and is there a point before October, where you’d like to address the contract situation?
I think it’s something Mike and I will have conversations about, throughout the season. When the time is right for us to address it, we will. I think, just like with any free-agent player, sometimes it’s not the best move to talk contracts if it can become a distraction or if it becomes a point of friction. I don’t ever see that being the case with Torey, to be honest. Again, it just hasn’t been something we felt that we had to address right now, and I don’t think he would want to address it right now. I don’t want to speak for him, but I know he’s focused on the team, and focused on Opening Day. I think he would want our attention to be right there too.
But if he ever expressed the need to sit down or any discomfort with where he is right now, that would be different. We’ve just seen no signs, nor would we expect to. That’s not who he is, he’s not motivated by that, and we’ve had no reason to have those conversations to this point. He’s under contract and I’m glad he is. I’m thrilled that Torey Lovullo is our manager, he has done a great job while he’s here. He’s a heck of a D-back.
Do you think sports teams have a responsibility to take it slow when it comes to bringing in these large crowds?
There’s going to be so many different approaches, in so many different markets. We would all love to be at 100%, obviously, and I think we would all like to push the envelope. Yet we need to balance that and we need to be very safe, and be slow and smart about this. It’s not as if every fan is just willing to jump right back into the seats yet. So we need to make sure that every fan, when he or she enters that gate, and they leave, they fell just as comfortable and confident as they did before the pandemic.
So we need to take it slow, and I think even 25% is appropriate distancing by CDC standards, but those guidelines and the recommendations from the CDC and the health experts are changing rapidly. The numbers are changing rapidly too, so we have to be ready to respond quickly. As the demand grows, and we can do it in a very healthy and safe way, we’re going to. Yes, absolutely, it’s our responsibility to make sure we do it in a very safe fashion. We don’t want to be part of a problem, we want to be part of the solution. Though we want to be as aggressive as possible, we have to do it in a very smart way. We were ready last year, if we could have brought in 10%, 15%, 25%. Just like this year, we had a plan for 50%, a plan for zero restrictions, I think 25% is a great starting point.
How do you feel it reflects on the D-backs, when a club like the Padres, in a much smaller media market, goes out and spends as much as they did?
We’ve been in this situation, where we have spent. Our payroll has been as high as it’s ever been, over the last five seasons a couple of times. We’re always committed to providing the resources for our baseball operations staff. We’re still in the same position where we have an ownership group that has never put a single penny in their pockets. They’re very committed to the product on the field, to the experience at the ballpark, and that will not change. And yet, we also realize, realistically, in a market like ours, we have to do things the right way. We’ve all talked about going back to the draft, going back to player development.
It truly comes down to scouting and player development, and then you balance that with some free-agent signings or creative trades. A nice balance of veteran players as well with some of the youth coming up, and have that constant pipeline. We challenged this group, when we brought them on, this entire regime, to make sure that we could improve, and turn around the farm system and I’ve been very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish. We’re now a top five farm system in baseball: that’s remarkable, considering where we were before.
So I think as long as we do it properly. we’ve seen so many examples in baseball, you don’t have to be a large market, it doesn’t have to be just associated with the payroll. I agree, I think that’s how fans may judge it, or how other people may judge it. But we’ve also played very well in years past, like we hopefully will this year, when we’ve been the underdog. I think our team responds well to that, a little chip on our shoulder. And seasons where we’ve been expected to win, because of payroll commitments to our roster, we haven’t necessarily performed to the expectations. Other years, where we didn’t think we’d perform so well, we did.
I have a lot of faith in our coaching staff, a lot of faith in our management, a lot of faith in our baseball operations leadership team, and in our scouting and player development. It’s not just about this year, it’s not about next year, this is about sustainable models. We’ve been trying to get there for a long time, and I think we’re finally starting to see that that’s the direction we’re heading, because of that commitment to the farm system, the improvement we’re seeing with our player development and scouting. And this is something we think can last for many years. It’s not just about this year.