09162020 Struggling Ballpark Businesses Baseball

In this Oct. 19, 2013, photo, Tim Lampa hawks programs and Boston Red Sox pennants outside Fenway Park before Game 6 of the American League baseball championship series between the Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers in Boston. Ballpark area businesses are struggling during the 2020 season while fans are not in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cathedrals lie empty. Wrigley. Fenway. Yankee Stadium. PNC Park. Progressive Field.

Sure, their lights are on as Major League Baseball tries to squeeze in a truncated 60-game season in the middle of a pandemic. But no one is home save for a few dozen players running around in masks under the din of artificial crowd noise in front of a handful of well-positioned cardboard cutouts.

Step outside the gates, and the artifice evaporates. Reality sets in.

As MLB sprints through two months trying to provide a small semblance of normalcy to its fan base and much-needed fresh content to its broadcast partners, the businesses in the neighborhoods surrounding the stadiums that rely so heavily on thousands making their way through the turnstiles 81 times a year are struggling, their futures murky at best. According to the ADP Research Institute, firms with fewer than 500 employees – a much-used cutoff for small businesses — have lost more than 5.4 million jobs, or nearly 9%, since February.

It’s those kinds of businesses that serve as the lifeblood at downtown stadiums.

The bars and restaurants around Wrigleyville in Chicago’s North Side managed just fine during a World Series drought that lasted a century. Some of them might not make it to the other side of the pandemic. The walk to Progressive Field in Cleveland now resembles a trip through a ghost town, with doors locked and windows boarded up.

“We rely on that 40,000-fan-a-game foot traffic and seasonal tourism each year in order for us to be successful, and unfortunately all of us right now are witnessing what life is like on the polar opposite side of that,” said Cristina McAloon, the director of retail for Wrigleyville Sports. Outside Fenway Park, parking spaces that go for $60 during a Red Sox home game can be had for $10 now. The pop-up village on Jersey Street that organically materializes from April through September has vanished. Souvenir shops stand idle. The postgame crowd that flows in singing “Sweet Caroline” under their breath is back home watching on TV.

Desperate for help, businesses in the Bronx are are even begging for assistance from the Yankees themselves. A local community leader is organizing a protest before a game on Thursday. He wants the team to provide $10 million in aid to shops around the storied Stadium.

While some of those spots fighting for survival have been around for decades, Mike Sukitch is simply hoping to make it through his first year. Sukitch opened the North Shore Tavern across from PNC Park in Pittsburgh in January. He expected a challenge while returning to the neighborhood where he grew up. He didn’t expect to be closed for three months, though he knows he’s got it better than most others in the area who have shuttered for good.

As he talks, Sukitch — like so many of his brethren spread across the country — tries to sound optimistic. It’s practically a job requirement when so much of what happens outside city-centered stadiums depends on what happens inside.

Right now, that’s not much. Actually, it’s less than that. For many, it’s time to turn to that familiar refrain, one that feels less like some well-worn cliche and instead serves a mantra for survival.

Wait till next year.

Boston Red Sox

The sign says it will cost $60 to park at the Sunoco gas station just beyond Fenway Park’s right field bleachers.

These days, though, you can get a spot for $10.

Like the other businesses around the ballpark, they are happy to have any customers they can get during a baseball season that is being played without fans. Souvenir stores, sausage stands and parking lots where spots go for as much as $100 during the playoffs — they’re all hurting.

“It’s hard,” said Hadi Alhili, a night attendant at the lot. “We’re losing too much money.”

The coronavirus pandemic has hit all kinds of businesses hard, including restaurants and stores that were closed down for months and reopened to find fewer customers were eager to venture out. But for the establishments surrounding major league ballparks, the resumption of play has been a special kind of sadness: they’re glad to have the games back, but they can’t make any money without fans.

“Never have I seen anything like this,” said Jeff Swartz, a manager at The Team Store, a 20,000 square-foot souvenir shop that has been open across the street from Fenway Park for 75 years.

“It’s never been this empty unless they’re not playing,” said Swartz, who has worked at the store for 30 years. “Business is off as much as you can imagine. It’s negligible.”

Jersey Street in front of the store is usually gated off on game days to create a pedestrian mall that provides ticketed fans with some extra space to roam that isn’t possible within the century-old ballpark. In addition to food stands, there might be a brass band, a stilt-walker and someone making balloon animals for kids.

This year, all is quiet.

Buses line up, waiting to take the visiting team back to their hotels. Police officers in masks detour cars — there aren’t enough of them to call it “traffic” — down a side street. Cousins Rachel Sharf and Robbie Schmidt wander by after picking up souvenirs from a trip that wasn’t at all what they had planned.

“I was supposed to come here for my birthday,” said Sharf, who was wearing a matching Red Sox shirt and mask. “But then COVID hit.”

Elsewhere around the perimeter of the ballpark, some businesses were trying to muddle through.

Sausage stand: closed. Pizza place: closed. Parking lots: open but mostly empty. Restaurants: open for outside dining or limited capacity. The nightclubs of Lansdowne Street, beyond the Green Monster: closed.

A nearby brew pub has signs in the window saying “Times Have Changed” and “But Loyalty Is Forever.” Another says “See You Next Season.” The landmark Cask and Flagon is open, with 15 picnic tables and 12 smaller ones on the sidewalk that would usually be jammed by fans making their way from Kenmore Square to Fenway Park.

Sometimes they’ll find their way into the Red Sox Team Store, Swartz said.

“A lot of people come in here and say ‘We came in because you’re the only ones that are open,’” he said. “And there’s air conditioning.”

Chicago Cubs

From the back patio at Nisei Lounge to the sudsy sidewalks around Murphy’s Bleachers, the fight is on. Same for Sluggers, The Cubby Bear and everywhere in between.

The goal is tomorrow. If you get to tomorrow, it’s the next day. All over Wrigleyville — the quirky neighborhood that surrounds Wrigley Field, the longtime home of the Chicago Cubs — they are counting pennies, searching for help and dreaming of a return to normalcy.

“We have no choice but to make it through this,” said Zach Strauss, who runs Sluggers with his brothers David and Ari after their father, Steve, opened the bar in 1985.

Businesses all over the country know exactly what Zach Strauss is talking about — and share the stress he carries around with him. But the coronavirus pandemic has been especially hard on businesses that rely on ballpark traffic, eliminating crowds at major league games, and leading to rules that limit the amount of people they can have inside their doors at the same time.

The Cubs averaged 38,208 fans for their 81 home dates in 2019, trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cardinals and Yankees. The White Sox had an average crowd of 20,622, up from 19,862 in 2018.

Now those crowds are gone.

“We rely on that 40,000-fan-a-game foot traffic and seasonal tourism each year in order for us to be successful, and unfortunately all of us right now are witnessing what life is like on the polar opposite side of that,” said Cristina McAloon, the director of retail for Wrigleyville Sports.

Just off an expressway south of downtown, the area immediately around Guaranteed Rate Field, the home of the White Sox, doesn’t have as many businesses packed together as Wrigleyville. But they are struggling as well.

“Surviving. It’s survival mode right now,” said Salvatore Pappalito, who owns Morrie O’Malley’s, a hot dog and burger place near the ballpark. “You make your adjustments as best you can, from food to labor to everything else, and make sure you can cover the bills.”

Among the ballpark businesses in Chicago, the pandemic has been particularly hard on the old-style taverns that just serve alcohol. They were among the last establishments to reopen, watching while bars with food menus got a head start.

Guthrie’s Tavern — a popular Wrigleyville spot known for its board games — shut down in July on the same day the city announced it was once again suspending indoor services for bars. With no outdoor seating, Guthrie’s ownership said in a Facebook post they didn’t see a way they could survive.

“When that place went down despite everything they had done to stay open, because they didn’t have outdoor space, we’re like ‘Holy hell. We need to watch every nickel and dime because that place was packed every weekend all year long,’” said Pat Odon, the director of beer and baseball operations for Nisei Lounge.

Looking for a bridge to a vaccine, some ballpark businesses are leaning on revenue streams or avenues that were previously lower on their priority list. They also are tapping into government help when possible; Nisei Lounge, Sluggers and Wrigleyville Sports were among the small businesses who received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, and Nisei also was approved for a grant from the state.

Nisei sold cardboard cutouts, mimicking the promotion at ballparks across the country. Sticking to the spirit of the eccentric spot — a fierce advocate for day baseball and the Oxford comma, and an opponent of the designated hitter — Charles Comiskey, the Hall of Fame founder of the crosstown White Sox, and a kindergarten picture of a patron are among the new customers saddled up at the bar.

“We’re down easily 80% from a regular baseball season,” Odon said. “But weirdly, we’ve started doing merchandise. You never get into owning a bar to sell T-shirts, but that’s helping us get where we can make it till there’s a vaccine. And we’ve applied for every grant. We finally hit on one. We got PPP, so we can make it, if we watch our money and play it tight, until next season.”

Sluggers has indoor batting cages, dueling pianos and games like Skee-Ball. But it’s leaning on its kitchen right now.

“We were forced to change our whole concept into based as a restaurant, and have people as they enter our building be seated with a host or hostess,” Zach Strauss said. “You know, instead of the live, get crazy atmosphere. We’re the opposite of social distancing.

“When’s the next time there’s going to be a dancer? When’s the next time people are going to feel comfortable sharing a baseball bat, or the basketballs in the basketball machine? So we are, we’re suffering pretty bad.”

The pandemic could lead to more change for a densely populated neighborhood that has been made over in a variety of ways in recent years, including a new hotel across the street from Wrigley and an office building for the Cubs.

While ongoing construction could help bring more people to the area, Wrigleyville only gets really busy when its iconic ballpark entertains its usual crowds for games and concerts.

“This is hurting Wrigleyville. It’s hurting all businesses,” said Maureen Martino, the executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce.

“Really, Wrigleyville depends on this baseball season to carry them through the winter. So you know, when we’re looking, what’s going to happen in December, January and February?”

Sitting on the back patio at Nisei on a beautiful summer day, Odon paused to let an elevated train rumble away behind him. Then he took a big swing at a complicated pitch.

“Wrigleyville will still be Wrigleyville,” he said. “Weird Wrigleyville now, but next year we’ll see if we’re busy.”

New York Yankees

The manager stands behind the counter at Ballpark Sports Shop on River Avenue, pinstriped jerseys fully stocked on the racks around him. The inventory is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but on this day, he’ll be lucky to sell a few $20 hats.

Around the corner on 161st Street, the owner of Yankee Tavern sits in his empty dining room. He’s served as many as 2,000 people on game days in his 93-year-old establishment. On this night, he had 20 seated under a tent outside.

Meanwhile, the lights inside Yankee Stadium shined brightly. The ballpark usually brings nearly 50,000 fans per night to the Bronx. This summer, it’s become little more than an oversize television studio.

“What’s going on is devastating,” Yankee Tavern owner Joe Bastone said.

Baseball in the Bronx is usually big business for shops and restaurants outside the storied stadium, but with fans stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, those establishments aren’t sure they’ll survive. Desperate for aid, some are even begging for assistance from the Yankees themselves.

“It’s all going to vanish unless somebody helps out,” said Cary Goodman, executive director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District.

Many souvenir shops and sports bars in the area haven’t bothered to reopen since the coronavirus forced their closure in March, and those that have are hardly drawing any customers.

Sam Abbadi, the store manager at Ballpark Sports Shop, leaned over the counter prior to a Mets-Yankees game last month and said he hadn’t made a single sale all day.

“To be honest with you, we are in trouble,” Abbadi said. “Everyone is. All the sports bars, the souvenir shops, the restaurants around here. All the businesses on 161st (Street), without the Yankees, are nothing.”

Yankee Tavern has been slightly busier, but the outlook is essentially the same.

The Tavern has been in business since 1927 and was once a watering hole for Yankee greats Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. But during a recent Red Sox-Yankees game, Bastone estimated he was doing about 5% of his normal business.

The Tavern has burned through its $31,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans, and already owes over $150,000 in back rent, Bastone said. The longtime owner is skeptical limited outdoor service can keep the Bronx’s oldest drink spot afloat.

“We’re trying to go for 100,” Bastone said. “Keeping our fingers crossed we make it.”

Goodman, who has led the 161st Street BID since 2009, thinks the Yankees owe it to their neighbors to step in and help.

They’ve done it before. When Nike became Major League Baseball’s official uniform supplier last offseason, souvenir shops outside Yankee Stadium feared they’d be unable to acquire merchandise to sell as part of the new deal. Goodman shared the concern with the Yankees, and the team stepped in to ensure the shops would continue to have access to official MLB jerseys.

“We were ecstatic, but it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory,” Goodman said. “They ordered hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise, and they’re stuck with it.”

After efforts to procure city-based emergency grants for the shops and bars mostly failed, Goodman said he has reached out twice to the Yankees, hoping to get aid to help the souvenir shops and bars nearby.

The ballclub has been active in local coronavirus relief efforts. It has worked with the Bronx Chamber of Commerce to provide relief for small businesses, contributing $75,000 toward emergency relief grants, helping organize pro bono legal aid and launching a virtual town hall to educate local business owners on how best to navigate the pandemic.

“We’ve made substantial contributions of resources totaling millions of dollars that have been dedicated to support related efforts to the COVID pandemic,” said Brian Smith, Yankees senior vice president of corporate and community relations.

“We’ve been nonstop, day in and day out working with our neighbors and viable partners to get things done,” he added.

Still, Goodman has asked Mayor Bill De Blasio for help in getting the team to contribute more to the city’s coffers, and he is organizing a protest outside Yankee Stadium prior to Thursday’s game, hoping to pressure the club into providing direct assistance to the shops and bars that usually benefit from the throngs of fans who aren’t coming to the Bronx this summer. Goodman estimates that saving the businesses along 161st Street could take as much as $10 million.

“That would stop the bleeding for all the small businesses that depend on their trade coming through the stadium,” Goodman said.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The saxophone guy, the one that plays theme songs from 1970s TV shows for loose change as fans squeeze past on the Roberto Clemente Bridge on their way to and from PNC Park, is gone. The line to take selfies next to Willie Stargell’s statue outside the left-field entrance to the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates is, too.

Other than the lights and the occasional — very occasional — fireworks display following a Pirates victory, the streets around one of Major League Baseball’s crown jewels are desolate.

This isn’t what Mike Sukitch envisioned when he returned to the North Side neighborhood he grew up in following three-plus decades in the corporate world.

As retirement loomed, Sukitch felt an urge to get back to his family’s roots. Three previous generations of Sukitches worked in the bar/restaurant business, one of the reasons he opened Mike’s Beer Tavern on Federal Street — typically the heart of pre- and postgame activities at the park — in 2018.

The success of the watering hole where patrons can choose from 500 beers led Sukitch to purchase the spot next door in January and christen it the North Shore Tavern. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He bought low and devised a plan that would allow him to turn a modest profit regardless of interest in the home team. The math made sense.

“Whether the Pirates draw 4,000 or 40,000,” Sukitch said, “I just need 150 in my place and I’m doing well.”

Then the coronavirus hit in mid-March, just three weeks away from opening day. The crush of traffic Sukitch expected never materialized. Turns out, the math never accounted for how to run a restaurant during a pandemic. Rather than panic, he pushed forward. The three-month shutdown gave him a chance to renovate the space and turn it heavily Pirates-centric.

“It’s made Year 1 a challenge for me personally, but over the long term it will be a blessing in disguise,” Sukitch said. “I had to do a complete renovation of what was a tired restaurant. Wouldn’t have been able to do that if there was baseball.”

He restructured his staff in an effort to avoid cutting people during the leanest of seasons.

“In essence I went and took my half-timers and gave them all hours as we were going through (the shutdown),” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to pay you a salary instead of a wage, but you’re going to work your butt off in the summer because I don’t want to lay off people in September.”

Things have gone a little better than expected. The outdoor dining option has allowed the North Shore Tavern to operate at 50% capacity. The new decor and an updated menu have drawn in new customers, and the die-hards occasionally trickle in during Pirates home games.

Yet Sukitch is well aware there’s another factor at play. His two adjoining spots are the only ones currently open on the Federal Street side of the ballpark.

“Those (people) that are here, have me as their oasis in the desert,” he said. “I won’t lie. If we were all open trying to grab that small piece of the pie, it would be very difficult.”

It’s a fight Rico Lunardi considered waging. The owner of Slice on Broadway opened his franchise’s fourth store underneath the left-field bleachers in 2016. His lease technically expired last year, but the team granted him an extension as they negotiated terms for a new deal.

When the shutdown began, Lunardi attempted to stay open. The shop had a street-front entrance on Federal Street. But the double whammy of no baseball combined with the decision by many offices in the immediate vicinity to allow employees to work remotely meant the lunchtime crowd dipped, too.

By the middle of June, with no fans allowed inside PNC Park for the truncated 2020 regular season, attendance for events at nearby Heinz Field uncertain and government’s restrictions on capacity in indoor spaces — be they restaurants or office buildings — in place indefinitely, Lunardi finally gave up. He found landing spots for 13 of the 15 full-time employees at the ballpark location and wouldn’t rule out a potential return one day.

“If this didn’t happen, I would have signed a lease for another 10 years,” he said. “It was fun. It was exciting to say we’re a part of it. We did grow a nice business there. When you lose two revenue sources, it’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet.”

The Pirates are attempting to give the ones that have stuck it out a boost. They launched the “Family Forever” campaign in late July, working with the North Side Chamber of Commerce and the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western PA to select six small businesses to highlight during separate nine-day windows during the regular season.

The package includes free 30-second commercials for each business paid for and produced by the club, on-air “drop-ins” on the businesses during telecasts and signage promoting the business inside the park. The list includes everything from the North Shore Tavern to Wagsburgh (a pet supply store) to the New Courier Times, a newspaper dedicated to serving the Black community.

Sukitch was able to throw out the first pitch during the season-opening homestand. And his phone blew up when a digital sign for his restaurant happened to be visible on the right-field wall during a highlight of an opposing team’s home run was featured prominently on “SportsCenter.”

Every little bit helps, particularly while attempting to start a business in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. Yet for all his optimism, Sukitch is also a realist. He probably can make it through 2020. After that, who knows?

“If we have to go through this a second year and there’s no sports, it’ll be a disaster,” he said. “There are a lot of people who will just have to give up and run.”

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