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Pair of small US towns suffer heavy blow from loss of marquee baseball events

Main Street in Cooperstown, New York, ahead of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Induction Ceremonies in 2018 (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images)

  • Baseball events carry an outsized economic role in pair of rural communities
  • Loss of marquee events will result in tens of millions in economic losses
  • Consideration of non-summer timings or fanless events quickly rejected

Around this time each year, Main Street in bucolic Cooperstown, New York, begins to get busier with tourists from around the world in advance of the even larger throngs that will descend on the town in late July for the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Induction Ceremonies.

In recent years, Induction Weekend alone has meant crowds in excess of 50,000 in the upstate New York town with a year-round population of less than 2,000 people. And this year, local merchants, lodging owners, and other business people lining Main Street and the adjacent Otsego Lake were eagerly anticipating an historic influx of fans, perhaps approaching 100,000, looking to see an induction class headlined by popular former New York Yankees icon and current Miami Marlins chief executive Derek Jeter be enshrined.

But due to ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the recent cancellation of the 2020 Induction Weekend and ongoing closure of the Hall of Fame itself, Main Street in Cooperstown is now largely deserted, and will be for the duration of the upcoming summer.

“My best guess is that we may ultimately lose a quarter to a third,” of local hospitality and retail businesses, says Allen Ruffles, treasurer for Otsego County, which includes Cooperstown. “You go walking down Main Street in Cooperstown right now, and everything is closed. Basically, none of those shops that would be open at this time of year are open.”

Though Cooperstown has a local hospital and nearby Oneonta has two small colleges, representing major sources of employment, it is baseball-related tourism that truly drives the area, something that is now dormant between both the Hall of Fame and the Cooperstown Dreams Park, a major youth baseball destination six miles to the south of the Baseball Hall of Fame that draws teams from around the country each summer, but is also closed for the entire 2020 season because of the pandemic. 

All told, an economic hit of more than $50m (€46m) stemming from the baseball cancellations is expected to be levied upon the rural area.

“Without baseball, I don’t know what exists in Otsego County,” Ruffles says. “Otsego County lives on baseball. It lives on these [summer] months.”

A very similar story about the crucial importance of baseball can also be told in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a town of just under 30,000 people located 200 miles to the southwest of Cooperstown and along the same Susquehanna River watershed. 

Williamsport is overrun each August with about 300,000 people, more than ten times the city’s population, for the Little League World Series. The 75-year-old global youth baseball tournament represents perhaps the most prominent youth sports event of any type the US, and is showcased nationally on ESPN through an eight-year, $76m media rights deal running through 2022.

The public health crisis also claimed the 2020 version of this event, with the various approvals that are required each year to bring international teams into the US to play, but are now under heavy restriction, providing an additional level of complication for Little League International. Also lost amid the cancellation was the fourth iteration of the MLB Little League Classic, a special-event game on the Major League Baseball regular season schedule played at a nearby minor league facility.

And like Cooperstown, the loss of the Little League World Series and related events such as the MLB Little League Classic will leave a disproportionate economic impact upon the small Williamsport community that relies heavily on baseball in addition to health care and education.

Local government officials estimate the youth baseball tournament is worth more than $35m in economic impact upon the greater Williamsport area each year. That money is lost for 2020. And it’s quite possible that there, too, some local businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, will not survive. 

“It’s one of those things where it’s going to be a hit,” says Jason Fink, president and chief executive of the Williamsport/Lycoming County Chamber of Commerce. “There’s no other way to say it. We are going to take a major hit this year with that lack of a Little League World Series. And given the fact that travel and tourism are already getting hit pretty hard, this is going to be one of those things that compounds an already difficult situation.”

A scene from the 2019 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Slices of Americana

In most any normal year, the summertime scenes from Cooperstown and Williamsport would be pure slices of Americana that even in the digitally-focused 21st century could easily be taken out of a Norman Rockwell painting from decades ago.

In Cooperstown, a town that initially rose to prominence in part through an ultimately apocryphal claim of it being the birthplace of baseball, the look and feel of Main Street has scarcely changed since the Hall’s 1939 establishment, with the Hall of Fame itself surrounded by a series of mom-and-pop businesses that predictably are concentrated foremost around selling baseball-related items and memorabilia. 

And at the nearby Clark Sports Center where Induction Ceremonies are now held, fans from all over the world fill a huge open field in front of the stage with lawn chairs and blankets to watch the event.  

A similar scene unfolds each summer in Williamsport where fans, also coming from a wide variety of countries as well as all parts of the US, fill during games a large berm overlooking the back of Lamade Stadium, the center of the Little League World Series complex.

In both instances, fans can attend for free and the overall vibe is about as far from the modern, controlled, cost-heavy elements of attending many major league pro sports events as can be imagined. Those fans, however, come spending freely on lodging, dining, and souvenirs, breathing economic life into the respective areas.

And because of that central role fans play, executives for both the Hall of Fame and Little League International quickly rejected any notion of recasting their summertime events into some type of virtual or remote version for 2020. Also quickly rejected were staging the event without attending fans or exploring alternate timetables in the fall that would have taken the event out their usual summer, tourist-friendly slots.

“The nature of the ceremony and the importance of the event, its status, it needed to be done at the level that it’s been done through the years,” says Tim Mead, Hall of Fame president. “We were not going to cut any corners or sacrifice any aspect of that Induction.”

Stephen Keener, Little League president and chief executive, said the organization waited as long as possible to make its cancellation decision. But it, too, came to the conclusion that the only truly proper way to have the Little League World Series operate was at its usual level. And given the current public health situation, that means waiting until 2021 or until it’s safe to proceed.

“We never really gave a passing thought,” to playing without fans like many major league sports properties are now, Keener says. “If we couldn’t put on the tournament in its traditional, conventional format, we didn’t think it was appropriate to come up with some concocted way to play it just for the sake of playing.”

But for particularly for the lodging industry, the loss of this summer is a cruel blow in both Cooperstown and Williamsport. Ruffles said the Cooperstown area saw a variety of Airbnb rentals and bed-and-breakfast sites where property owners quickly found themselves in a dire state economically. 

The previously scheduled induction of Jeter only amplified the blow, as some merchants had been looking forward to the summer of 2020 since the former shortstop announced his retirement in 2014, setting in motion the Hall of Fame’s mandatory five-year waiting period before players are enshrined.

“People around here took the bookings [for Induction Weekend], took the money and used it to fix up their places because they wanted to do improvements before the people came,” Ruffles said. “Now they have to pay back [those cancelled bookings], and they don’t have the money to pay it back. That’s putting a lot of the smaller folks out.”

Fans wait for the start of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2019 Induction Ceremony in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Safety Considerations

For both Cooperstown and Williamsport, their respective economies, and the Little League International and Hall of Fame specifically, there are now two primary objectives. 

The first, of course, is being able to move back toward normal activities in a safe manner, a challenging notion while a vaccine for the virus still does not exist. Both New York state and Pennsylvania are beginning to reopen parts of their economies and relax some shelter-in-place provisions. But the early steps are halting, and still a long way from being able to accommodate the types of mass fan gatherings the Hall of Fame and Little League World Series generate. 

Little League International is hoping some areas, both domestically and abroad, can see a resumption of local leagues, even if a competitive pathway toward a 2020 Little League World Series no longer exists. The organization has also published a detailed guide to assist communities on proper resumption methods.

“The situation has changed from a federally directed one, to one where it’s very much a state and local directive,” Keener says. “It’s our hope that millions of kids that are isolated right now will still have a chance to play later this summer and empty ballfields can get some action.”

The other consideration is rebuilding businesses. Some local entities in both communities have been able to get assistance from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the same program that helped the Louisville Slugger baseball bat brand to restart operations, while others still can only wait and hope.

The Baseball Hall of Fame and Little League International are in no danger of folding and the have the benefit of a wide array of corporate sponsors and charitable donors. But there are still heavy economic blows on those organizations happening this year with the loss of their marquee events.

And for the Baseball Hall of Fame in particular, the margin for error is still rather thin. The institution, despite its prominent status within baseball culture and US sports at large, typically grosses less than $20m a year in revenue, a figure less than the salaries of many individual MLB players. And museum attendance, which hovers at about 280,000 annually and is heavily concentrated to those summer tourist months, is now is entirely at a standstill with the doors closed since mid-March.

“With regard to revenue, there’s pretty much nothing that we can do until we can open our doors that has the ripple effect to the rest of the village,” Mead says. “This year is going to be problematic for everybody. But we’re going to have to figure out what other opportunities are front of us, be creative, and try to stay positive.”

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