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While recovering from COVID shutdown slump, Ohio minor league sports teams get $30 million in ARPA funds

Canal Park
The Akron RubberDucks, pictured here at Canal Park Stadium, are one of the minor league teams receiving grant funding from the Ohio Department of Development.

Ohio officials are trying to cover all the bases to help venues recover from COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.

Several minor league baseball and hockey teams will receive a combined $30 million from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation.

Four Northeast Ohio baseball teams were picked to receive grants: The Akron RubberDucks, the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians, will receive $3.8 million; the Lake County Captains, the Guardians’ High A affiliate, will get $1.6 million; the Lake Erie Crushers, in the independent Frontier League, were allocated just over $1 million, and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, an unaffiliated team in the MLB Draft League, will get $927,487.

The funding will help the teams remain affordable options for summer fun, said Jim Pfander, president and general manager of the RubberDucks.

“What this is really going to do is allow us to be able to operate at a high level, to continue to provide $2 hot dogs and $5 tickets to all of our fans,” Pfander said.

Minor league officials have been asking for state support since sports venues were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pfander said.

The RubberDucks organization is like any other seasonal small business, he said. The team was not able to generate any revenue for two off-seasons and a season and a half of playing time.

“We went Labor Day 2019 all the way to May 4, 2021 without playing a baseball game,” Pfander said.

While the team had its first full season back last year, attendance is still not back to what it was pre-pandemic, he added. The RubberDucks averaged 350,000 fans per season before the pandemic, but saw 253,000 in 2022, he said.

That’s why the organization will use the majority of its grant funding to make up for lost operating revenue, Pfander said, and to pay back small business loans that were taken out.

Without the grant funding, the organization may have had to raise ticket and concession prices, he added.

“In a time where, obviously, where the cost of everything is more expensive, we’re trying to do our best to hold our prices in line, to keep it affordable fun, for everybody in our community,” Pfander said.

Jen Yorko, general manager of the Lake County Captains, said in an email that the club is “grateful” for the funds from the state.

“The funds will be utilized to continue to update the ballpark, provide additional required amenities for our players and coaching staff, as well fan experience items that are long overdue at the ballpark,” Yorko said. “We look forward to announcing more details at a later time.”

The Toledo Mud Hens will receive $7.4 million and the Dayton Dragons will get $6.2 million from the state. Hockey teams Cincinnati Cyclones and Toledo Walleye will receive $3.5 million and $5.3 million, respectively.

The grants will be administered through the Ohio Department of Development.

“Ohio is the heart of excitement, and there’s nothing more exciting than the roar of a crowd rooting for the home team,” Lydia Mihalik, director of the Department of Development, said in a news release. “With this funding we’re supporting more than just these teams; we’re supporting beloved members of our communities. Whether it’s with a hat trick or a home run, these teams bring generations of fans together and give them something to cheer for. We’re proud to invest in that.”

The grants were awarded based on the eligible teams' gross 2019 revenue, according to a press release.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.