Blue Jays Find New (Temporary) Home, But Questions Remain
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
By: Brandon Wurl
The Toronto Blue Jays were down to their last strike. It was Opening Day of the 2020 Major League Baseball (“MLB”) season and the Toronto-based team had yet to solidify a stadium to play their homes games. After being denied by national health officials and the Canadian federal government to host games at their home ballpark, Toronto looked to several U.S. MLB ballparks as alternatives. Just days before the start of the season, the Blue Jays reached a tentative agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates to play home games at PNC Park. However, the next punch came from the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Citing a rise in COVID-19 cases and increased travel of teams in and out of the state, Pennsylvania became the second jurisdiction to say no to the team. The Blue Jays were seemingly left without a home stadium to play. Fortunately, that all changed when the Blue Jays confirmed late Friday their home location would be Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York, home to their Triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons.
Originally given an exemption to host summer workouts at their home stadium the Rogers Centre, the Canadian government denied the Blue Jays approval to play regular-season games in Toronto. Under Canada's Quarantine Act, any person entering Canada from the United States is subject to a strict 14-day quarantine. This would prove to be problematic, as both the Blue Jays and visiting teams would be coming back and forth over the Canada-U.S. border.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy public health officer, acknowledged this concern and a major reason in denying the team’s exemption to play games. He stated, "the issue of the regular season . . . was speaking to the potential of travel across the U.S.-Canadian border, not just the Blue Jays leaving town and coming back after a road trip but also for teams coming in, that also is obviously a totally different ballgame.”
In evaluating options, Buffalo was an early favorite to host their parent club. Sahlen Field, with a capacity just shy of 17,000, is a great ballpark for Minor League Baseball standards. However, the 32-year-old downtown stadium falls far short of what is expected of an MLB stadium, and needs to undergo significant improvements. Blue Jays executives cited the ballpark’s lighting and social distancing capabilities inside the aging clubhouses as primary concerns. Repairs are also needed to the stadium’s bullpen phones, video control room, workout areas, and batting cages.
Given the short timeline to prepare the stadium, Buffalo looked out of the race. Until it wasn’t. Once considered a possible MLB expansion city, Buffalo will be part of The Show for the first time since the late 19th century. To allow for infrastructure upgrades at Sahlen Field, the Blue Jays moved next weekend's scheduled home series against the Philadelphia Phillies to Citizens Bank Park. The first of their 25 Blue Jays “home” games at Sahlen Field is scheduled to take place Tuesday, August 11, against the Miami Marlins.
It becomes a huge win for a city that saw its Minor League Baseball team shut down for the year due to COVID-19 as well as facing the possibility of no fans for the upcoming Buffalo Bills football season. The opportunity of 25 games in the Downtown Buffalo stadium means much-needed revenue and jobs for local hotels, restaurants, and other businesses greatly affected by the pandemic. Not to mention, a major league advantage to Sahlen Packing, Co., a regional hot dog brand, gaining valuable branding as the stadium’s naming rights partner. While Buffalo emerges into the national spotlight, many questions remain on television distribution, future game schedules, and stadium readiness.
I. TV Market Restrictions.
Fans will not be able to attend games at Sahlen Field due to the global pandemic, taking away some of the pomp and circumstance of Buffalo’s return to big league baseball. However, can baseball fans in a city, just 99 miles south of Toronto, watch locally on television? The short answer is yes, but it will come at a cost.
The good news, because the Blue Jays typically play their home games in Canada, the team is not subject to any blackout restrictions in the United States. Cable network Sportsnet carries Blue Jays games in their home country, with some games carried by the Canadian broadcast channel Citytv. However, these channels are not available on Buffalo cable systems. As it stands now, the only way to watch a Blue Jays game in WNY is through MLB.TV’s subscription package. The online streaming service costs $49.99 to follow a single team for the season.
In considering local broadcast options, the Buffalo market does have rights to several regional sports networks. However, the region falling within both New York baseball teams’ markets complicates matters. The Yankee Entertainment and Sports Network (“YES Network”) is the broadcast home of the New York Yankees whereas SportsNet New York (“SNY”) is the TV home for the New York Mets. Both networks have contracts with Buffalo-area cable providers, which are made possible by MLB’s broadcast and distribution rights deals. YES Network and SNY would, therefore, have to approve any new broadcast network affiliate deal in conjunction with the league. Approval on a deal for a third team in that market seems very unlikely.
One option could see a partnership with the Toronto Blue Jays and a local over the air channel, especially for those Blue Jays games not on national television or against teams on the other two regional networks. For context, the Buffalo Bisons aired ten home games on Buffalo’s The CW 23 during the 2019 season. However, the rights fee to make it happen for the short season may be too high for any station or cable provider to take on, even if allowed to make a deal.
II. Postseason Games in Toronto?
In its official announcement, the Blue Jays noted a “majority” of their home games would take place in Buffalo. Does this leave the possibility of the return to Toronto for postseason games? Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that Canadian and U.S. officials would extend the border closure between the two countries until at least August 21, leaving open the possibility of further extensions. Of course much can change with the pandemic before that date, but there is a small chance non-essential travel could open sometime in September.
Should the Blue Jays make the postseason, would they return to Toronto to play in the Rogers Centre? The possibility of allowing fans in the stadium down the road may impact the decision-making process on where to host future postseason games. However, the carefully crafted press release leaves an open date for the Blue Jays to return home. In a season where half the league makes the postseason, anything is possible.
III. Getting Buffalo Up to Speed.
Part of the skepticism in choosing Buffalo included concerns regarding the stadium’s infrastructure. The stadium will undergo significant upgrades to get the ballpark ready for the big leagues. Buffalo benefits greatly from this as Toronto and Major League Baseball will cover all the costs of the upgrades and improvements to the stadium. Notably, those improvements include upgrading the stadium lighting to stronger LED bulbs to accommodate live game broadcasts at night.
There is a lot of moving parts in repurposing facilities to follow CDC guidelines of social distancing, where other teams had the luxury of several weeks to prep, the Blue Jays and Sahlen Field did not. This includes building auxiliary dugout spaces to supplement the existing dugout areas to accommodate for social distancing as well as restructure home and visitor clubhouses. Sahlen Field will need additional batting cages and training areas, which are likely to be built on the concourses. Sahlen Field is also looking into moving the in-field bullpen areas, possibly moving them beyond the outfield fences. This is all under the assumption that it will be done in time before the quasi Blue Jays home opener on August 11. However, in exchange for giving up two home series’, the Toronto organization has bought themselves two weeks of extra time to get the stadium up to MLB standards. Time will tell if the stadium will be primetime ready.
IV. The Marlins Coming to Town.
If one positive can be taken out of a negative situation, as the Miami Marlins have recently been diagnosed with a Covid outbreak, it's that the Blue Jay may potentially have an additional few days to prepare their new stadium for their home opener. This situation will remain fluid and will be interesting to watch in the coming days, as the Marlins are scheduled to be the first road opponent at Sahlen Field. As of today, the Marlins have postponed their July 27th game, but it is unclear how they will proceed beyond today at this time.
Brandon is a rising 3L at Arizona State University.
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