116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s now been two weeks since the Cedar Rapids Kernels lifted capacity limitations at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Until June 16, the baseball stadium was operating with a limit of 2,000 fans because of the coronavirus pandemic. With the stadium fully open, 5,300 fans have the opportunity to attend each game.
It’s a far cry from last year, when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the season entirely. The High-A Central League franchise still found a way to cater to those who craved stadium food, though. The Kernels offered drive-up service, where grilled hot dogs and picnic tables provided fans with the savory bits of America’s favorite pastime.
A year later, that service was replaced with a drive-up vaccination clinic, providing community members the opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccination from the comfort of their car.
Then, in early May, the Kernels played their first game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in more than a year. General Manager Scott Wilson said he had butterflies in his stomach for months, anticipating what the 2021 baseball season was going to look like after a year with no baseball, little to no income, a pandemic and a derecho.
He recently spoke with The Gazette about how things are going so far.
Q: What is the environment like this season after last year’s hiatus?
A: Last year on June 1 we let half the staff go because of the pandemic, and we weren’t able to hire any of those back. So there’s some open offices … (and) it’s a little sad, almost, when you walk past those. But we’re still super happy to be playing baseball again.
The season and baseball environment has really continually evolved almost weekly because Major League Baseball has opened up or changed the protocols almost every Friday. We get an update of this, or that, or some things now are fairly open in our world.
There are some things as a staff that we look at each other and go, “Well, we forgot that.” Or we forgot how to do that after a year off, but the majority of our staff has been here over 15 years, and it’s just so fun to see our friends back in the stands again and now at 100 percent capacity.
Q: What steps felt important when deciding to reopen and play baseball this season?
A: We worked with Linn County Public Health (and) the city of Cedar Rapids before we ever got back to a reopening plan. Thankfully, our ticketing system had an algorithm built into it that allowed for 6-foot social distancing. So when you selected a seat, it immediately put three seats to the side of you and the seats behind and in front of you on hold. And select the next ones, it just kept broadening the spectrum. To be able to do that, that made it safe.
We sold out three times under socially distanced things, and I think the fans that were here will tell you they were very comfortable in the environment that we had.
Q: What was foot traffic like at the beginning of the season with limited capacity, compared to now, operating with 100 percent capacity?
A: Prior to June, in all of May, the maximum number we could ever get was 2,000. If one person buys a seat you lose seven or eight around you type of scenario, but if groups buy, you only lose seven or eight. Those May games, we had 18 games, I would say we sold out two or three of those at that 2,000 level. On Father’s Day weekend, which is always a terrific weekend for us, fighting Mother Nature the whole way on some raindrops every once in a while here and there, we were still able to put almost 3,000 in here on Saturday and close to 2,500 on Father’s Day. All numbers that were larger than we ever could’ve touched in May.
Q: How has the response from the community been since reopening?
A: Very receptive, the support from the community has been tremendous. It’s overwhelmingly emotional at some points in time because even in the last year when we were playing, we were getting great comments. … Having Clinton and Burlington losing their affiliated baseball and playing summer collegiate leagues, we’ve seen a good number of fans headed this way just for affiliated baseball. I’ll thank them 100 times for coming over and making that trip because if nothing else, this ballpark was built to be filled for that and all the community stuff we’ve been able to get back to.
Q: How did the lack of a baseball season impact the Kernels?
A: The financial impact of not having income for 18 months for any business is detrimental. Without the support of the city and really the Veterans Commission … that we are on, that the three of us were able to work together and secure a loan that got us through. Now we start playing baseball again and get back to paying that off. Every month, we were evaluating expenses and where the revenue was, and once we got to a point in late ’20 and we knew ’21 was going to happen, then we went back out to selling sponsorships and booking tickets and things like that. So that creates little parts of revenue coming back in.
Q: How did the derecho on Aug. 10 further emphasize the need for that loan?
A: We couldn’t make a dollar at that point in time so it was essential for us to continue to keep going. We got the opportunity to change things, we had things stand out more. The stadium is 20 years old, so we looked at it, we’re like, “If we got to put a happy face on something, we got to give the stadium a face-lift.” And the fans are noticing it.
I try to look at it as a positive because for a couple of days after the derecho our staff was really depressed because you’re trying to live and then all of a sudden your business is now gone and so is your home. In most cases, some of us were trying to get trees out of our houses, holes in our roof fixed and be here to deal with the damage that was on that. Weird year, I’m going to tell stories about 2020 for the rest of my life.
(Veteran’s Memorial Stadium was able to repair damage with new, MLB-standard LED lights, outfield wall fences and a ribbon board.)
Q: What were your thoughts and feelings when heading into this season?
A: I think as we sat in every meeting, we were nervous until we opened the doors and we saw what the response was. Because until you walk down there and unlock that gate for the first time, and there’s a line, you just didn’t know. But at that point in time, I recorded my welcome video that we played for the first couple of games when we first opened back up, because I wasn’t sure I could do it live because it was too emotional of a situation. I was so overwhelmed by having fans back in the stadium. If it only would have been 100, I still would have been overwhelmed.
If you didn’t feel butterflies when we opened that gate up May 4 … after 18 months of anticipation, you’ve got to be in the wrong business because this is exciting and it’s fun. We’ll have that same feeling in ’22 because we always have that feeling.
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