How Has the Brewers Business Changed During the Pandemic?

Last year was financially challenging for the Brewers.

The absence of fans in the stands last season due to the coronavirus pandemic created financial woes for the Milwaukee Brewers, a franchise that relies heavily on ticket sales, parking and concessions for revenue.

When the Brewers take on the Minnesota Twins on Opening Day at American Family Field on April 1, fans will return to the ballpark in limited numbers for the first time in 18 months. Although this is a welcome development more than a year into the economically devastating pandemic, not being able to fill the stadium to capacity and have parking lots packed with cars and tailgaters means the team will miss out on a much-needed, full-fledge influx of income.

“We know that 2020 was an extremely difficult and challenging financial year, for us and many other businesses,” Brewers President of Business Operations Rick Schlesinger said as he addressed the media on the well-groomed infield dirt at the ballpark formerly known as Miller Park. “And 2021 is going to be a challenging year financially. That’s also true for many other businesses.”

Schlesinger declined to reveal how much money the Brewers lost last season without fans in the stands and a television contract that ranks near the bottom among the 30 Major League Baseball franchises in terms of revenue generation. Schlesinger also didn’t want to publicly state what the franchise’s break-even figure will be this season.

The focus at this point, he insisted, is on bringing back some level normalcy for the Brewers and their fans.

“We are not focused on our (financial) losses from last year,” Schlesinger said. “We’re a business and many businesses across this country lost millions of dollars, people lost their jobs, people lost their lives, people got sick. What I focus on is the lost jobs, the loss of engagement with our fans. The players played in empty facilities and we lost the excitement and energy that fans bring to the ballpark.”

The Brewers received approval from the Milwaukee Health Department to have a maximum of 12,000 fans, or about 25% of capacity, for games at American Family Field, at least to start the season.

“When I look at 2021, the money is important, absolutely, the revenues from attendance are really important but the bigger measure for me is the jobs, the excitement, the engagement, and showcasing this ballpark as an entertainment destination that is safe and encouraging local officials that we can increase capacity and get more fans here.”

The Brewers had requested approval to allow fans at 35% of capacity as part of a 500-page plan that they submitted to the city.

“We didn’t get that right off that bat,” Schlesinger said.

If Opening Day and early-season games come off with no issues, Schlesinger said he is confident that the Health Department will seriously consider increasing capacity.

While the Brewers will be dealing with limited crowds and revenue to start the season, the Texas Rangers will officially open the new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, with fans filling the ballpark to capacity.

“We know that every jurisdiction is different and that the rules are different in every state and even within states,” Schlesinger said. “Local governments have a lot of influence on these rules. I wouldn’t trade our fans for any fans. I look at our situation as this is what we have, and we’ll work with it. As we demonstrate that we can safely accommodate more fans, I’d like to get to the Rangers’ situation, but obviously we’ll deal within the context of the hand we are dealt.”

A prohibition on tailgating is, not surprisingly, a touchy subject among Brewers fans and is a top issue in ongoing talks with city health officials, Schlesinger said.

“Without guaranteeing anything, that’s one of the priorities that we keep bringing up with them,” he said. “I think they are good listeners. I have optimism that we will be able to bring back tailgating.”

The Brewers have implemented measures aimed at protecting fans and game-day staff, most notably cashless transactions, mobile concessions ordering, strict enforcement of face covering regulations and seating pods designed to maintain social distancing.

“We are doing all the things so that we can show that we can have a safe experience, but we also want to have fun,” Schlesinger said. “I think we can do both. Once we demonstrate that we can do things safely, my job is to try to get those numbers higher so that we can have full stands.”

The Brewers got a feel for playing in front of limited crowds during spring training at American Family Fields of Phoenix, which received approval to allow nearly 2,300 fans into the 10,000-seat stadium.

“The energy was there. The crowd noise was there. The building was alive,” Schlesinger said. “I’m optimistic that we will have that same kind of ambience. Obviously, it won’t replicate a normal Opening Day.”

Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy said the return of fans for Opening Day at American Family Field will be an important step in building confidence in the Milwaukee business community.

“If I look downtown, maybe 10% to 15% are actually working in their offices. Just the symbol of Opening Day is a really important step for the confidence that we are moving back to normal,” Sheehy said.

The product on the field has Schlesinger excited for the 162-game season after a truncated 60-game slate in 2020, during which the Brewers made their third consecutive playoff appearances despite finishing the season with a losing record.

“I’m biased, but I get very excited about our team,” he said. “Last year was a very weird year. We had a lot of underperforming players last year who are frankly looking pretty good.”

Schlesinger expects the Brewers to hold their own in what should be a highly competitive National League Central Division.

“Every game is going to be meaningful,” he said.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.