USPBL hopes to start season with 1,500-2,000 fans, up from 100 in 2020

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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Andy Appleby is bringing the fun back to his United Shore Professional Baseball League, and he's bringing the fans back, too.

It's just a matter of how many.

The USPBL will kick off its sixth season Friday, May 28, at Jimmy John's Field in Utica, and the league's hope is 1,500 or more fans can be in attendance to see the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers play the Utica Unicorns.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, fan capacity was limited to 100 per game at Jimmy John's Field last season.

The USPBL currently is selling single-game tickets, starting at $15, albeit in pods of four for social distancing purposes.

"We're putting all the marketing back in, and it would be a real challenge for us at this stage if we went back to the low, low capacity like we had last year," said Appleby, founder and CEO of the four-team independent baseball league.

"All indications are, we should be fine."

Last year, the USPBL played a shortened season, with fan capacity capped at just 100 people per game, despite a 172-page return-to-play plan Appleby said positioned the league to operate safely with many more fans than that. Appleby argues his stadium setup is well-positioned for social distancing, with so many spaced-out picnic areas.

That meant Jimmy John's Field, which seats 4,500, operated at 2.2% capacity, leading to a massive loss of revenue that Appleby approximated at a 70% or 80% drop from previous seasons, when sellouts weren't occasional feats, but rather the norm. He declined to provide specific dollar losses, but it was in the millions.

More: USPBL, bouncing back from 75% revenue drop amid pandemic, revives expansion talks

Fans have begun returning to sporting events in Michigan, albeit still in low numbers. The Tigers can have 8,200 fans per game, or 20% of Comerica Park's capacity. At a similar threshold, the USPBL would be at 900.

The Tigers will be at 20% through May and probably June, as well. They are selling tickets on a month-to-month basis. The sticking point is the state, which is dictating crowd sizes. Last month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced it would take at least 70% of Michigan adults receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to lift all mask mandates and outdoor gathering restrictions. Michigan just crossed 50%.

"By all indications, we should have most of COVID in the rearview mirror by mid-June or so," Appleby said. "Who knows, but hopefully that will be the case."

Appleby's prediction game is lacking — though, everyone's has taken a hit trying to figure out, since March 2020, when we'd be back to normal again. It was about this time last year when Appleby was hoping COVID-19 would be a business buster for a month or two. But here we are, a year later. Appleby cited other states for reason why Michigan should be opening back up, like California's June 15 reopening date, and Lollapalooza taking place in Chicago in late July and early August. But California's date is a target date, relying also on vaccination rates. And Lollapalooza isn't a sure thing yet.

Still, the USPBL continues to push ahead with plans for the fans, including the return of Friday night fireworks, live bands every Saturday night, and the USPBL's dance crew, among other marketing ventures.

The 2020 USPBL season didn't have any of that, though at least it had a season. Major League Baseball-affiliated minor-league teams, including the West Michigan Whitecaps, Lansing Lugnuts, Great Lakes Loons and Toledo Mud Hens, didn't play last year.

Playing the season allowed the USPBL to salvage at least some revenue stream, while allowing the league to focus on beefing up its streaming game broadcasts. The baseball also was high quality, with some major-league teams sending some of their recent draft prospects to Utica to play some games.

Appleby also is grateful that the league sponsors stuck with the USPBL. He said not one abandoned ship, and there are 10 to 15 new ones on board for this season. The USPBL did have to furlough some employees, mostly in the ticket sale department, and many haven't returned to work yet. He's hopeful that can happen soon. At full capacity, the USPBL employs about 300 game-day workers, including players. If the USPBL gets there, he doesn't expect finding employees to be an issue, like it is with so many businesses these days. Many employees are high school and college students who don't get unemployment, as well as Utica-area teachers for which this is a second gig.

"I just miss all the happiness and the smiles and all the young kids getting the autographs," Appleby said. "Nothing makes me more happy than to see a group of people singing the national anthem, a big high-five tunnel with a bunch of little kids, 220 people holding the flag in center field for the anthem, and our baseball buddies where a Little League team gets to run out on the field with our starting players with all the sparklers and all the smoke. That is as good as it gets for me.

"There's so much good that we can't do when we can't play games," added Appleby, noting the league partners with hundreds of community charities, "or when we play games in front of 100 people."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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