Twitch Streams and Wave Parades: Bowling Green Hot Rods Adjust to Baseball-less Spring

May 29, 2020

Credit Colin Jackson

The COVID-19 pandemic means stadiums and ballparks nationwide have been empty since mid-March.

Weeks later, the teams and fans that normally fill those venues are feeling the pain.

Everyone on the Bowling Green Hot Rods roster has been back home since the league suspended spring training. 

To make up for it, team broadcaster Shawn Murnin has been challening players like Chris Betts to play him in MLB The Show live on a Twitch stream.

"It's pretty much just me playing against a player and trying to interview them, which is really difficult if you've never done anything like that before. It is very hard to try and win a video game while you're trying to ask people intelligent questions," Murnin said.

If this was a normal year, the team would be in the middle of what's called "the grind." That means traveling to take on teams in Indiana, Illinois, or Ohio.

"You're ready to go 140-plus games, and day in, day out, work hard, do the best you can. And try to get better," Murnin said.

Generally speaking, minor league teams, like the A-level Bowling Green Hot Rods, serve two functions: entertainment and developing talent for parent organizations like the Tampa Bay Rays.

At the Hot Rods' level, players can have a short amount of time to move up the ladder. General Manager Eric Leach says coronavirus-related changes to the draft mean some players may get left behind.

"The sad part, for me, is those guys who are past the 20th round are never going to have a shot now. And that's kind of heart-breaking. And you look at minor league baseball, a third of the players are never going to be employed again," Leach said.

Then there are the financial problems that come along with being a seasonal entertainment buisiness wihtout a season.

Last fall, Major League Baseball announced plans to disband several franchises, including some in the Midwest League, where the Hot Rods play. Even though Bowling Green was safe, Leach says the current situation is still concerning.

"Before, we had a leg to stand on in negotiations. And right now, because of COVID-19 and the ongoing agreement, we really don't have a whole lot of leverage," Leach said.

Leach said he worries about baseball disappearing from towns like Bowling Green or Evansville, where fans that may never make it to a big-league ballpark can see future stars up close.

Though the Hot Rods players are no longer in town, the team is still reaching the community through fundraising activities and its "Wave Parade Wednesdays."

"We go out with our mascots, Axel and Roscoe, and we just drive around and wave," Murnin said, adding the community response has "been awesome."

As team broadcaster, Murnin is missing out on the community piece that makes baseball so special.

You can feel the excitement of a homerun, there are the classic giveaways, and of course, the smell of ballpark junk food.

Leach said the team has already ordered this season's promotional materials, like bobbleheads and hats, though those can mostly hold another year. Seasonal employees, however, have just been out that summer bump in income so far. However, Leach said the situation in Bowling Green is different than that in MLB and NBA stadiums, where vendors depend on games for a substantial portion of income.

"For a lot of our game day workers, the game night workers, especially on the Hot Rods side, this is fun. It's a lot of retirees...they just enjoy getting out, or young high school students. People who don't rely on this for a living," Leach said.

But sports teams have a financial impact that reaches their surrounding communities as well.

Western Kentucky University economics professor Brian Goff said the U.S. Dept. of Commerce estimates every dollar spent on sports like Hot Rods or WKU games means a bigger chunk comes back to the overall community.

That means, if the Hot Rods were to make around $4 million in gameday revenue, "applying those multipliers that would mean...$6.4 million for the local economy. In addition to what was directly spent on the team would be in the neighborhood of $2-2.5 million," Goff said.

Summer events at Bowling Green Ballpark, like the 2020 Midwest League Allstar game have been postponed. But, the team is hosting fans once again on Friday for a meal and to re-watch a game. It may be from last season, but it at least means fans will have baseball at the park again.