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Bill Would Give Minor League Baseball Teams Access To Financial Support

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Minor League Baseball has more than 200 teams across 19 separate leagues in 44 states. Many of them operate in small towns, and many of them were hit hard when they lost an entire season to the pandemic. There's a new bill in Congress to allow these teams access to the kind of financial support that went to other businesses. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has this report.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Eleven months after Minor League Baseball canceled their 2020 season, the crowd in Fredericksburg, Va., finally got the win they'd been waiting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And the Fredericksburg Nationals have their first win in team history.

(CHEERING)

SNELL: The town welcomed the newest minor league affiliate of the Washington Nationals almost one full year after it became clear that the $35 million state-of-the-art park built for the team wouldn't be opening in the pandemic.

SETH SILBER: Having the stadium built and trying to be ready for last year and then having no season and no revenue obviously is a tremendous hit.

SNELL: That's Seth Silber. His family owns the team. He says running a minor league team is a lot like running a movie theater or a live entertainment venue. But when other businesses were getting COVID-related relief, teams like his were left out.

SILBER: We're really, you know, in the entertainment business. So in some ways, it would have made sense for us to be included in some of the past legislation.

SNELL: Senator Mark Warner is trying to fix that. He went out to the stadium on a recent afternoon to make a push for his new bipartisan bill to use $550 million in unspent COVID funds to help teams like this one. Teams could be eligible for up to $10 million in emergency grants, provided they are not majority owned by the majors. The Virginia Democrat thinks minor league teams were left out after the Los Angeles Lakers had to return $4.6 million from the first round of Paycheck Protection loans for small businesses.

MARK WARNER: People appropriately said, hey, that's crazy. And I think there was a - not a recognition from all of my colleagues that these minor league teams, for the most part, are not owned by Major League Baseball.

SNELL: Minor league teams operate in regional systems with varying relationships to Major League Baseball and in cities of varying sizes. Some are just small towns. Critics question whether it's really the federal government's job to be bailing out baseball. Warner says Congress already decided to include specific programs for the entertainment economy, like restaurants and shuttered venues, in COVID relief.

WARNER: We will recover quickly if we put capital into keeping these businesses alive.

SNELL: Joshua Cole is the Commonwealth House delegate who represents the Fredericksburg area. He grew up here, and he says the team gives the area a sense of community.

JOSHUA COLE: So this was just woods, trees (laughter).

SNELL: Now there's a stadium with around 20 full-time employees and a crew of about 150 on game days. Plus, a baseball team could help convince families to put down roots in a town that has often been a temporary home for people serving at the nearby military bases.

COLE: We want people to say, hey, I moved here because it was just for work, but I actually think I want to stay here.

SNELL: The stadium was the site of the local high school graduation this year, and people love coming to games. Warner says minor league teams can be major attractions in small towns.

WARNER: I was afraid and am afraid if we don't do some relief - I don't think here in Fredericksburg, but in some of the smaller communities these teams might disappear and never come back.

SNELL: He hopes the bill can be approved this year.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Fredericksburg, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENEMIES' "FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.