BILLINGS — Amid contract negotiations between major and minor league baseball, the Billings Mustangs received $440,000 in federal coronavirus relief grant money to help keep the team afloat through the pandemic and into the 2021 season- if they're in a league that's playing.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney met with Mustangs owner Dave Heller and Billings Mayor Bill Cole at Dehler Park in Billings Monday to talk about the grants.
“The mayor is going to be very pleased to know that we are going to be able to pay our rent. To pay our utility bills. To pay our staff. To hire back staff and to continue to make improvements to our ballpark," Heller said.
The grant money came from the federal CARES act passed by Congress in March. The state received $1.25 billion and has given out more than $380 million to Montana businesses to date, according to the state's tracking web site.
The Mustangs received $420,000 from a live entertainment grant and another $20,000 from a business stabilization grant.
The year has dealt two curveballs to the Mustangs. Heller said the combination of contract negotiations between minor and major league baseball and the COVID-19 pandemic could have meant the end for the long-standing Billings team.
The grant money should help the team until baseball picks back up around June 2021, Heller said.
"The combination of MLB doing contraction and the uncertainty that breeds together with COVID-19 could have put the Mustangs out of business for good. Because of the state, I am proud to be able to say to you all today that the Billings Mustangs will 100 percent, definitely be playing next year in Dehler Park, right here. No questions asked," Heller said.
While Heller sounds optimistic, a deal to keep the Mustangs going is hardly complete. The agreement between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball, known as the Professional Baseball Agreement, expired at the end of September, and the two sides have not agreed on a new plan.
In its initial proposals, Major League Baseball had proposed cutting 42 teams, including the entire Pioneer League in which the Mustangs play, to cut costs.
The last game the Mustangs played at Dehler took place September 2019. If the team gets back up and running around June 2021, that leaves 21 months of zero revenue coming into the team from ticket sales or concessions.
"Thanks to Gov. Bullock, Lt. Gov. Cooney and the Montana Legislature, we are proud to be able to say that we are definitely going to be able to make it through COVID-19, however long it lasts and play baseball in Billings, Montana, next season if possible and beyond that for the foreseeable future," Heller said.
Heller said contract negotiations with the MLB are expected to wrap up within the end of the year.
"Sometime within the next 90 days, we would expect that there’s going to be some kind of agreement. We’re just going to be patient. That’s all we can do," Heller said.
Bullock mentioned the other revenues like hotel, and restaurant income the city loses out on if the Mustangs don't play.
“It’s a heck of a lot more than just butts in the seats. We have to take the steps right not to make sure on the back end of this, which is what’s so great to hear, is that we know as we recover that we’ll be as strong as ever. I appreciate the continued commitment on behalf of the Mustangs to this community and to our state," Bullock said.
Heller also thanked the city and its leadership for its support over the past year when the future of the team looked more uncertain.
Cole also pledged support for the Mustangs.
“The Mustangs bring millions of dollars into this community and we want to keep it that way. Not only do we want to keep it that way, we want to grow it. We want the Mustangs to be the Montana professional baseball team, not just a Billings professional baseball team. This is an exciting opportunity because it allows us to keep the stadium in good condition, keep the Mustangs in good condition," Cole said.