For the first time in 2020, there was a noticeable roar from the crowd during a major league baseball game. As National League Championship Series winning all-rounder Game 7 swayed back and forth between the Dodgers and Braves, it seemed like a feeling existed that pre-pandemic lifestyle may have returned to the game National pastime.
It was a partial illusion with one https://twitter.com/tweetgrubes/status/1317997603200618496?s=20, normally the home of the Texas Rangers, but the 2020 neutral location for the NLCS and World Series.
Attendance at the game was only 10,920 – a fraction of the ballpark’s 40,300 capacity – but that was by design. Major League Baseball and the Rangers are taking a calculated risk so fans can return to witness the playoffs after working with state and local health officials.
That risk could be high, even with the league’s plans to include the “pods” of four fans socially at least three feet apart. Sit no closer than 20 feet from the players; and the inability to break open “pods” to sell. Suites are allowed a total of 950 per game, which corresponds to a capacity between 25% and 31% of their standard capacity.
The plan stipulates that fans must wear masks at all times, except when eating or drinking concessions. However, the views during the broadcasts indicated that many did not meet the requirements. As always, protocols are only as strong as the people who must adhere to them.
If baseball is lucky, the playoffs aren’t a super-spreader event. It’s too early to say and probably won’t be known until after the World Series ends. Should some infections spread through the games, not only would it be a PR nightmare, but MLB is at the center of potential deaths from COVID-19.
Speaking to several baseball executives, MLB senses what the return of fans will look like in 2021. With coronavirus cases increasing and the expectation of a third wave in the fall and winter months, the return of fans will almost certainly come with a whimper, not a roar, when the model of a small percentage of ball parking capacity is allowed and only in states and markets that will allow this in 2021.
As the people in the league have said, the league has to come back at some point with fans in the stands. It is if it can be done safely and when that is the question. The fans returning during the 2020 NLCS and 2020 World Series in Arlington, TX will be part of the measure of whether the league can make it.
To this end, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said it could be possible if conditions are right.
“Sometimes when you project, people take it out of context,” Fauci said during an interview with MASNsports.com earlier this summer. “But when the infection rate in a city is really low, you can have people in the stands. You can’t fill it 100 percent. You can do it wherever you can place the fans. It is at least open to reflection. ”
This model reflects what the league is planning.
But beyond what the league is planning, given the high rate of infection from the novel coronavirus, fans are not confident about rallying even if they wanted to pack the house.
A global poll by consulting firm Altman Solon published Tuesday shows that only 6% of sports fans in the US would return if stadiums opened before a successful vaccine against COVID-19 was available. Even more worrying for sports leagues, even if a vaccine is available, only 17% of fans would return.
On that basis, MLB’s plans to allow a small percentage of fans to be re-admitted to games provide not only security, but the fact that many in society are unwilling to return to events with significant numbers of people.
From a baseball perspective, the return of fans can lead to economic disparities between clubs. As we have seen, the “opening up” approach can be made more aggressive or conservative, depending on case and death trends and policies. Some clubs are allowed to have fans. Some don’t like it. Those clubs located in states that err on the safety side would see part or all of the season without fans, while others would consider it permissible, even if a fraction of the normal. This inequality in gate revenue could create problems for Commissioner Manfred as the potential for some form of gate revenue sharing could emerge.
The bottom line is that MLB will be planning a way out of the forest that represents the pandemic. It will no doubt be a way that a limited number of fans could return based on feedback from health officials. It takes into account that while fans would love to return to sporting events as they were before the pandemic, a large percentage still do not feel safe enough to do so. For baseball, the slow path to normal attendance will be all the way through the 2021 season. For Commissioner Manfred and the country, the hope is that it will not be long.
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