A 2020 MLB problem remains a 2021 problem: what to do with fans

Todd Dybas
·4 min read

A 2020 MLB problem carries into 2021: what to do with fans originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The “tickets” tab at Nationals.com remains prominently displayed right next to the Curly W logo atop the website’s home page. Tickets, things that went unused for all of 2020, are being sold in their usual lots: 82-, 44-, and 22-game plans are available.

Two tabs over a link to the 2021 schedule can be found. The Nationals’ home and season opener is slated for April 1 -- no joke -- which feels like such a distant marker before the calendar hits Thanksgiving. In reality, first pitch is 5 1/2 months away, which is not a long time to figure out upcoming logistics for the 2021 Major League Baseball season.

The coronavirus pandemic regaining steam has caused a spike in positive cases. Previous predictions of a troubling winter appear to be on point as various states, including Maryland and Virginia, move backward in their phased reopening plans.

An extrapolation of what is happening in the middle of November will be felt next April. Will a game-changing vaccine have widespread availability by then? Will the current surge be under control enough to allow a portion of fans into stadiums? And what markers will Major League Baseball use to determine what will be acceptable during the regular season?

All of that remains unclear at this point. What is known is commissioner Rob Manfred’s desire to put fans back into the stands in 2021.

“Playing in ballparks that are empty was a very stark experience,” Manfred said last week at the Paley International Summit. “I was at a few games. It’s a strange environment to have this beautiful ballpark with no one sitting in the stands.”

Manfred is right about the environment. Those who panned the fake crowd noise used during the season were never in the park when only silence draped over the stadium. Conversations at the plate could be heard a hundred feet away. The crack of the bat went from in-game interlude, the sweet sound everyone waited all winter for, to the most striking noise of the day. There was no juice, no vibe.

There is, of course, the financial vein of this to consider. Especially since Manfred argued a corollary between attendance and television ratings existed.

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“Our regular-season product is the most dependent of the sports in terms of having fans in the ballpark and those live-gate revenues,” Manfred said. “The other part you need to appreciate, our national dollars are tremendously backloaded, they’re almost exclusively to the postseason. To get through the year without fans is a tremendous burden on the individual clubs. As we look forward, we will be more aggressive about having fans in ballparks. There were places where we could have had fans this year...even though local jurisdictions had started to open up, we decided for this year we would stay empty for the regular season. I don’t think that’s a tenable position for us. Going forward, we’re going to have to allow the clubs to operate safely. We’re obviously going to have league-wide protocols.

“If local public health authorities allow for fans, I think you’re going to see fans in the ballpark next year. Now, will it be full stadiums? I kind of doubt that. But we do think it’s important, and it’s why we did it in the World Series and the LCS: to get people accustomed to the idea that you can go to these live events with appropriate protocols, pods of people, social distancing, masks, and do it safely.”

Grappling within specific jurisdictions is sure to occur. It happened in 2020 when the Nationals had to apply for a waiver from the District in order to operate at Nationals Park. The organization later lobbied to have the waiver adjusted so the quarantine terms weren’t so strict and, accordingly, were more in line with those of teams the Nationals were competing against. The negotiation was moot in the end because the team was just bad.

Manfred at least conceded filling a stadium is unlikely. However, he has also laid the groundwork for an attendance push, something the players want to help counter the stilted environment, something owners want to help recoup revenue and something fans want after sitting at home for a season. Desire is not in doubt. But execution remains in question.