Top Menu

MLB expects fans to return. But will they?

Wrigley Field 2019

As MLB teams prepare to open training camp at home ballparks and map out logistics for the regular season, front offices are champing at the bit to open the gates and welcome fans. When will this happen–and, more importantly–should this happen?

A look at how America is handling the coronavirus epidemic isn’t exactly a cause for celebration. Yesterday saw a U.S. record set for most COVID-19 positive test cases, with government officials now estimating that the real number is likely 10 times more, based on extrapolations of antibody testing. A rising number of positives in California among younger people 18-49 is causing the state to warn of a shortage of hospital beds and potential scaling back of reopening measures. Gov. Doug Ducey is telling Arizona residents to stay home after hospital occupancy rates in ICU wards hit 88 percent, with records set on the number of positive tests and 10+ positive test rate. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has scrapped reopening protocols and asking citizens to stay home or wear masks after record positive tests.

So–hey! Who’s up for a trip to the ballpark!

And we know from many polls that fans are apprehensive about returning to a ballpark or arena before there is a COVID-19 vaccine.

MLB officials think fans are ready to return and are preparing to begin play with no fans in the stands but move as quickly as possible to welcoming folks to the ballpark. Jim Crane, president of the Houston Astros, is one of the optimist. From the Houston Chronicle:

“That’s the plan. … The intent at some point is to get the fans into the ballpark,” Crane said.

Abbott has said stadiums and arenas in Texas can be filled to 50 percent of capacity, which for Minute Maid Park would be in the 20,000 range. The governor also indicated to college athletic directors recently that he did not expect attendance caps to be raised beyond that point.

COVID-19 cases are surging in Harris County, and Crane alluded to the uncertain nature of things in discussing the prospect of fans returning to the ballpark this season.

In Chicago, White Sox and Cubs officials were originally heartened when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the next phase in the state’s reopening plan, with sporting facilities allowed to host events at 25 percent of capacity. That may have been a little premature: city ordinances don’t necessarily follow state ordinances, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot quickly reacted by saying she didn’t expect crowds at Wrigley Field or Guaranteed Rate Field any time soon. But Cubs President Crane Kinney can still dream, per the Chicago Sun-Times:

“There was always a path to bring fans back into Wrigley — obviously a smaller group than would normally attend games,” Kenney said. “We do see that happening this year.”…

“That’s a discussion that we have not had with any of the major sports teams in that level of specificity,” Lightfoot said. “I know that Crane Kenney went on [radio] . . . and made some statements, but we have yet to hear from the Cubs specifically about ‘What is your plan for safety?’ ”

Lightfoot said she’s “happy and anxious to engage in that conversation.”

“There’s no bigger sports fan than me — I want to be able to enjoy live sports in the stands myself,” said Lightfoot, a Sox and Bears season ticket-holder. “But we’ve got to do it at a time when we know that’s appropriate under the public health guidance. And we’re not there yet.”

And, not missing a beat, the Cubs expect to open some rooftop bleachers for the first game at Wrigley Field–conforming to Chicago’s guidelines on gatherings.

In Arizona, where experts argue things might not get better any time soon, Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick expressed the opposite opinion: he doesn’t expect any fans in the stands this season:

“My expectation and our expectation is we are going to be playing our games this year without fans in the ballpark,” he said on Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo Wednesday.

Arizona joins Texas in being one of the worst trending states when it comes to coronavirus cases, with the percentage of positive tests consistently rising throughout June. As you’d expect, the D-backs see too much risk for everyone involved.

“The answer needs to be that the most important thing for us is the health of the players and the health of any fans and we aren’t going to operate from the standpoint of, ‘Let’s squeeze out a few more dollars by bringing people into the ballpark,’” Kendrick said.

If infection rates are down in August, he added, they may look at allowing fans at the ballpark.

In St. Louis, the Cards are holding out hope that fans will be allowed at Busch Stadium at some point. Until then, spaces at the next-door Ballpark Village may be used for remote view of game action:

News of the Cardinals return has been dampened by news that it will likely be to an empty ballpark; no fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A city known as “Baseball Heaven” seems to be searching for its baseball mojo.

“I don’t know if fans will be able to go a baseball game in this abbreviated season. It seems unlikely today,” said St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

The city health department has approved the Cardinals proposed safety frame work for players only, she said. It will include spacing of players’ lockers, sanitizing gear, periodic COVID-19 testing, and daily temperature checks….

“We are exploring the options to be able to utilize those spaces for fan viewing,” said Mike Lamartina, chief revenue officer for Ballpark Village. “Obviously, it would done at a reduced capacity and probably a different model and not through a ticket system…I don’t think we’ve lost the mojo. I think like anything we’ve seen on the heels of the pandemic and having the stoppage, we’re waiting to see what the next bit of information is. The public wants to understand how and when and what it looks like for them.”

Some good news if you’re a mascot: you’ll be allowed at games, albeit limited to the stands and not the playing field. The original operating protocol proposed by MLB did not allow for mascots, but lobbying by the likes of Dave Raymond led to a reversal of that strategy. Per The New York Times:

Raymond delighted crowds with an array of antics, skits and mayhem from 1978-93, often zipping across the Veteran Stadium turf on his ATV. He’s certain mascots can easily succeed even inside empty stadiums.

“There are all kinds of little blurbs that can work,” he said. “And imagine this: During the seventh-inning stretch, what if you had a Zoom call with fans, where you put up 3,000 tiles of their pictures on the scoreboard and had them dance along?”

This week’s reversal opened up more opportunities for Orbit, Lou Seal, Slider, the Swinging Friar and more.

“I can think right now of about five routines that I’d do. There are lots of things mascots can try,” Raymond said. “You could even have a camera follow them around the park the whole game. It’d be fun for fans, seeing what they do.”

This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.

With daily news about the spread of the coronavirus impacting the sports-business and facilities industries, it’s more important than ever to stay up with the latest news in the venues industry. That’s why we launched a Venues Digest newsletter focusing on coronavirus information across the ballparks, arenas, stadiums, theater and performing-arts worlds. For now it will appear daily, and for now it will be free of charge to industry professionals. Sign up here.

RELATED STORIES: Spring training redux: Uncharted territoryMLBPA: We’re set to launch 2020 MLB season; 2020 season to launch under MLB’s terms; Negotiations for 2020 MLB season down to the wire; Players, owners inch closer to 2020 MLB season after MLBPA counterproposalNew MLB offer: Full prorated salaries, 60-game season; Manfred “not confident” there will be 2020 MLB season; Tonight’s SportsCenter special to cover return of sports, more; Players cut to the chase, ask MLB to set terms of the 2020 seasonMLB’s latest offer: 72 games, 80% prorated salariesManfred: We’ll be playing baseball this summer and fall; Latest MLB offer: 76 games, prorated salaries; MLB reportedly rejects 114-game season; what comes next?; Why a 50-game season makes sense for MLB, MLBPAFate of 2020 MLB season again up in the air; Players reject MLB financial plan for 2020 season resumption; California, New York govs clear way for sports in empty ballparks in JuneTeams find alternative uses for ballparks as entertainment venuesFans prioritize safety when considering return to baseball: study; When baseball returns, will fans return as well?

, , , ,