The return of the MiLB season and the impending returns of independent and summer-collegiate play are hailed as returns to normal. But with operations like the USPBL still hamstrung by capacity limits, things are still far from normal.
It’s important to remember that aside from a few states like Georgia and Texas, teams on every level are not allowed to operate at full capacity–and even if they were, there is significant doubt about huge numbers of fans demanding to be let in the ballpark gates with no social distancing–so there is still plenty of financial risk out there for operators.
Take, for example, the United Shore Professional Baseball League (USPBL), where owner Andy Appleby created a nice operation featuring multiple teams playing out of a single venue, Jimmy John’s Field. Pre-COVID, Appleby notched plenty of full houses. The USPBL did return to play in 2020 with miminal crowds (100 fans at most), and is planning a 2021 return with a higher capacity limit of roughly 900 fans per game. This is not a decision made by Appleby, but rather by Michigan state officials who are putting off higher capacities until more citizens are vaccinated and positivity rates decline–Michigan sports the highest COVID positivity rate in the country as of today. So, instead of looking at the upwards of 40-50 percent capacity we’re seeing across the country, the USBPL is looking more at a capacity limit of 20 percent when his season opens, perhaps even as high as 2,000 fans per game, per the Detroit News:
“I just miss all the happiness and the smiles and all the young kids getting the autographs,” Appleby said. “Nothing makes me more happy than to see a group of people singing the national anthem, a big high-five tunnel with a bunch of little kids, 220 people holding the flag in center field for the anthem, and our baseball buddies where a Little League team gets to run out on the field with our starting players with all the sparklers and all the smoke. That is as good as it gets for me.
“There’s so much good that we can’t do when we can’t play games,” added Appleby, noting the league partners with hundreds of community charities, “or when we play games in front of 100 people.”
Still, a situation like this is a big whammy: not knowing where capacities will be for most of your season is a significant roadblock for planning and budgeting.