According to a Tuesday report from the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, there is growing support among MLB executives and players to try to begin the 2020 season with games in empty stadiums as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its course. The league has officially suspended operations until at least mid-May due to the pandemic, but this decision may allow the league to begin regular-season games by June or early July. While one should not place too much stock in the words of one (anonymous) executive, Sherman reports that one team exec said that “By a matter of weeks, we will be able to play games” without fans in attendance.
https://t.co/wYLQhwOEmd 2 items becoming more likely if there is going to be an MLB season, at least at the start no crowds and no familiar minor league feeder system— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) March 31, 2020
There would obviously still be the problem of MLB teams missing out on gate revenue and in-stadium concession and souvenir sales, they’d at least be able to earn TV revenue. And with baseball’s attendance dipping rather dramatically in recent years anyway, this seems like an obvious decision for the league when it comes to finances and continued viability.
Sherman also writes that MLB seems to have accepted that its current minor-league system is not feasible under the current conditions. He suggests that there could be some sort of modified system, perhaps one similar to instructional league, where prospects at multiple stages of development would be gathered in the same area and play intrasquad games or games against other nearby clubs. Clearly, it will greatly help in getting this type of program underway if Arizona and Florida — two states that have been widely panned for their response thus far — effectively contain the coronavirus, as MLB teams could then hold these camps at their spring training facilities.
Obviously, the fact that the minors may be put on the back burner indefinitely even if MLB games go on is devastating news for franchises that have chosen to strategically tank and rely on an eventual influx of young talent on their major-league roster rather than investing in their big-league club and trying to win now.
There will undoubtedly be those who believe that even playing in empty stadiums is too much of a risk until there’s a vaccine or a treatment that drastically relieves COVID-19 symptoms. (It is definitely too much of a risk right now, as evidenced by stay-at-home orders in cities and states throughout the country, but this is based on the idea that the curve will flatten and society will return to a slightly more normal state at some point later this year.) That belief may be correct — even just accounting for players, coaches, trainers, groundskeepers, umpires, media members, and TV crews, that’s over 100 people in the ballpark each day, and assuming that each of those people are living semi-normal lives away from the stadium and traveling, there’d still be a relatively high risk of the virus making its way into baseball and getting passed around.
But it ultimately boils down to the risks leagues and players are willing to take in a world where sports — and going outside, for that matter — will be somewhat unsafe for an indefinite period of time. As opposed to leagues like the NHL or MLS that would be in dire financial straits if they missed an entire season, MLB seems equipped to survive a year-long layoff if necessary. But there’s no guarantee that there will eventually be a vaccine or effective treatment (there has never before been a successful human vaccine for any virus belonging to the coronavirus family, after all), and if COVID-19 continues to be this much of an issue going in 2021 and beyond, the league obviously would be in pretty serious trouble. At some point — a point that MLB already seems to be at — leagues and players will need to consider radical solutions in an attempt to maintain their fan bases and stay afloat financially, and playing games in empty stadiums (but for potentially massive TV audiences) could be one of those solutions.