Manfred concerned over MLB’s ability to have attending fans in 2021

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said he is concerned about the league’s ability to allow attending fans for the 2021 season amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting impact upon the game’s economics.

Speaking with the Associated Press upon the start of the 2020 World Series, held in a neutral site at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, Manfred reiterated that the game receives about 40 per cent its total revenue from sources related to gate attendance, and that those revenue sources remain seriously threatened.

Because of the inability to allow attending fans at all during the regular season, Manfred said the league’s 30 clubs combined for $3bn in operating losses this season. There has been a cap of 11,500 fans per game for the National League Championship and World Series at Globe Life Field, representing MLB’s first and only games this year with attending fans.

“We understand what happens with fans [in 2021] is going to be a product of what happens with the virus, what decisions public health authorities make in terms of mass gatherings,” Manfred said. “It’s a huge issue for us in terms of the economics of the game. The losses [for 2020]…were basically set in stone when we started the season because we knew about 40 per cent of our revenue is gate-related and we knew we weren’t going to have it.

“The clubs have done a really good job locally and we tried to do a good job centrally. The [financial] liquidity is sufficient to get us through 2020. I think if we’re faced with limited activity next year and the kind of losses that we suffered this year again it will become more of a problem,” he said.

Manfred’s comments mirror those made last week on ESPN Radio by Hal Steinbrenner, New York Yankees managing general partner, in which he said regarding fans next year, “I have no idea and neither do you.”

Similarly, Todd Boehly, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers that are now in the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, said this week at the Milken Institute Global Conference that it will not be until 2022 that the league will return to any sort of normal operations.

“We don’t expect to be back to normal next year by any means,” said Boehly, also part of the ownership group for the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Sparks. “We would expect to be back to normal by 2022.

“For us, we’re starting to think a lot about, come March, what are the proper testing protocols, and how are we going to get fans back into stadiums, and how can we test at scale. How can we have testing protocols that get people safely back into the seats, even if we have a vaccine?,” he said.

Baseball’s adjusted economic landscape, as well as a series of other potential on-field rules changes, will be the subject of offseason discussions with the MLB Players Association. The league’s current five-year labor deal with the players expires after the 2021 season. But there were a series of supplemental agreements to govern the particular circumstances of this year amid the Covid-19 landscape, including the implementation of a quarantined bubble for much of the postseason, and more are likely to be implemented for next year. 

“We got a lot of important things done this year with the union,” Manfred said. “We had the [Covid-19] problems early, and [MLBPA executive director] Tony [Clark] was active not only in helping strengthen protocols, but in encouraging players to adhere to the protocols. And the negotiation over the bubble was not an easy thing. It involved further changes for players, dislocations for players.”

This year also featured a series of unprecedented measures including starting extra innings with runners on second base, requiring relief pitchers to face at least three batters or finish an inning, and an expanded 16-team playoff. Manfred said he would like to those elements remain in some fashion.

“I like the idea of, and I’m choosing my words carefully here, an expanded playoff format,” he said. “I don’t think we would do 16 [teams] like we did this year. I think we do have to be cognizant of making sure that we preserve the importance of our regular season. But I think something beyond the 10 that we were at would be a good change.”