MLB, MLBPA near agreement to create postseason bubbles

Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, the new ballpark of Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers now in line to be the quarantined host of the 2020 National League Championship Series and World Series. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball is inching closer to finalizing plans with the MLB Players Association to create bubble environments for the latter stages of the postseason that would allow baseball’s playoffs to proceed with reduced threats of a Covid-19 outbreak.

After the league has already grappled with the complications of team-wide outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, the league and union are negotiating a plan that would see Division Series and the American League Championship playoff rounds played at neutral sites in Texas and Southern California, and the National League Championship Series and World Series staged at the newly opened Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

Other current MLB facilities that would be employed in the plan include Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros; Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers; and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.

The developing plan comes as MLB and MLBPA have already agreed to expand this year’s postseason from 10 clubs to 16. The expanded Wild Card round created in that playoff expansion would still be played in home markets before moving into the quarantined environments beginning with the Division Series.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, speaking at a business of baseball event September 14 at Hofstra University, said he is even holding out hope of having limited fan attendance in the later rounds of the playoffs. All MLB games thus far this year have been played without attending fans due to the pandemic.

“I’m hopeful that for the World Series and the [League Championship Series] we will have limited capacity,” Manfred said. “I think it’s important for us to start back down the road. Obviously, it’ll be limited numbers, socially distanced, protection provided for the fans in terms of temperature checks and the like. Kind of like the pods you saw in some of the [National Football League] games. We’ll probably use that same theory. But I do think it’s important as we look forward to 2021 to get back to the idea that live sports…are something that we can get back to.”

That gate revenue represents a key economic underpinning for baseball.

“The clubs, the industry, we lose about 40 per cent of our revenue when we play without fans,” said Manfred, who appeared at the Hofstra event with New York Yankees president Randy Levine. “Remember it’s not just the tickets, it’s concessions, it’s parking, it’s the merchandise that gets sold in the stadium. The owners have made a massive economic investment in getting the game back on the field for the good of the game. We need next year to be back in a situation where we can have fans back in the ballparks in order to sustain our business. It’s really that simple.”

There remain, however, several logistical hurdles to cross before the agreement for the postseason bubbles is finalized, including how family visitation and accommodations will be handled within the quarantined environments, and potential contingency plans as much of the United States’ West Coast, including California, grapple with wildfires. 

The familial concerns are particularly salient as MLB players have spent the entire modified 2020 season outside of a bubble, unlike how other major American pro sports properties such as the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and Women’s National Basketball Association have operated. And compared to those other sports, the extensive periods of time baseball players spend with each other day helped fuel the large virus outbreaks previously seen with the Marlins and Cardinals.

Since those issues with the Marlins and Cardinals early in MLB’s modified 60-game regular season, however, recent weeks have been much calmer, thanks in part to heightened protocols issued by the league in early August.

Still, the postseason bubble is designed in part to protect the nearly $1bn in media revenue that league is due to garner this year. The prior deal for the expanded postseason did not involve any new media rights, but rather was structured largely as make-goods following the loss of nearly two-thirds of the regular season due to the pandemic.