As Major League Baseball looks overseas for cues on restarting its own season, it’s worth noting that having fans in the stadium is a very different concept than allowing revenue-generating crowds.
On Friday, Taiwan’s CPBL opened ballparks to spectators for the first time, but capped attendance at 1,000 and kept fans at least three seats apart, with every second row also left empty. Concession stands were closed and food could not be brought into the stadium.
Otherwise, the game between the Fubon Guardians and UniLions in Taipei City had a more normal feel, with the sparse group of fans replacing the cutouts and robots that previously filled the barren sections when the season began. In South Korea -- the only other nation playing the sport at the moment -- the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) opened Tuesday with empty stadiums, but intends to allow fans eventually, increasing the percentage over time.
Obviously, it’s an extremely cautious process, and only made possible by each country’s success at containing their own COVID-19 outbreak. With the United States struggling to do the same, MLB is still just trying to get the sport back on the field -- never mind permitting fans -- and a return-to-play proposal will be submitted to the union next week.
It’s unclear where the idea of spectators fits into those negotiations, but playing out a truncated season in empty buildings, without paying customers, is not very appealing to owners. Teams generally rely on gate revenues for 40 to 50% of their yearly income, with Yankees president Randy Levine suggesting it could be as high as 70% for some clubs.
Now that nearly a quarter of the 2020 season already has been wiped out, teams aren’t going to recoup those losses, a huge deficit tied to ticket sales, concessions and parking. And if some fans do make it through the MLB turnstiles again, which seems like a longshot, the attendance can only be a small fraction of a ballpark’s capacity because of safety concerns.
Levine told WFAN on Thursday that he would anticipate using sensors to record the body temperature of fans at the stadium’s entrances, along with the wearing of masks and gloves, as well as having them spaced out in the seats for safety concerns. This plan also assumes that the COVID-19 outbreak, which has created a number of hot zones around the country, will have cooled considerably in the coming months.
"We’ve been planning for all kinds of contingencies,” Levine said. “I think it’s realistic. But I think you have to expect that this is going to be gradual and there has to be social distancing. So maybe you start with 20% of the fans, you keep six feet on each side, front and back ... and you take all the appropriate mitigation that you can to keep people safe.”
Taiwan has permitted the roughly 1,000 fans in ballparks that hold anywhere from 11,000 to 19,000, and South Korea hasn’t crossed that foreboding line yet. But as MLB continues to work on its return-to-play blueprint, there is a benefit to having these other leagues go first.