Yankees president Randy Levine envisions Yankee Stadium being open for baseball at some point this summer, along with Citi Field. But plenty of hurdles remain, and that’s why the next week to 10 days will be crucial in determining if the sport can return this year, according to people familiar with the situation.
MLB officials have discussed numerous plans, even beyond the handful made public that included Arizona, Florida, Texas and the most recent involving home ballparks.
The problem? Actually, there are two significant obstacles. The first obviously involves the nation’s ability to curtail the COVID-19 outbreak, which at best has been an uneven, disjointed process. And even if the pandemic somehow is brought under control, MLB still has the stiff challenge of bargaining a newly adjusted salary structure for the players. Those negotiations have not begun, a source said Wednesday.
As for a potential Opening Day, that’s impossible to pin down, and union chief Tony Clark told ESPN that he had not received any plans from MLB.
“Well, there's no official date yet,” Levine said Wednesday in an interview with 1010 WINS radio. “There are many plans that all the clubs and the commissioner are looking at right now. Obviously, what happens on the ground with the virus is important to monitor on a day-to-day basis. But I think we are moving closer to finalizing a plan, which we would set forth, talk to all the public health officials, make sure that they're on board and see if we can progress. So I can't give you a date right now. All I can tell you is everybody's working really hard to get this done.”
Levine acknowledged Wednesday that having fans at the stadiums, at least in the early stages, isn’t going to be possible. And given that gate-generated revenue accounts for 40% to 50% of a team’s income, if a season does happen, it’s a safe assumption that MLB hopes to gradually allow fans.
“Gate is really, really important — the gate and everything associated with it,” Levine said. “And so, you know, the economics are troubling. Sports is a trillion-dollar industry that employs millions of people. Not only the people that work in the stadiums, the buildings, but hospitality, [the media], apparel.
“So we need to get going. But we need to do it in a safe way. From Jackie Robinson stepping up to after 9/11, baseball’s held a very, very special place in bringing the country some comfort after turbulent times. The economics are really important, but we have to deal with the reality of the economics. Obviously, television isn’t the whole ballgame as far as the financial economics of the game. Sometimes you’ve got to play the games, play ball, and there are more important things than economics.”
Levine is on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s reopening committee, along with Mets COO Jeff Wilpon, and is optimistic about not only hosting MLB games again but getting the paying customers back in the ballparks.
“You start with no fans, you watch the progression of the virus — because keeping people safe is important — and then you maybe start with a limited number of fans, see where it goes and then increase it,” Levine said. “All the while making sure that people are safe when they come to the ballpark. There's mitigation. Their temperatures are checked, there are health stations. There are people wearing masks, gloves — it'd be great to have some Yankee masks and gloves out there. They eat certain foods that wouldn't disrupt the masks. The stadium would be disinfected and we'd have a great advantage because obviously Yankee Stadium is an open-air stadium and it's much different from being in a confined building.”
MLB certainly has watched with great interest — and more than a little jealousy — the games already being played in South Korea and Taiwan.
Just this week, the Korean Baseball Organization worked out a landmark TV deal with ESPN to broadcast its games, basically replacing the sidelined MLB. The KBO opened Tuesday without fans but intends to phase them in over time.
Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) kicked off its season with cutouts and robots in the stands, but it announced Wednesday that it will start allowing 1,000 fans per game. Spectators will be subject to temperature checks, must wear masks and must sit one meter (roughly three feet) apart.
South Korea and Taiwan have relied on rigorous testing and monitoring to reduce their new daily COVID-19 infections to virtually zero, which is why they’re playing baseball.
As of Wednesday, the U.S. is averaging 25,000 new cases each day, with the curve still rising nationwide outside of New York, which has stabilized to some degree during the past two weeks.