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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred tempers talk of return from coronavirus halt

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions at a press conference during MLB baseball owners meetings, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) Credit: AP/John Raoux

Amid so much coronavirus-related uncertainty in the sports world and real world, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred wants you to know: Baseball will be back, but only when that is safely possible.

“We are intent on the idea of trying to make baseball part of the recovery, the economic recovery and sort of a milestone on the return to normalcy,” Manfred said Tuesday on Fox Business Network.

What that milestone might look like, nobody knows yet.

MLB has mulled various options to stage a season, including sequestering all 30 teams in the greater Phoenix area and playing in spring training facilities and other nearby ballparks. Also under consideration is a one-year realignment that would use the exhibition leagues — Cactus in Arizona, Grapefruit in Florida — for the regular season, with divisions based on geography to minimize travel.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently deemed professional sports league employees “essential services” as long as no fans are present. That could help pave the way for the Arizona/Florida option.

Publicly, MLB officials have stressed that all plans to return remain in the very early stages. Manfred took that one step further Tuesday by saying they are merely “ideas,” not so much “plans.”

“We have a variety of contingency plans that we have talked about and worked on,” Manfred said. “Plans may be too strong a word. Ideas may be a better word. All of them are designed to address limitations that may exist when businesses restart — travel limitations, limitations on mass gatherings that may still exist.

“We’ve thought about ways to try to make baseball available to all the fans across the United States in the face of those restrictions. From our perspective, we don’t have a plan. We have lots of ideas. What ideas come to fruition will depend on what the restrictions are, what the public health situation is.”

Manfred, who noted that MLB and teams have continued to employ and pay full-time employees, emphasized the public health point.

“Most important, the only decision that we’ve made, the only real plan that we have, is that baseball is not going to return until the public health situation is improved to the point that we’re comfortable that we can play games in a manner that is safe for our players, our employees, our fans — and in a way that will not impact the public health situation adversely,” Manfred said.

“So right now, it’s largely a waiting game. During that period, as you might expect of any business, we have engaged in contingency planning. We’ve thought about how we might return in various scenarios. But again, the key is improvement in the public health situation.”

MLB hopes to not only have a 2020 season — which is no certainty — but to play as close to a full 162-game slate as possible. The reason: money.

During his FBN appearance to promote Jackie Robinson Day, which is Wednesday, Manfred estimated that 40% of teams’ local revenue is from selling tickets and other game day-related sales, such as concessions.

“Obviously, that is all at risk right now,” Manfred said.

Even if MLB teams play, it seems unlikely that fans will be allowed to attend. That increases the importance of revenue from TV contracts — the money ESPN, Fox, regional sports networks and others pay teams to be allowed to broadcast games.

The more games teams play, the more money they make. But if they don’t play any games?

“We do have significant media contracts, both national and local, but at the end of the day, those contracts are dependent on our ability to provide content,” Manfred said. “It is a difficult situation.”

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