Commissioner Rob Manfred took a judicious approach to allowing fans into stadiums in 2020, and it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t the right strategy. MLB didn’t allow fans into stadiums until the Championship Series, and even then they limited entries. With rigorous testing and strict protocols, MLB went 54 days without a positive test before Justin Turner tested positive for COVID-19 during game six of the World Series. The NFL, in their struggle to contain the virus, is proving the significance of MLB’s achievement in that regard.
There’s a new plan for next season, however. Commissioner Manfred believes that the lack of live baseball diminished interest in the sport and affected revenues beyond the obvious loss of ticket sales. Specifically, MLB estimates that 40% of their overall revenue ties directly to the presence of fans at live games, per the Athletic’s Evan Drellich. Even in a limited capacity, fans at ballgames in 2021 could help keep audience engaged throughout the season and into its endgame: the playoffs.
Drellich provides some Nielson ratings to quantify the drop in postseason viewership. Both the Championship Series and the World Series saw ~30% drop in viewership from the previous season.
Of course, there are many challenges ahead for Commissioner Manfred and MLB. Cases of coronavirus are at an all-time high, and though the winter has long been projected to be particularly rough, the current rate of infection in places that Wisconsin is worse than expected. Whether the nation can get control of the situation before March and April remains very much unclear. Manfred does note that the allowance of fan attendance can only move forward with approval from local health officials.
They will have the experience of the 2020 season to help them along, of course. The couple of breakouts early in the season helped MLB to narrow their focus to containing the spread of the virus while simply allowing for changes to the schedule. Regional play also helped contain outbreaks for MLB, though it’s unclear right now if a similar approach would be taken over a full season – or even if MLB plans on having a “full” 162-game season in 2021.