After a long delay, lots of negotiations and millions of desperate fans becoming concerned that the season was headed toward being a wholesale strikeout, Major League Baseball (MLB) has returned after a four-month COVID-related delay.
But “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” might need an update along the lines of:
“Time to go stream the ballgame,
We’re avoiding the crowd.
Postmates is bringing me Cracker Jack
I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back.”
Okay, maybe the new song needs some fine-tuning, but it does point to the fact that the 2020 baseball season will be quite a bit different than any that has preceded it. Consider the fact that the season’s first pitch was thrown by infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who took the mound wearing a Washington Nationals cap and jersey and (of course) a face mask.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the MLB’s changes for 2020. Although baseball hasn’t gone to the lengths of building a quarantine “bubble” as the NBA has done for its players, baseball has made lots of changes for safety.
There’s a shortened 60-game season, piped-in sound effects and cardboard cutouts for spectators in empty stands. Pitchers are getting their own personal rosin bags, spitting has been banned and players can wear masks on the field. (Dugout staffers are required to do so.) MLB is also testing players, coaches and Tier 1 staff every other day.
It is, as ESPN described it, “the weirdest year in Major League Baseball history” – and one that hard-core fans are quite sure will be the most random ever in terms of which teams will perform the best. That’s because experts say MLB teams have so many different starting players that 60 games aren’t enough to determine which club is actually the best.
Whether baseball actually needs its usual 162 games a year to anoint the best team is beyond us. But we can certainly affirm the intuitive weirdness of masked players competing in empty stadiums.
And since Canada has put the brakes on travel to and from the United States, the Toronto Blue Jays will be without a home. The team will actually be the “Buffalo Blue Jays” this year, as it will play its home games in Buffalo, New York.
But weird though it is, the bigger question is: “Will it work?” Are the players, fans and advertisers on board to play ball, even if it’s different than what we’ve known in the past?
Let’s run down how the season will look for players, fans and advertisers:
Though most of the MLB’s players are returning this week, several have opted out of the season, citing COVID-19 concerns, reports CNN.
"With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what's going on in the world, home is where I need to be right now,” Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond posted in an emotional message on Instagram. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made this baseball season one that is a risk I am not comfortable taking."
But among those players who have returned, early reports indicate that players and staff are showing a high level of compliance for social distancing and mask-wearing. The testing regime has also shown infection rates to be near zero among players so far.
That’s not to say concerns don’t remain – particularly because there’s a roughly 12-hour gap between when the tests are taken and when the results are in. That has players worried about potential exposure. “All it takes is one guy for this thing to go sideways," one player anonymously told ESPN.
And, of course, players are worried about their performance given that the season is beginning so late. Starting pitchers in particular have expressed concern that we could see a very high-scoring baseball season, as many hurlers are entering the season having only practiced by throwing at nets in their backyards.
There are a fair number of anecdotal stories about disgruntled fans who are unhappy about the shortened season, the new rules that ban spitting or the fact that spectators can’t watch games in person.
One fan stood outside of the Nationals’ season opener in Washington with a sign that read: “Let Me Into The Game.'' The fan told NPR that he’d “do whatever, sign a waiver,” so long as someone let him into the park.
But though rabid fans might protest, the stadium closures are driven both by a desire to keep everyone safe and the reality that teams would likely have trouble selling tickets anyway. As PYMNTS consumer surveys have indicated, consumers are very dubious about getting back to doing things that involve large crowds.
It’s not that consumers won’t miss ballgames. When asked about the things they most miss about the pre-COVID era, a majority (58.7 percent) cited activities like sporting events, concerts and movies.
But when asked what would actually motivate them to leave their homes, fewer than 10 percent across all ages and income demographics named attending leisure events. In fact, our studies indicate that consumers expect to hunker down, social-distance and avoid crowds until February 2021.
Moreover, watching baseball on TV will be more or less be identical to what it was pre-pandemic, minus the occasional spectacular fan catch or marriage proposal in the stands.
One group that clearly has great optimism about fans watching baseball at home are the advertisers who have rushed to embrace the sport’s return. According to Seth Winter, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of sports sales, that network’s regular-season MLB advertising is already 90 percent sold.
“I saw it with Nascar and I saw it with baseball,” he said. “[Advertisers] just need to have the confidence that the teams and the leagues can get back onto the fields of play and compete.”
However, Fox moved a lot of advertisers who had already bought MLB ad time in the spring into the shortened season. That means advertisers who wait to see if pent-up consumer demand for baseball actually materializes will run the risk of losing a chance to buy ad time at all. “They invested in the belief that baseball will come back,” Winter noted.
Aat least for now, baseball is in back – and the fans are thus far following along. It seems that for people who love the slow-moving, statistics-heavy game of summer, even a slightly weird baseball season is better than no baseball at all.