Baseball’s Messy Covid Strategy May Still Be Model for Sports

Los Angeles Dodgers fans are loudly celebrating a World Series win, but Major League Baseball is quietly claiming a victory of its own.

After a tumultuous regular season that resulted in57 players testing positive for Covid-19, MLB’s more sequestered approach to the playoffs successfully staved off cases until the final game of the World Series on Tuesday. It was a bit of a rough landing, with Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner testing positive and having to leave mid-game. But MLB showed that you could at least finish a season without the stricter, fan-free “bubbles” adopted by theNational Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

That could be instructive for pro sports as they prepare for next season. Though the NBA was widely praised for holding the remainder of its season in a bubble in Orlando, Florida — and avoiding any outbreaks — that approach isn’t sustainable. Some players want to be back in their own arenas, ideally in front of spectators, and leagues can only stomach losing billions of dollars for so long (even if bubbles save money in some ways).

“It’s something that can’t be done for an entire season because you can see that it’s wearing on players and staff and everybody to be isolated,” said sports-industry consultant Lee Berke, who doesn’t believe a bubble could exist for more than two or three months in upcoming seasons.

All pro sports were shut down by the pandemic in March. Then leagues had to strategize over how to return. Baseball decided to hold a shortened regular season at teams’ normal stadiums, and then moved its playoffs to a handful of cities — culminating with the World Series in Arlington, Texas. That limited travel and kept players more isolated at a time when Covid-19 was surging across the U.S.

The league also let some fans attend the World Series and the National League Championship Series. Capacity was limited to 11,500 — about a quarter of the stadium’s usual 40,300.

That approach essentially worked, even with Turner getting a positive diagnosis on the final night.

“It doesn’t contradict the success of the bubble,” Berke said. “It just reemphasizes that everybody has to be committed to it.”

‘Economically Devastating’

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that playing a full 162-game season without fans would be “economically devastating.” Teams lost between $2.8 billion and $3 billion because of MLB’s regular season without spectators, he said.

Moreover, the isolation can cause an “emotional” and “behavioral health toll,” according to the National Football League’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills. That league has let teams play in their own stadiums this season — with some fans, when permitted. And despite flare-ups, the NFL has no plan to sequester players and staff.

Another concern: Bubbles could actually increase the risk of a Covid-19 spread within a team.

But that doesn’t mean bubbles are over. Keeping games running is key — even without fans — because TV deals can account for more than half of revenue. And it’s hard to predict what course the pandemic may take.Covid-19 hospitalizations have risen at least 10% in the past week.

Bill Mulvihill,U.S. Bank’s head of sports finance, said leagues did a good job this year of adapting gameplay to Covid and that should continue into next year.

“I certainly could see some kind of bubble concept or something like that — maybe it’s a modified bubble where you have a few different locations,” Mulvihill said. “All things are on the table, I would say, to be able to play games and collect the media revenues.”

Government regulations may also interfere with some of the leagues’ plans to bring back spectators. In many jurisdictions, indoor arenas are still prohibited from inviting guests.

New Revenue

To counter the crunch on ticket sales, leagues and teams may look for additional sources of revenue, according to Berke and Mulvihill.

“If you’re looking to address what is a finite but large budget shortfall, then you’re going to try to look at any and all business activities,” Berke said.

Video streaming could help. In recent years, sports leagues have worked with tech companies to introduce platforms offering shorter content that can attract new viewers, Mulvihill noted.

Leagues could also try to raise new capital through league expansion, Berke said, although Mulvihill thinks they will only expand to the extent they were planning to do so before the pandemic. Leagues charge an entrance fee to new teams that is typically split among the existing ownership groups.

The outcome of next season is highly dependent on vaccine progress, and owners don’t have high hopes on that front. At a recent conference, Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly said team revenue and fan experience will continue to be affected by the pandemic in 2021, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I think we’re looking for 2022 to start to feel normal again, while we work through this in 2021,” Boehly said.

Even in golf, where the large open spaces allow people to socially distance, the future is uncertain. Andy Levinson, the PGA’s senior vice president of tournament administration, said in an interview he is optimistic, yet it’s too difficult to predict when more fans can attend events.

“Until we have more clarity on what the future of the virus is, whether that’s a vaccine or treatment,” Levinson said, “it’s very difficult for us to say when we’re going to get back to a certain percentage.”

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