Although MLB has yet to finalize reported plans for postseason bubbles in California and Texas, league commissioner Rob Manfred is already pondering the idea of fans back in the seats for most meaningful playoff games. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fans have not been permitted to attend any regular-season games to date, but Manfred is optimistic that could change by the time the LCS and World Series are played.
As Evan Drellich of The Athletic notes, while speaking remotely to the Hofstra business school on Monday, Manfred said the following:
"I'm hopeful that the World Series and the LCS we will have limited fan capacity. I think it's important for us to start back down the road. Obviously it'll be limited numbers, socially distanced, protection provided for the fans in terms of temperature checks and the like. Kind of the pods like you saw in some of the NFL games. We'll probably use that same theory. But I do think it's important as we look forward to 2021 to get back to the idea that live sports, they're generally outdoors, at least our games. And it's something that we can get back to."
Obviously, MLB owners have strong incentives to get paying customers back in the ballparks as soon as possible. By having no fans in attendance, clubs are missing out on ticket, concession, and parking revenues, and even in an era in which most team revenues are derived from local and national media contracts those are important streams.
The obvious issue is how MLB can conduct a playoff bubble while allowing people from outside the bubble -- i.e., fans -- to be in the ballpark. Risks could certainly be minimized by, say, keeping any retractable roofs open and requiring fans to be masked, but it's another element of uncertainty introduced to an already uncertain situation. The nightmare scenario for MLB would be a COVID-19 cluster that puts the postseason on hold for a significant amount of time, and as such there are strong counter-incentives to tamp down that risk. Suffice it so say, MLB has a difficult decision ahead when it comes to allowing fans to attend 2020 playoff games, but Manfred sounds inclined to give it a go.