MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is planning to allow fans to attend games during the 2021 season, as long as local government and health officials give the approval, according to The Athletic's Evan Drellich. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced MLB to play the entirety of its 60-game regular season without fans in attendance. The league, however, did permit up to 11,500 fans at the League Championship Series and World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas in October.
In a virtual discussion alongside NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday, Manfred shared insight into the league's 2021 plans for fans at the ballparks, per The Athletic:
"As we look forward, we will be more aggressive about having fans in ballparks. There were places where we could have had fans this year, and in fact we did have fans for the LCS and the World Series in Texas. Even though local jurisdictions had started to open up, we decided for this year that we would stay empty during the regular season.
"I don't think that's a tenable position for us going forward. We're going to have to allow the clubs to operate safely. We're obviously going to have league-wide protocols. If local public health authorities allow for fans, I think you're going to see fans in the ballpark next year. Now, will it be full stadiums? I kind of doubt that. But we do think it's important, and it's why we did it in the World Series and the LCS: to get people accustomed to the idea that you can go to these live events with appropriate protocols, pods of people, social distancing, masks, and do it safely."
Manfred attributed the inability of fans to attend games in 2020 as one of the reasons for MLB's declining television viewership this year. It's worth noting that every professional sports league saw declined ratings in 2020 compared with 2019.
"But one thing that became really clear to us this year, when you don't have that live product," Manfred said Tuesday, "people don't have that excitement of going to the ballpark. It affects how many games they watch on TV."
Manfred also explained that operating games without fans resulted in a financial strain, estimating that about 40 percent of the league's revenues are tied to fans attending games.
MLB, unlike, other professional sports leagues did not operate its regular season in a one-location bubble. Instead, the league allowed travel but adjusted the schedule to be regionally based. The abbreviated 60-game regular season suffered 43 game postponements and a pair of large, team-wide coronavirus outbreaks. MLB moved to a bubble setup for the League Championship Series and World Series, but disrupted its nearly-two months streak of zero positive cases when Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner tested positive in Game 6 of the World Series.
2021 Opening Day is scheduled for April 1. As of now, MLB and the MLBPA plan to play a full, 162-game season.
The United States is currently suffering through a fall surge in coronavirus cases that health officials warn could grow worse into the holiday season. Although coronavirus is considered a respiratory illness, the disease can impact a number of systems and organs. That includes possible effects on the heart and the brain. More than 230,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.