As we’ve discussed, it is simultaneously true that an MLB season in 2020 almost certainly must come without fans, and also an MLB season in 2020 without fans makes for a very challenging economic fit.
But Yankees President Randy Levine went on Fox Business and his primary focus was not about getting any form of baseball back at all, but was instead very much about how you could start the season – for example – in empty parks in certain areas of the country, but then transition the season to your home parks *with* fans, in limited capacity and/or with other distancing strategies:
Levine specifically said that, in his view, doing the entire season without fans – just for TV – was not practical.
“The sports industry could be an example for all industry for us to work with health experts and the people who run baseball teams and all associated businesses to reach that compromise,” Levine told Fox. “How can we get into our parks as soon as we can with all the appropriate mitigation – social distancing, taking temperature checks, wearing masks, wearing gloves. I think it’s all doable because I think that, to have games just on TV for the whole season for many, many reasons is not practical.”
Levine did not get into the reasons why broadcast-only seasons would not be “practical,” but I suppose it hints at the economic issues we’ve discussed.
For what it’s worth, with respect to the Yankees, specifically, only 42% of their total $683 million revenue reported in 2019 (per Forbes) was attributable to gate receipts. There are no doubt other revenues attached to in-park games that would be lost in a TV-only season, but the broadcast revenue was upwards of half of what the Yankees brought in. You wouldn’t be crazy to argue – on the numbers available to us – that the Yankees could easily afford a TV-only season when you consider all of the expense reductions that would come along with that. But I also know enough to know what I don’t know, and it’s certainly possible (given an operating income level of $35 million against those $683 million in revenues) TV-only actually pushes the Yankees into the red. Yes, as we discussed, maybe there’s an argument that owners SHOULD be willing to go into the red this year, but it’s all pretty hypothetical from the outside.
Moreover, for a team like the Yankees (and Cubs, for another example) you have to factor in a team-owned regional sports network that would likely make dramatically less this year because of the loss of games, the shifts in time, and the impact to ancillary deals (remember how Amazon was going to make a chunk of Yankees games exclusively available on Prime, likely for an enormous chunk of change? what happens to a deal like that? if it means the Yankees and YES take a bath, of course they want fans back in the ballpark).
That is all to say, Levine is *probably* talking about not being able to make an entirely fan-free season work financially without the Yankees feeling some kind of pain they would prefer not to feel. I’m neither criticizing more endorsing that position; I’m just saying that’s probably what he’s saying without saying.
OK, so leaving that side for a moment … is what he’s saying even possible? Is it possible that Major League ballparks could host fans at some point this season? In August or September or October?
It doesn’t seem likely, but I guess I also can’t say it’s impossible, since we’re still almost three and a half months from August. Maybe some miracle happens, or some other dramatic shift occurs.
Barring that, you’re left to look at the federal government’s phasing guidelines, which we just discussed in the last COVID-19 update in the MUCH smaller context of indy league games. I suppose it’s possible if you had months of massive declines in COVID-19 cases, massive improvements in treatment, and massive increases in widely available testing (both for the disease and for antibodies), then you’d find yourself in Phase 2 or Phase 3 of the guidelines, and able to do LIMITED fan seating at games in the late summer or fall.
But if that’s the *only* way to make this season “practical” from MLB’s perspective, then how could you have anywhere near the same optimism we’ve seen this week from anonymous officials, Rob Manfred, and Scott Boras?
Heck, just this week we had the governor of a state that is home to five MLB teams (California) saying he does not see fan-attended sporting events in his state until there is a vaccine (almost certainly not coming until the first quarter of 2021), until there is herd immunity (almost certainly not coming before the vaccine), or until there is super-effective, widely-and-easily-available medical treatment (all still in testing).
Here’s hoping Levine was just doing some posturing about hypothetical negotiations that would have to occur with players about a TV-only season. Because if a season happens ONLY if fans can eventually attend? That’s just such a huge maybe right now. Almost certainly a less than 50/50 proposition, even if you’re talking about only the final month or two of the season.