Imagine, if you would, that MLB was lead by a competent marketing genius. Or at least someone who isn’t cluelessly inept. They could have taken this coronavirus crisis, and absolutely capitalized.
First of all, I am not minimizing the fact that this disease is a real danger to some people, and that social distance can help reduce the spread of the virus. That is largely indisputable at this point. That also means there will be a lot of folks sitting at home for a couple weeks or longer, whether due to quarantines or proactive work-from-home policies. A lot of people who could be watching baseball games.
Rather than delaying the start of the season, the league should have announced that the major league portion of the schedule would continue as scheduled, but without a crowd in the stands, and with certain changes.
Player safety should be a concern. While almost all players are in a very low risk pool (under 40, good general health, and access to world-class medical care) they may frequently interact with people at higher risk. Each player should be able to judge his own risk tolerance, so the first step should be allowing an opt-out. That is to say, any player who chooses not to participate should be immediately placed on the exempt list, opening a 40-man roster spot for his team, and allowing him to stay home until normal operations resume—and the teams aren’t allowed to provide any punishment for doing so. If MLB guys choose not to play, then give the opportunity to the MiLB guys. At some point, you’ll find enough players who find the whole thing “worth it.” In addition, “essential” staff that opt out will not be risking their jobs, and the league can surely find replacements for people like (lets just say) athletic trainers on a temporary basis. Someone will risk it if the money is good enough, especially if they would have to work with the general public anyway.
For the players who opt-in, the key will be to minimize exposure and the chance of being a disease vector. In order to do so, the first part of the schedule should be played in a centralized area. Either Arizona or Florida would be the obvious solution, although one could make a good case for Las Vegas as well, if sufficient facilities can be made available. Via chartered flights, the teams would minimize exposure to other people, on a one-time trip to where ever we are playing this extended road stand. Home field advantage is less of a concern, since there are no fans, but what little advantage existed will just have to be a casualty of the situation. As long as there are 10-15 stadiums within a bus-able distance of each other, the schedule can work out.
In order to keep the chances of disease spread to a minimum, the league should rent out an entire hotel for each team. Again, not cheap, but this allows teams to be in a relatively clean space, as this prevents “other” people from being in close quarters with the team, beyond the minimum of cleaning, food preparation and administrative staff. It would be hard for someone to spend weeks away from their family, admittedly, but again, they do have an opt-out. A designated bus for the team from hotel to stadium again keeps the potential for virus spread to a minimum. Spend a little extra to have it thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis.
Generally speaking, the only people the players now come in close contact with are their teammates and essential staff. That’s about as effective as a quarantine can get in 2020 America.
Since the fans no longer have access to home games, the final hurdle is access in general, and this is a long-standing MLB problem. Go ahead and limit the media access entirely. They can always interview players by phone, or by skype, or almost any other modern technology. Essentially the only ones who need to be in the stadium would be the production crew—a few cameramen, a couple producers, and some on-air talent. Go ahead and mic up some players if they want to be, or not. But otherwise all you really need is a play-by-play guy and an analyst or two. If your big-league guys opt out, there is probably someone calling MiLB games that would jump at the opportunity. You’re well under 100 people interacting with each other, and with next-to-nobody else. You probably come in contact with more people when you go grocery shopping.
Make every single game available, for free, on MLB.tv nationwide. Sounds simple enough, but might take some legal wrangling. Money talks, and this could build baseball a fanbase big enough to pay off. Again, there are no live sports on TV for nearly a month. Its the off season for NFL games. NHL, NBA, and MLS games are also suspended. College sports are being cancelled left-and-right, and March Madness is likely to be postponed. NASCAR and PGA events are going to be ongoing without spectators, but that’s it. Giving people a sport, any sport, with free access will be a huge national distraction.
If we can make it as safe as possible for players, and still grow the fan base, baseball could position itself as America’s Game again in 2020. Add in some emotionally charged interviews with players explaining why-or-why-not for their participation, and what the game means to them and you’d have a real winner. Have guys in the booth teach the game as they go. Us bloggers will still be here talking about the sport no matter what. This is a real opportunity for baseball to take over the national zeitgeist, but instead Manfred and Co are bungling things again.
Baseball, take advantage of the opportunity. Become the voice of, and the distraction for the rest of America. It isn’t hard. Make the games widely available via video, and take advantage of the personalities you have. We’ve been calling on you to do so anyway, but now is the time. A great response grows the game. Anything else, and your status quo is a best-case scenario. Add in the risk of a strike-shortened 2022 season, and the game cannot afford to do anything that might alienate any fans.