Major League Baseball’s Pandemic Strategy Proves That A Non-Bubble Can Indeed Burst
Today, it’s the St. Louis Cardinals.
Last week, it was the Miami Marlins.
Today, 20% of scheduled Major League Baseball games are postponed due to virus-related concerns.
Today, on the last day of July, when a normal baseball season would be in the midst of the dog days of summer, the pandemic-shortened 2020 season is turning into a real ugly mutt.
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The early returns suggest Major League Baseball’s strategy (or lack thereof) to contest a season in the face of a global pandemic is proof positive that a non-bubble can indeed burst.
Which of course begs the obvious question…how did we get here?
- For months, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA President Tony Clark (as well as their assortment of lawyers) fought tooth-and-nail about how much money the players would receive given that fans would not likely be part of the 2020 MLB equation;
- As we reflect on this, it makes all of us on the outside wonder if that public farce – easily one of the worst-managed collective bargaining showdowns I’ve witnessed in my lifetime as a sports business analyst from a public relations standpoint – distracted both sides from tending to maximizing all protocols related to safety and hygiene.
With hindsight and in light of the preliminary evidence from the NBA’s and NHL’s so-called “bubble approach” which have thus far worked extremely effectively in minimizing the spread of Covid-19, and especially with the MLB season condensed to a mere 60 games which would have shortened how long baseball players would have lived in a bubble, we all have to scratch our heads and ask “what happened”?
- The MLBPA is the strongest union in all of sports, which arguably makes them the most stubborn and least malleable collection of athletes in sports. As such, it was always going to be a challenge to talk them into a bubble scenario, no matter how much medical sense it made.
- And for the owners’ part, I’m sure they held out hope when the non-bubble approach was made that they might still be able to generate at least some ticket sales and game-day spending by fans for playing at home parks (which, by my count, collectively is responsible for $4 billion of MLB’s $10.7 billion in total revenue in 2019).
Baseball is often criticized for being too conservative and “old-school” in thought. If there was ever a time I would agree with that sentiment more, it is now. An opinion further brought to the surface when you see what’s happening in other professional sports leagues.
The NBA and NHL should receive the highest accolades for what they have achieved thus far within their bubble concepts. Yes, they still both have a ways to go. But so far, so good.
Similarly, both Major League Soccer, the National Women’s Soccer League, and the WNBA receive accolades for their bubble approaches in Orlando, Salt Lake City, and Bradenton, respectively. While MLS and NWSL had to expel teams experiencing outbreaks (Dallas and Nashville in MLS, Orlando in NWSL), those outbreaks occurred prior to their tournaments beginning. The mere prevention of those teams from even really entering their respective bubbles seems common-sensical, which is why the Marlins’ decision to allow players who tested positive to compete last weekend is a combination of maddening, idiotic, and careless.
On their part, and on Major League Baseball’s part…which takes us make to their protocols.
MLB announced this week following the coronavirus outbreak that infected nearly half of the Marlins roster that (a) they are encouraging players not to leave hotels in road cities except for games, (b) mandating the use of surgical masks instead of cloth masks during travel and (c) requiring every team to travel with a compliance officer who ensures players and staff properly follow the league’s protocol.
This week they announced this?! Why weren’t these 3 items part of the policies embedded on the first darn page of their 67-page health and safety manual?
Several lessons to take from all of this?
- Any sport which attempts a non-bubble approach to competition during the age of coronavirus is taking on considerably higher risks, and is directly and tacitly asking/expecting a greater degree of discipline from their athletes and families to create their own bubbles…which isn’t easy to do.
- On that note, the NFL and the power brokers of the Power 5 conferences in Division I football had best take all of this under advisement before going down the road they all seem to be going down…namely, trying to make a season happen in order to minimize lost revenues and profits in a year where the toughest foe they have ever faced is both invisible and unpredictable.
- These cautions should similarly be heeded by leagues like Major League Soccer who, as they back-to-play tournament nears its conclusion in Orlando, are hoping they can resume playing in home markets. You, MLS, like these other leagues, must strongly consider best options moving forward.
The head of the NBA’s Players’ Association, Michelle Roberts, has expressed that the NBA may need to consider beginning the 2020-21 NBA season in a bubble. Quite frankly, without a vaccine for Covid-19, she may very well be right.
Ultimately, using March Madness nomenclature, it may be necessary for leagues starting their 2020-2021 seasons to consider a multi-pod system…where 2-4 cities are denoted as “host” cities in the spirit of minimizing travel and creating an environment to reduce the potential contraction and contagion of Covid-19.
Baseball at one point floated the idea of using pods in Florida, Texas and Arizona. It didn’t stick, partially due to the reasons expressed above. But then we look at the NHL’s multi-pod approach to conduct the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto, we see how good their test results have been to date, and we realize that a multi-pod system could work.
And if the biggest issue is how long players will be away from their home markets from families and the like, then build in a two-week break after 6-8 weeks of action…enough time to allow players a 4-6 day visit with family before re-entering the bubbles and ensuring no virus contractions during the time away.
The evidence from MLB’s attempted restart is clear.
A bubble approach in these unprecedented times is the best chance for a sports league to conduct business as close-to-normal as it possible under these circumstances.
A non-bubble approach is bound to burst.