Fans will return to the ballpark on Opening Day this year after skipping the ritual in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic locked fans out for a shortened season that started in July. But the first games of 2021 will still look far from normal in most stadiums.
Each team, in talks with local health officials, is setting its own rules for attendance. Seating is limited to around 30% of stadium capacity across the league, with fans spread across socially-distanced pods and masks required.
Under those constraints, Opening Day looks like a sellout, said Noah Garden, Major League Baseball’s chief revenue officer.
“There are tickets here and there. There are not many left. The demand as you can imagine is very high,” with people itching for in-person experiences again, Garden said.
Texas is among the few states that have lifted virtually all coronavirus-related limits. By contrast, the Washington Nationals will open their season with no more than 5,000 fans in attendance at the roughly 41,000-seat Nationals Park.
Before the 2020 season, average attendance had declined slightly. The Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals have consistently led the league in average attendance. Other teams have had varied numbers in line with their success on the field.
The 30 MLB teams among them lost about $4 billion in annual revenue in the shortened COVID-19 season.
But there were also tens of thousands of seasonal jobs lost due to the stadium closures, with summertime positions at sports stadiums last year about 50,000 below 2019.
The secondary losses to restaurants, bars and hotels were also massive. Many were closed due to separate social distancing restrictions, but proving that the world can get back to normal will be especially important for U.S. cities, particularly ones like St. Louis where live sports have an outsized influence.
The hometown Cardinals are among baseball’s attendance leaders, but perhaps a third of the crowd each night comes from out of the Missouri-Illinois region, said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School.
If restrictions are lifted, the still-critical and unanswered question is the degree to which people will be comfortable standing among ever larger crowds, even if it is outside.