The Kansas City Royals were supposed to be hosting the Detroit Tigers right now.
But with the coronavirus pandemic forcing an end to all scheduled sports, Kauffman Stadium sits empty as baseball fans await developments that could prompt a return to normalcy—or some sort of new normalcy that includes televised sports.
What will the baseball season look like in 2020? Will the league resume play in time to stage an abbreviated season, or will the World Series be canceled for only the third time in history?
We reached out to an expert with deep sourcing in the league. Erik Bernstein runs a crisis management firm with offices in Los Angeles and Denver.
Bernstein can’t rattle off a list of clients given the nature of his work, but he has worked with clients in Major League Baseball. His firm turned down former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was banned from the NBA for life over racist comments.
Bernstein believes that baseball will return sooner rather than later—though maybe not in the familiar form.
“Big cultural institutions like MLB can be leaders on things like this if they want to be,” he says. “But it’s really important with something like this, when it’s a really serious issue, for them to not consider dollar signs first.”
For a preview of what Royals games might look like this year, Bernstein says that we should look to pro wrestling, which may have cracked the code for sports during the coronavirus pandemic.
Here’s what he had to say—answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When did you know that the coronavirus pandemic was going to be a big deal?
Doing what we do for a living, the brain goes to the worst-case pretty quickly for a lot of situations. All of our crisis plans have forever included things like possibilities of epidemics or pandemics. We also have a big network of crisis management folks that are based overseas, including in Asia and in Italy. So we were getting word of how bad this thing really was earlier than most. When we started hearing first reports from medical experts about how the thing spreads, and how quickly and silently it can spread we started getting concerned. Frankly, I’m still a little surprised at how severe it’s gotten. But our ears pricked up pretty quickly when we started hearing about this thing spreading out of China.
With all the usual disclaimers—nobody knows anything right now—what’s your best guess for what happens to the MLB season, based on what you’re hearing from league sources?
I think they’re going to try to run a season whenever they can. They want to get a return on their investment. Not only that, thinking more positively, I think everyone knows that America kind of needs this. Sports being put on hold was really the wake-up call for a lot of people that this thing is real. I saw more reactions to them halting the sports season than any of the other early news. So I think that they’re going to try to put on a season, whenever they can. I think that the games are going to look very different when they come back.
What are the games going to look like?
There’s either going to be no crowd, or it’s going to be people who are significantly spaced out, probably with masks. It’s going to be strange. And I think one thing that they’re going to need to not shy away from is acknowledging, ‘Hey, this is strange. But we want to bring baseball back for America as soon as possible, and here’s how we need to do it.’
So, like, are the players going to wear masks?
That’s going to be the trick, right? How do you get these players around and make them feel safe? Being transported around to different places and interacting with other players? It’s a pretty huge amount of people, even if you strip it down—players and staff for a single team, that’s a lot of people. As strange as it sounds, I think what pro wrestling is doing right now might give some insight for the league and for team owners as far as what’s possible.
And what is pro wrestling doing?
WWE is continuing to run shows with no physical audience. They’re running them out of a studio facility that they have. And it’s admittedly very awkward to watch. But, you know, it could provide a template, because these entertainers are keeping a strict fitness regime, and they’re going out and doing their job. It’s not exactly a sport, but it’s similar and how it operates.
So will it be a situation where we go to Kauffman Stadium and sit every three or four seats, or that there’s no one in the stadium?
If I was advising them, I’d say no crowd until we know this thing is beat. We’re still learning more about how far this thing can travel—they’re saying that it could be transmitted by breathing now, instead of droplets. So it’s going to be awkward. I would guess that we see some games played with empty stadiums. And they’re going to need to do something to try to make it less awkward. I don’t know if they pipe crowd noise in. I don’t know if they continue to play music and things but I think they’re going to need to try to make it as normal as possible while acknowledging that it’s not.
Are you hearing from league insiders that they want sports on the air more than they want them to be normal?
Everyone wants to get sports back on the air for the good of the nation and make some money. Obviously, everyone would prefer to go back to business as usual. But I think the reality is setting in that it’s going to be a long road. So the folks that are smart are thinking about how we can make this work.
If they wanted to have all of the MLB teams go live in one huge facility, and we play the games from here and no one goes anywhere, they probably could.
So that’s a possibility, the teams don’t travel, they all stay someplace with enough luxury hotels to accommodate the teams and they just schedule games?
I mean, MLB could afford to essentially rent out a hotel and take control of it for however long they wanted to as long as they could keep putting on games and selling ad space.
What do you think will eventually break the impasse with sports leagues that have shut down. Barring a vaccine or some sort of big breakthrough, will one of them announce a return or will they work in concert so no one has to stick their neck out?
Ideally, for the leagues it would be a joint decision that everybody is OK with. Obviously, the number one thing all leagues should be considering right now is safety. But you’re gonna have dual forces at play. Yes, we all know we need to worry about safety, but they want to get back to making money. They’re paying these players a lot of money, and they want to use them to get a return, which is understandable. So I think everyone’s going to be eager to get back to business as usual.
But obviously the last thing you want is for your first event back to become known as the place that pandemic had a resurgence—that’s going to create long term damage in terms of headlines, and maybe even government intervention. They’re going to have to be tremendously careful because even a small outbreak or one star player becoming infected would result in a massive hit to their reputation.
If MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred called you to ask for advice, what would you tell him?
First of all, don’t tell people that you’re only pushing opening day back two weeks. There’s no way it’s only going to be two weeks— I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see things start up late summer, if that, depending on how quickly the whole country can get a handle on this thing.
The teams all need to be on the same page—it’s going to be really important for teams to be doing a lot of external messaging to address the concerns of all their fans and business partners. And if they’re saying things that are even a little bit different, people are gonna feel like there’s spin. Even if you’re saying the exact same thing, if you word it a little bit differently, they feel like you’re being dishonest.
And, of course, the players are going to need to have faith that MLB is really thinking about their safety when they’re making these decisions. So one big-time player saying they don’t feel safe and they don’t trust MLB could easily make a huge snowball effect where no one wants to play or go to work.