Red Sox

MLB Notebook: How the post-virus economy will affect ticket prices, long-term contracts and labor agreements

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Given the number of trial balloons floated in the last few weeks -- one plan involving the 2020 season being conducted in Arizona only; another with teams using their spring training homes in both Florida and Arizona -- Major League Baseball seems resigned to the fact that the 2020 season, if it takes place at all, will be played without fans in attendance.

That's necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to keep both players and fans safe.

Such a concept would take some getting used to -- What is the sound of no hand clapping? -- but presumably, baseball in front of completely empty seats would be better than no baseball at all.

Eventually, however, MLB -- like its counterparts in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLS -- will have to figure out a way to play before paying customers. Modern professional sports derive much of their revenues from TV and ancillary media rights, but for economic and aesthetic reasons, eventually, sports will need to re-start with fans on hand.

And that's where things could get really tricky.

Put aside the not incidental matter of public safety for a moment -- How many fans will be allowed into ballparks, stadiums and arenas? Have we seen the last of the sellouts? -- and consider that professional sports needs paying customers to survive.

Fans provide the emotion, the backdrop, the soundtrack to pro sports. Is a one-run game in the ninth inning nearly as captivating without the anticipation swelling in the seats, the rhythmic clapping, the expectant murmur? Not hardly.

But on a more prosaic level, MLB needs the ticket-buying public to survive. Estimates have it that ticket-holders provide a little more than a third of the game's revenue. For an industry that netted $10.8 billion in 2019, that translates into approximately $4 billion from fans -- hardly chump change.

But in three months, six months, a year, will fans have the appetite to wedge themselves into seats at, say, Fenway Park, inches from strangers?

And even if fans can cast their fears aside -- perhaps thanks to a vaccine against the virus -- there's the matter of an economy, which could be in ruins. Already, there are forecasts of unemployment figures rivaling or exceeding those of the Great Depression.

If a quarter of Americans are out of work, who will have the means to purchase tickets?

"The vast majority of us will have fewer assets and less income and for a long period of time, we'll be dealing with the remnants of the newly-unemployed,'' says Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports economist. ''Those people won't have the