In any other year, this would be a joyful certainty: The Dodgers, winners of the World Series, would raise the championship flag at the start of the new season, to the full-throated approval of a sellout crowd.
In 2021, the Dodgers’ opening day attendance could be the traditional 56,000; a fraction of that; or limited to player families and fan cutouts.
As Major League Baseball prepares for a season in which attendance could be restricted, and with the hope of vaccines amid the second year of a pandemic, the league is quietly reaching out to fans to learn what would make them feel that a day at the ballpark would be safe and comfortable.
In a survey presented to a sample of visitors on the league’s website, fans are asked to estimate when they believe live sporting events will be safe to attend; to suggest what percentage of tickets should be sold; to rate the response of local, state, and federal authorities to the pandemic; and to say how they would determine whether going to a game would be safe.
For instance: Would a fan attend if a vaccine were widely available? Would that fan rely on declines in cases of the coronavirus, and in hospitalizations? Would that fan take the word of a mayor, governor, president, or public health authority saying a game would be safe?
“Major League Baseball is understandably concerned that simply telling fans it’s safe to come back might not be enough,” said Dan Schnur, a USC politics and communications professor and former Republican strategist. “Like everyone else in the country, they’re trying to figure out who would be a respected validator.
“There have been similar surveys that have been asked about whether people would take vaccines. It’s pretty clear in those surveys that most people would not take the word of elected politicians as credible.”
In anticipation of the NBA season scheduled to start next month, the Golden State Warriors proposed a health protocol in which they would sell 50% of tickets and test all fans for the virus. San Francisco public health authorities rejected the proposal.
But, as the debate over this week’s Los Angeles County order to forbid outdoor dining shows, public health authorities are not considered beyond question.
“The question is, are those public health officials the most credible messengers,” Schnur said, “or will the Dodgers and other teams need to turn to other voices to convince fans it’s safe to come back?”
Would fans trust in Mookie Betts?
“Will Biden be more trusted than Trump?” Schnur said. “Will Anthony Fauci need to visit 30 major league stadiums himself? Or will the players themselves be seen as credible? There’s no way to know in advance, which is why a survey like this can be very helpful.”
To be clear, the survey makes no mention of players, and in fact it extends into marketing areas beyond health and safety. The survey is designed to help teams consider how best to sell tickets and communicate effectively with fans, according to a league official, and the results will not be used to determine MLB health and safety protocols next season.
Whether masks and/or temperature checks would be required would be decided by the league and local authorities, not by a fan poll. However, Schnur said, asking fans for their views on wearing masks could help teams determine whether they would lose a significant portion of fans if masks were mandated, or how actively ushers might have to enforce such a mandate.
The survey asks fans to rate how risky they consider 25 activities, a list that includes going to a stadium, attending a concert, eating indoors or outdoors at a restaurant, and going to an amusement park, hair salon, movie theater, museum, or grocery store. The survey also asks what safety measures should be prioritized at games, including free masks, socially distanced seating, in-seat concessions delivery, and specific entry and exit times.
“This type of survey begins to take the temperature of what the fans might be looking for regarding an in-stadium experience,” said David Carter, who teaches sports business at USC.
“You don’t want to start losing season-ticket holders because they think you have a tin ear about how you are going to deliver safety at the venue.”
Carter said teams must develop a variety of marketing strategies, since the usual audiences might not be available. Group sales could plummet if public health authorities restrict large groups from sitting together, and if businesses that normally buy those blocks of tickets have slashed expenses or gone out of business.
And, because baseball’s audience skews older than most leagues, the demographic issue could become a perception-of-safety issue.
“The younger demographic that may not be as inclined to go may have a different perspective on safety at entertainment venues than the older demographic, who might say, ‘You know what, I’m going to sit it out for one more year,’ ” Carter said.
“If you’re MLB or any of these sports, you’ve got to go in and dig very deeply into what your fans are looking for.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.