The 2020 season saw many of Rob Manfred’s trial balloons floated. While the universal DH was palatable, just about everything from the runner on second to start extra innings to 16-team playoffs should be left behind. That includes hosting the World Series at a neutral-site. Over the weekend, however, Rob Manfred said that he “wouldn’t say a neutral-site World Series is completely off the table.”
Manfred told Sports Business Daily,
There were things that we saw in Texas that were advantages for us. You can plan. You can take out travel. You can pick sites that eliminate weather problems.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Manfred is fully committed to pushing forward with the idea in the way that he’s committed to expanding the playoffs. Manfred also added,
The big weight on the scale in favor of our traditional format, the thing that really matters at the end of the day, are fans in home markets.
That hosting the World Series at a neutral site shafts the would-be hometown fans should be enough to kill the idea. Sure, protecting against rain and extreme cold is a plus, but it doesn’t outweigh the fact that it would be much, much harder for fans of the teams in the World Series to simply go to the games. Attending the playoffs is already an expensive proposition. Adding short-notice plane tickets and hotel reservations will make it all but impossible for low-income fans to see their team in the World Series.
Of course, Manfred and MLB ownership have reasons for this beyond those the commissioner gave. On Twitter, Marc Normandin pointed out that hosting the World Series at a neutral site could leech money from cities through bids or publicly-financed stadia.
I imagine someone considered forcing cities to bid for the World Series and that was all it took to begin the idea of this as a post-pandemic thing. https://t.co/bl7UOWOjUx— Marc Normandin (@Marc_Normandin) November 2, 2020
You know you can picture a conversation among the owners that went something like, "so we could get cities to bid on the World Series, or use this as a way to convince cities they need to build newer ballparks for us more often in order to attract a World Series," is all.— Marc Normandin (@Marc_Normandin) November 2, 2020
To see how moving the Fall Classic to a neutral-site might impact the sport, we can look to the NFL which is the only major sports league in North America to host its championship at a neutral-site. The Super Bowl, like stadia, is sold as a savvy investment for the crafty city. According to sports economist Victor Matheson, the city might bring in $30 to $130 million from hosting the big game. The catch is that they might have to drop $500 million on a new stadium to convince the NFL to come to them. There’s also the costs of paying overtime for police and firefighters, as well as operating public transportation. Ultimately for cities, the Super Bowl is nowhere near as lucrative as the NFL promises.
Without a fully-attended neutral-site World Series to compare, it’s tough to estimate how much a World Series would bring to a city. In 2015, New York City estimated that each Mets home game generated $11.6 million, but it’s not clear if that accounts for the substitution effect—the money that people spent on the World Series is largely money that would have been spent in New York anyway.
The financial benefit for a city hosting the World Series is a drop in the bucket compared to a city’s entire tourism revenue. Switching to a neutral-site World Series would give teams more ammunition to get a new stadium built, but from a city’s perspective, the pot doesn’t get actually get any sweeter.
Still, there are several cities that would suddenly find themselves being highly unlikely candidates to ever host a World Series should it go neutral. Parks without roofs in cold climates will be out of luck unless they follow in Arlington’s footsteps and replace a perfectly good stadium with a billion dollar Tuff Shed. Comerica Park, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Progressive Field, Kauffman Stadium, Guaranteed Rate Field, Busch Stadium, Citi Field, and Yankee would all be disadvantaged simply because of the weather.
With Manfred keen on expanding the playoffs, the regular season will need to be shortened/started earlier or the World Series will need to be played in October. MLB got through its 16-team playoff format in a month because there were no off-days or travel days. Unless the entire postseason moved to neutral sites, playing in a month wouldn’t be feasible. Moving or truncating the regular season is the preferable solution in the face of inevitable playoff expansion, but if the World Series bleeds past Halloween, weather is only going to be a greater factor in determining where to host the championship.
Hosting the World Series may only be a negligible financial gain for a city (or even a net loss), but it’s still an honor for that city and the hometown fans. It’s also an honor that should be earned with on-field effort rather than coaxed with dubiously spent public resources.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.