Very Optimistic Vaccine Timeline, Likelihood of Expanded Playoffs Increases Hope for Bigger Baseball Budgets

The first doses of the new coronavirus vaccine have been distributed and are being administered around the country, providing a very bright light at the end of what has been a longer tunnel than anyone had initially imagined. Based on projections for production and distribution, it’s starting to sound as though widespread vaccinations could even be conducted in time for the start of the next baseball season.

“I had been saying by my calculation, sometime by the end of March the beginning of April that the normal, healthy man and woman on the street who has no underlying conditions would likely get it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson. “At the end of the day, the real bottom line is when do you get the majority, the overwhelming of the population vaccinated so you can get that umbrella of herd immunity.

“And I believe if we’re efficient about it and we convince people to get vaccinated, we can accomplish that by the end of the second quarter of 2021.”

Reading or listening to the whole quote and understanding its context is important because Dr. Fauci isn’t indicating that things will all be normal by April. The vaccines currently in use require two doses separated by two weeks, after which it takes time to be considered immune. That means we’re looking at a timeline of May or June for full efficacy, assuming there aren’t too many who believe the vaccine is a plot by Bill Gates and the Deep State to brand us all with the mark of the beast by injecting us with microchips.

Make no mistake, that’s a real belief.

Setting conspiracies aside for now, it’s easy to see how optimism over getting back to full capacity at venues — something that’s been going on for a while now in other parts of the world that don’t worship Gadsden flags — could help to thaw MLB’s frozen offseason. We had theorized back in November that the approval of a vaccine could kickstart things, but that hasn’t really happened yet. With the exception of some overspends here and there, free agency isn’t moving very quickly as owners bemoan their lost revenues.

If nothing else, greater certainty for mitigated losses in ’21 would give owners even less of a leg to stand on when crying poor and might even shame them into spending. Not that we saw the same thing in the wake of the announcement that Turner sports had agreed to up its annual postseason commitment by 65% in a $3.7 billion broadcast rights deal. If the owners get their wish to expand the playoffs on a permanant basis, however, there’s really no way to whine about losses.

According to a report in the New York Post, ESPN and MLB are “closing in on a TV deal that would provide the network exclusive rights to the first round of the playoffs.” Of course, such a round doesn’t actually exist yet. The 2020 postseason format that featured 16 teams was a one-off necessitated by the short season, so any future changes to the standard 10-team format would have to be jointly approved by the league and players union.

The players have already balked at one proposal that would have brought the DH back to the National League as in exchange for expanded playoffs, mainly because the owners won big in that scenario. ESPN working on a deal seems to indicate there’s a pretty strong believe the union will eventually acquiesce, but, just like the point about the vaccine, there’s additional context here as well.

ESPN’s coverage of the playoffs isn’t about adding to their current arrangement, it’s actually about cutting back on the number of MLB games being broadcast. Per the NY Post report, ESPN’s slate would drop to just 30-40 higher-profile regular season games from around 90 right now. Of those remaining games, 25 would be their exclusive Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts with Alex Rodriguez remaining as the key voice.

The average annual value of the new deal would be less than the reported $5.6 billion currently in place, so MLB would have to seek out new and exisitng partners to pick up the slack. But since MLB makes far more from postseason rights than it does on regular-season games, it’s reasonable to believe the increases in playoff revenue would end up outweighing any losses from what ESPN cuts back.

All in all, it sure looks as though MLB is getting lots of good news and should be able to weather the pandemic storm much more ably than the owners have made it seem. Does that mean the Cubs will indeed be more willing and able to keep the baseball payroll closer to the $210 million luxury tax threshold or that they’ll opt to hire back some of the 100-plus employees who were fired this year? Probably not, but a boy can dream.

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