Last season wasn’t a banner year for the Texas Rangers, but few have been lately. The team won only 22 games on its pandemic-shortened sixty-game schedule and placed last in the American League West division. It was the team’s fourth consecutive campaign with a losing record. The bright side? At least nobody was there to see it, as COVID-19 restrictions meant that the team spent the year striking out in front of cardboard cutouts of fans.
It was far from the sort of inaugural season the team had imagined for its spanking new stadium—for which Arlington taxpayers ponied up $500 million in up-front costs, plus another $300 million in tax incentives. After all, it was built to be filled with fans, and filled with fans it soon shall be. On Wednesday, the Rangers announced their in-person attendance policies for the start of the 2021 season, which include offering all 40,518 seats to potential ticket buyers for two exhibition games on March 29 and 30, as well as for the team’s home opener on April 5. After that, the team plans to limit capacity and introduce social-distancing in some sections of seats for further games.
It’s unclear whether the organization somehow believes the virus will behave differently after opening day than it will for the three games at which there will be no attendance cap. In an email to Texas Monthly, John Blake, the team’s executive vice president for communications, said, “The total number [of tickets available after opening day] will depend on demand and can be expanded if needed.” But one question—given the team’s recent performance on the field and its attendance history—looms perhaps larger: Why do the Rangers, who have struggled to attract fans even during a non-pandemic season, insist on attempting to fill their stadium now?
It’s reasonable, of course, to enjoy cautious optimism that our COVID-19 situation is getting better. Vaccinations are occurring at a steady clip, case counts are dropping, and treatments for the disease have improved. The specifics of the outbreak in Arlington are a little less encouraging, with ICUs in the county nearly full. Yet, even there, hopefulness about the future, as long as it’s not bound up in everything being back to normal by a particular date, is probably warranted. The Rangers, though, did specify a date and time for the normality of a stadium chock-full of fans to resume: 7:05 p.m on March 29.
Preseason baseball is rarely a hot ticket. Blake acknowledged as much, noting that the team didn’t necessarily expect the two games prior to opening day to sell out. That only makes the decision to allow the stadium to fill up more curious. Yes, everyone has been stuck inside for so long that even going to watch the Texas Rangers play a meaningless warm-up contest against the Milwaukee Brewers sounds pretty good. The COVID-19 situation has become so divisive that there might well be 40,000 folks in North Texas willing to show up just to make some sort of political statement. Yet why risk potential disease for an exhibition game, even if you don’t expect the stadium to fill up?
Opening day for the Rangers, as for most MLB teams, is usually a sellout. Fans feel hope with each new spring. No doubt the Rangers wish to capitalize on such goodwill before the team goes 10–17 down the stretch. In 2018 and 2019, the team barely managed to hit 50 percent of its stadium’s capacity, averaging 26,000 fans over the course of each season in its former ballpark. This year, they have the fancy new ballpark that hardly any of their fans have had a chance to visit, but they still have a Rangers roster that isn’t projected to win much. Even if there’s a true sense that the pandemic has come to end by later in the summer, the team may well view opening day as its only legitimate shot at anything close to a sellout this season.
It is, of course, entirely possible that playing three games in front of a full stadium—if the Rangers somehow sell out all three—won’t result in a significant spread of COVID-19. Not only are trends moving in the right direction, but outdoor events, which spring temperatures presumably will allow this to be, are relatively low-risk. Writer Zeynep Tufekci, who’s tracked COVID outbreaks since the start of the pandemic, noted recently in a story for The Atlantic that no strictly outdoor event has been identified as a superspreader. Pro and college sports teams have been playing in front of fans in many parts of the country since the fall, and there’s yet to be a major outbreak linked to a particular game. But also, most outdoor events during the pandemic have included capacity limits that allow for social distancing. Removing the attendance cap to start the season creates uncertainty. As public health expert Kathleen Bachynski put it to me in the fall, “You can not wear a seat belt and not get in a car crash—not every example of risky decision-making will result in a poor outcome,” but the more risky decisions you make, the more likely you are to have one that goes poorly. The Rangers seem to acknowledge this themselves, given that they’ll introduce social distancing after opening day.
Following Governor Abbott’s announcement last week, Texas allows all businesses to operate at 100 percent capacity. The Rangers aren’t breaking any rules by hosting a stadium full of fans, but the team remains an outlier. The NBA’s Spurs have been playing to an empty arena and will go to only about 17 percent capacity starting Friday, roughly the same as the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets are doing. The Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer plan to sell 30 percent of their seats to start the season that starts in mid-April, while the clubs in Austin and Dallas have yet to make their plans clear. College basketball programs around the state are operating at reduced capacity, and the NCAA Women’s March Madness basketball tournament, including the Final Four at San Antonio’s Alamodome, will be restricted to 17 percent capacity. The state’s other MLB team, the Houston Astros, has yet to announce its opening day plans. (All of these teams, as well as the Rangers, require attendees to wear face masks.)
All of that makes the Rangers’ choice questionable, given that they could have set an attendance cap at 50 percent, allowed for social distancing at every game, and still brought in almost as many fans as they attracted on average in the previous couple of non-pandemic seasons. Every other Texas team has done that, as has every other team in Major League Baseball that has announced its in-person attendance plans. The Rangers, to this point, are the only team in American pro sports that will play in front of a capacity crowd to start the season. They should probably enjoy it while it lasts.