MILWAUKEE -- Christian Yelich lunched with Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio last week in Los Angeles and asked his boss at least four times whether there would be fans in the stands on Opening Day. The Brewers took a significant step this week toward providing Yelich an answer.
The team submitted a 350-page proposal to the City of Milwaukee Health Department calling for 35 percent occupancy at American Family Field -- the stadium formerly known as Miller Park -- for the club’s April 1 season opener against the Twins. If approved at that occupancy level, between 14,500 and 16,000 fans and employees would be in the building to begin the season, with hope of increasing attendance throughout the year if health and safety conditions continue to improve.
“This will absolutely be safe,” Attanasio said. “We're going to use every best practice for spacing and so forth, and we've had a lot of experience with those who preceded us in having live events. I'm quite confident.”
"The plan addresses concessions, parking, staffing, seating, bathrooms, concourse migration, ingress and egress throughout the ballpark,” Brewers president of business operations Rick Schlesinger said. “We have a lot of ways to ensure to the health department that we can do this safely and responsibly.”
Delivery of the weighty proposal capped months of discussions between the Brewers and city health officials, beginning with biweekly telephone calls and leading more weekly to daily back and forth. The team expects to host some of those officials next week for a walkthrough of the ballpark and further discussion.
Schlesinger is hopeful for a decision by the end of February, since the team estimates it would need about a month to map the stadium based on an attendance cap, contact season seat-holders to determine whether they wish to attend, then whether they wish to be reseated, to organize single-game sales, to deliver all of those tickets electronically, and to staff up the operation with Brewers employees and outside vendors, including parking, security, concessions, cleaning and so on.
According to the team’s data, 1,200 full-time and event staff were put out of a job last season because there were no fans in the stands, representing about 1.7 million work hours.
“We look at it as a community imperative, not a business imperative,” Attanasio said.
The Brewers anticipate strong demand based on their experience on Thursday, when Spring Training tickets went on sale for home games at American Family Fields of Phoenix. The Brewers gained permission from the City of Phoenix to host about 2,300 fans per game, and several games sold out, including a March 6 game against the Cubs, within hours.
“Just fans in the stands is a significant change to the season,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “If we're fortunate enough to get fans in the stands -- I know in Arizona, there's going to be in Spring Training -- that's a huge deal. It really, really is. Putting fans back in the stands changes things for so many players for the better. I really think a lot of players really use fans' energy in a really great way. They're showmen. They're entertainers. I mean, Javy Báez, for example, of the Cubs. I mean, he's an entertainer, and fans in the stands, like, it works for players.”
Said Brewers right-hander and presumptive Opening Day starter Brandon Woodruff: “I just think about Miller Park during the playoffs in '18 and then playing in Washington on the road [in the 2019 National League Wild Card Game], that was a ton of fun. … It's a different atmosphere. There's a different buzz. You know, it just makes it fun. So, I'm happy that we're going to have some fans to start out spring and hopefully we can continue that into the season.”
Several factors are fueling the Brewers’ optimism about their plan:
• The vastness of the stadium itself, which spans 1.2 million square feet with a retractable roof and retractable panels, which the Brewers would keep open more often in 2021 – even in colder weather, as long as there is no precipitation.
• The stadium was outfitted over the winter with a new ventilation system, part of a previously-planned maintenance project that proved fortuitously-timed.
• Similar endeavors in Green Bay, where the Packers hosted fans for their two playoff games at Lambeau Field, and in downtown Milwaukee, where the Bucks hosted fans for the first time this week.
• Input from physicians and experts. They range from Brewers medical director Roger Caplinger to Ali Khan, Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and MLB’s primary expert on the pandemic. MLB has also been consulting with President Biden’s Task Force, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and senior officials at the CDC and National Institutes of Health as it assists teams working on individual plans for 2021.
• Time. The Brewers are encouraged by the trajectory of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 date and vaccination rates, which they hope look even better six weeks from now.
• A survey of gameday staff, which indicated a level of comfort getting back to work, according to the Brewers.
“I worry about a lot of things but I don't worry about staffing games,” Schlesinger said. “I am welcoming the opportunity to hopefully get to full fans here because I know for a fact that we'll be able to fully staff with our folks. That's ultimately the goal for this year at some point.”
“I think everybody understands ... the importance of bringing the ballpark back to life and bringing jobs back and bringing fans back and starting to sense that we can return to some sense of normalcy in a responsible manner,” Schlesinger said. “So, I'm optimistic, yes.”