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Sun, Sept. 22

MLB pushes expanded ballpark netting

In December during the annual Baseball Winter Meetings, MLB announced new guidelines designed to extend ballpark netting. The recommendations follow a season during which a number of serious injuries at ballparks around the country garnered extensive publicity.

MLB's new policy is not a mandate. Teams are "encouraged" to extend the netting from behind home plate a distance of 70 feet down each foul line, or to the ends of the dugouts nearest to home plate. The guidelines also apply to MLB spring training facilities and Pat O'Conner, president of Minor League Baseball, said he hoped MiLB clubs would comply as well. A number of MLB and MiLB teams have already indicated their intention to do so.

Critics have voiced their displeasure with the new guidelines, claiming MLB didn't go far enough. First, they say the policy should be mandatory and second, that the netting should extend to the outfield side of the dugouts, if not further.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred defended the policy, saying, "It is important that fans have the option to sit behind protective netting or in other areas of the ballpark where foul balls and bats are less likely to enter. This recommendation attempts to balance the need for an adequate number of seating options with our desire to preserve the interactive pre-game and in-game fan experience that often centers around the dugouts, where fans can catch foul balls, see their favorite players up close and, if they are lucky, catch a tossed ball or other souvenir." Dan Halem, MLB's chief legal officer, added, "Both fan safety and fan choice are extremely important to MLB, and these recommendations reflect those principles."

What both Manfred and Halem are really saying is the league is concerned that fans who prefer to be close to the action in order to kibitz with the players and obtain foul balls would be unwilling to pay the premium prices teams currently charge for seats close to the field if they are required to watch the game through a screen.

MLB's trade off - fan safety for increased revenue - is supported by the courts based on a longstanding legal concept known as "The Baseball Rule." The Rule, adopted in a majority of states, basically says when a fan enters a ballpark they should expect that bats and balls will be flying into the stands. And when that happens, fans assume the risk of injury. So long as the Rule remains in effect, MLB teams have little incentive to add additional netting or take other measures to protect fans from injury. They merely transfer the cost of the occasional lawsuit to their insurance carriers.

But several recent cases have suggested that the environment has changed since the Baseball Rule was first adopted. Newly designed ballparks provide seating closer to the field of play and in-game promotions and social media divert fans' attention from the action on the field, making them less attentive and more susceptible to injury.

How serious is the issue of ballpark safety? According to an analysis conducted by Bloomberg News, 1,750 spectators are injured every year by batted balls at major league games. While not all injuries are serious, some require hospitalization and multiple surgeries. In "Death at the Ballpark," authors Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks conducted a comprehensive study of game-related fatalities from 1862-2007. They concluded that only one spectator has died from a foul ball at a major league ballpark, at a 1970 game between the Dodgers and the Giants at Dodger Stadium. Two fans have been killed by foul balls at minor league stadiums, one in 1960 and another in 2010.

In addition to issuing new netting guidelines, MLB called on teams to "explore ways to educate their fans" on the inherent dangers of sitting close to the action and the importance of paying attention. Most teams currently go to great lengths to advise fans of the risks of attending a game. They print warnings on ticket backs, make PA announcements before and during games, have ushers urge fans to pay attention and post signs around the ballpark advising fans to beware of foul balls and flying bats.

Despite MLB's new netting policy, the best way for fans to stay safe at the ballpark is to be diligent and pay attention.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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