BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – As MLB celebrates the opening of another season, an IU researcher is calling on the league to take on more responsibility when it comes to protecting fans. Particularly as the risk of being hit by foul balls or an errant bat has never been higher.
Research by Kelley School of Business Associate Professor Nathaniel Grow says over the years, the distance between MLB fans and home plate has shrunk by about 20%, attributable to an effort by teams to increase the “fan experience.”
However, more injuries have come as a result of that trend. A recent Bloomberg report detailed that 1,750 fans are hurt each year by foul balls at MLB games.
“We also found some data showing that balls are coming at them faster. So there’s been this convergence where fans have less time, they’re closer, and it’s just caused more injuries like we’ve seen in recent years,” Grow says.
Earlier this year, MLB announced all 30 of its teams would extend protective netting for seats closest to home plate and extending to the far corners of the dugouts. The move followed a recommendation by the league to extend netting ahead of the 2016 season.
Though a minor league team, the Indianapolis Indians have also extended their safety netting prior to the 2017 season. A spokesperson says the team also takes steps to warn fans about risks.
“We’ve got a reputation of having a very good fan experience here and it’s all about protecting that and what we can do to elevate it and make it better,” Charlie Henry said.
Despite recent efforts, Grow says the question “if it’s enough” remains to be seen. He also points to the fact that the roughly 100-year-old so-called “baseball rule” protects major league teams from liability as long as there are nets or screens in place for a “reasonable amount” of fans.
“It doesn’t make sense to just say to baseball teams you’re not responsible for all of this. It doesn’t create the right incentives to balance fan safety and access to the game,” Grow said.
Grow says the biggest test of the extended netting may come at the end of the season when it can be evaluated as to whether it makes a difference.