Seeing through the illusion

The argument against safety when it comes to baseball netting

Just over a week has gone by since a young fan was taken to the hospital after being struck by a foul ball during the Astros-Cubs game. Since the event the overwhelming response in the media has been a demand to extend netting around stadiums and make games safer. That's why many were surprised this week when Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred came out and made the following statement: "It's very difficult given how far the clubs have gone with the netting to make changes during the year, because they really are structural issues." He went on to say; "But, because safety is so important, I'm sure that conversation will begin and continue into the offseason."

Translation: Not much is going to change.

If you believe structural issues are really the problem, it's time to wake up. Let's see if I can put that Rice MBA to work and dissect the argument against safety.

MLB is a business, and when you run a business it tends to boil down to cash and an equation. Clearly a fan getting hurt is not good for business, but at the moment it's a price that baseball is willing to pay to keep making a profit and prioritize its other issues. If you are having a hard time with this issue try thinking about it like this:

On average there are 30 foul balls hit per game. The average attendance per game around the league last year was over 28 thousand people. Though small, there are a percentage of fans that if asked would say that the chance to catch those foul balls are a key factor in them choosing to show up to the game rather than watch on TV. Additionally there are a small percentage of fans who upgrade their seats because they want to sit closer to the "action". Let's say it's just 25 fans in each category, a very conservative number. With the average ticket cost around $70 and the average seat upgrade around $30 you're looking at revenue of $2,500 a game or over $200,000 for an 81 home game season. What if that number is instead 100 fans per game who prioritize foul balls? Then your profit jumps to over 800K for the season. Now let's ask ourselves, if we interviewed 28,000 people at a baseball game do we think more or less than 100 would say they like the chance to catch foul balls?

Now let's add in sponsorships. If you've been to an Astros game lately you know that Chick-fil-a sponsors the "fan catch of the night". Years ago I heard a rumor that single advertisements placed in the stadium can cost upwards of $50K and that is just for a small sign. I'm not even going to venture a guess into what they charge Chick-fil-a to have their name broadcasted throughout the stadium all year; let's just say it's a lot.

Now let's add in some other factors. The commissioner is already dealing with a year to year decline in game attendance and has decided to prioritize fan interaction. We've seen the youtube clips of kids playing catch with players and even expecting couples throwing gender reveal baseballs for players to hit. The question has to be asked, how much would these types of events be impacted by additional netting?

The point is this stuff adds up. I'm not the commissioner; I am armed only with very conservative estimates and the ability to google things like average number of foul balls hit per game. However, based on what I wrote above you can see how it's hard to make the choice to risk that much revenue.

I already hear you, how cold right? What about the little girl?

In my short lived high school baseball career I have been unfortunate enough to witness a baseball take a bad hop and cause significant damage to a teammate's face. To this day, I see that image played out whenever I hold a baseball. For all those who witnessed this young Astros fan being hit, for the poor father who had to rush his daughter out of the stadium, and for the young girl herself; this event is scarring (beyond a level I know). When you think about it like that the decision about nets should be simple. However that's not the way the commissioner thinks about it. In fact he gets paid not to think about it that way. It's not that the little girl doesn't matter; it's that those calling for safety are not speaking his language. At this time the commissioner's equation from a business standpoint is clear: Put in nets and risk $Millions in revenue and sponsorship opportunities vs don't put in nets and pay a few thousand for a kids hospital visit. Harsh… but true.

Let's stop fooling ourselves that sports are different. The commissioner's decision here is no different than a CEO at a car company deciding if they should issue a recall because a defect might cause an accident. Fans are all just numbers in an equation, and we aren't going see a change until we flip that equation around. We need to see a mob of people asking Chick-fil-a executives why they are comfortable sponsoring foul ball catches if they are so dangerous. We need to see fans stop cheering when a dad in the stands makes a catch with a baby in his arms. We need to stop encouraging fans to chug their beer when the ball lands in the cup. Any of that seem likely?

I wish I could see the real numbers being fed to the commissioner about this issue. Just with these estimations I have to admit I probably would be taking the same steps I was in his position. Then again, I'm about to have my first child and if I take her to a game I can already tell you where we will be sitting; behind netting.

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Jovan Abernathy is an international marathoner and blogger. Check out her new blog, HTown Run Tourist. Follow her on Twitter @jovanabernathy. Instagram @HTownRunTourist. Facebook @jovanabernathy. Join her facebook group: H-Town Run Tourist

Six years ago, I got this great idea to become a tourist of Houston on foot. I had no idea what I was doing or where it was going. All I knew was to put on my running shoes, walk out the door, and just go. Go learn, go talk, go ask without judgements. What I found is that Houston was full of diversity. We all knew that. However, let yourself be immersed in it. Look and listen to the sounds of different languages being spoken around you. Smell the scents of the different cuisines. You would think you were in a foreign country. This made me more curious.

As I explored the emotion of curiosity, it led me to change my behavior. Where I might have rushed to this place and to the next, I took it slower. Where, usually, I would have just assumed that I already knew, I found myself asking more questions. When I asked more questions, I had to acknowledge that I did not already know, so I practiced listening. As I listened more, I felt compelled to show more appreciation to the person who interrupted their busy day to educate me. This made me feel grateful.

I took that gratitude and wanted to share with others. It blew my mind when people would say that they hated Houston. It was boring. The people are mean and it was ugly. And even more shocking was Houston is not walkable. Instead of getting offended, I decided to do my part in brightening up the day of the Houstonians who were stuck in a rut. Who saw and did the same things day after day. I didn't judge because I knew they could get out of that rut by simply deciding that today they do something different. I braced myself for rejection, but put myself out there to share the wonderful things that I had learned about Houston. Given the chance, the vast majority, was ready to learn a different way. This made me proud.

It is true that 2020 has been full of disasters. These are opportunities if we choose to see them that way. If anything that COVID-19 taught me the answer was not MORE, but it is LESS. We have the tendency to take on too much, we had the unique opportunity to take on less. Thus, instead of going to exhaustion, we had the opportunity to rest.

Then, the tragedy of the death of Houston's own George Floyd happened. It could not have happened at a worse time. My heart goes out to his family. Some might use it as an opportunity to work out their own frustrations by causing more problems with violence and looting. My hope is that whatever happens will be an expression of appropriate sadness, but with Houston's best attributes; curiosity, gratitude, and pride. Instead of LESS it is time for MORE. MORE curiosity. To see if Houston's law enforcement cares about the well-being of Houston's black community and make changes in protocols. MORE gratitude. For the opportunity to express the frustration in a peaceful way. MORE pride. To not destroy this city and give it over to violence possibly doing more damage to the economics of business owners. We can see this as the opportunity to take time to heal.

Houston has changed. As I restart my exploration, I'm not looking for LESS. I'm looking for MORE this time. I'm looking with MORE curiosity. Because I know that we have even MORE to show each other. I'm looking with MORE gratitude because we have endured so much already and there are better times ahead. And, I'm looking with MORE pride because just as we did it before, we still have it in us to do it again. I have one request: if you see me in the streets, promise me that you will say hello.

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