Baseball teams from the minors to the majors continue to grapple over whether to extend safety netting at their ballparks, trying to strike a balance between safety and not degrading the game experience for fans whose views of the game might be obstructed.
A rash of foul balls injuring fans in ballparks across the country during the 2019 Major League Baseball season has prompted teams at all levels of the sport to consider extending safety netting past their dugouts to the foul poles.
So far, the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Pitttsburgh Pirates have either extended their netting to the foul poles or have plans to do so later this season or in the offseason. The Washington Nationals have installed protective netting to just short of the right- and left-field corners of Nationals Park this season. In the minor leagues, the Fresno Grizzlies and Iowa Cubs are two of the latest teams to take similar steps for next season.
In 2015, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recommended that an expanded number of seats in ballparks be covered by protective netting. By February 2018, all of the league’s 30 teams had extended protective nettting to at least the far end of their dugouts or beyond.
The Royals were among the first clubs to act on Manfred’s suggestion and added netting to extend past the dugout and raised netting behind home plate before the 2016 season.
“Initially, we had negative feedback from our season-ticket holders in those seats, but after about two games, the fans came around,” said Toby Cook, Royals vice president of publicity. “We were trying to strike a balance between giving fans an unobstructed view and safety.”
The Royals plan to extend the netting to the foul poles in Kauffman Stadium by the end of the 2019 season or at its conclusion, Cook said. The Royals are working with Kansas City sports design firm Populous and C&H Baseball, a Florida-based netting company that has installed netting at most MLB ballparks.
With the visibility of more fans being injured from foul balls, Jeff Uhles, a sales and project manager at West Coast Netting in Kingman, Ariz., said he has fielded more inquiries about expanded netting in ballparks from minor league teams and colleges.
Uhles, who is consulting with the Dodgers on their planned netting extension, said installing the netting can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. He estimated that maintenance on the cables and wires holding the netting can cost $5,000 to $10,000 every few years and that teams could spend $20,000 to replace netting every five years.
Earl Santee, a managing director at Populous who is overseeing the extension of netting at Kaufmann Stadium, said installation can be a complicated endeavour because of the varied geometry of ballparks around the country. “With Kauffman, we’re dealing with radial geometry,” Santee said. “It’s hard to get netting to curve.”
Newer ballparks have geometries that are straighter, he said.
Santee declined to get into specifics but said that netting projects requiring additional columns and foundations likely would add to the cost for teams. Populous’ work on Kauffman Stadium includes working with C&H to improve sight lines for fans and the television audience.
In the minors, the Fresno Grizzlies and Iowa Cubs will extend protective netting to the foul poles in their ballparks for the 2020 season. And the New Orleans Baby Cakes, who are relocating to Wichita, Kan., next season, will play in a ballpark that has protective netting that extends to the foul poles.
“Most of our teams were already in compliance with, or exceeded, Commissioner Manfred’s 2015 recommendations,” Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner said in an email to Sports Business Journal. “Due to the different dimensions and lease agreements of each of our 159 ballparks, our teams and their facility owners are evaluating protective netting on a facility-by-facility basis.”