In Foul Territory: The Real Cost of MLB Extended Netting

cropped-FoulBallSign.jpgDuring the last week of January 2016, the Double AA MiLB Fort Wayne TinCaps announced they would be extending netting to the end of each dugout for the 2016 season. They anticipated a cost of this extended netting to be $20,000. The rationale was to protect fans from foul balls and loose bats.

However, the debate over extra netting in 2015 was virtually non-existent. In truth, netting is not a cost-efficient method for protecting fans and maintaining the player/fan interaction which is central to baseball. Netting, is both the short- and long-term, is more expensive to install and to maintain, a point MLB Commissioner Manfred appeared to ignore before making his announcement during the 2015 Winter Meetings in which he “recommended” extended netting. The issues opponents to extended netting addressed to MLB were ignored.

Indeed, Commissioner Manfred ignored several alternatives to extended netting, particularly banning cell phone use in certain sections and moving families with small children into designated sections in the outfield and upper decks, areas with fewer foul balls and no errant bats. He also ignored the idea of tempered glass. This was an error that could cost teams and the league tens of thousands of dollars over the course of each season.

The evidence for the benefits of tempered glass rather than netting is abundant. Basing calculations on how much the Ft. Wayne TinCaps ($20,000) report it will cost them, we can use this figure to get a pretty good idea of the monetary losses MLB and MiLB and the lost enjoyment by fans when each team installs additional netting.

 

The Costs Compared

Various sources indicate a 100×50 feet section of netting, which would be roughly sufficient in most parks to extend netting one section on either side of the existing netting, will cost roughly $6000 wholesale. Doubling this to extend on both sides of the existing netting equals $12000. However, due to possible bidding wars and that some clubs, like the Cubs who feel they have more than adequate netting, a more conservative MLB league average estimate of $10,000 will be used.

The tempered glass used in ice rinks is designed to take a beating. It is able to withstand repeated body checks and 90 MPH impacts with six ounces of vulcanized rubber (a baseball weighs 5 – 5-1/4 ounces and is made of significantly softer material). The average foul ball, contrary to many reports that have it at 100 MPH, is about 90 MPH, roughly the same speed as the average slapshot in hockey (and remember that the puck is made of much harder material and weighs more than a baseball). The glass is also able to be treated with material that will further strengthen the glass. Therefore, glass is able to absorb the kinetic energy of a baseball or puck collision without much give, an issue seen during a Pirates game in 2015 when a woman was making her way to her seat during a pitch. The foul tip went into the net which failed to absorb the energy quickly enough and it smacked her in the back of the head with incredible force.

The cost of a piece of tempered glass with the dimensions of 5/8” x 48” x 72” runs between $250 and $400 depending on the treatment and installation costs. This means teams can place a large piece of glass along the baseline walls over the dugouts in all parks for less than the conservative league average estimate of $10,000.

 

Saving Money: Glass Costs Less than Extended Netting

More importantly is the money saved by putting up the glass. Ten sheets would run approximately $4000 on the high end; depending on the vendor, installation may be included (MLB certainly has the power to request this in negotiations). Double this for both sides and the price tag is still about $2,000 less than the most conservative estimate for the extended netting.NewSiteBackGround

Even if MLB were to only get a discount on installation, adding in installation costs for the high end tempered glass would simply equal the cost of the netting. And it would still protect the majority of fans in the most dangerous areas. While the financial savings is good for teams financially, this alternative also allows fans to continue interacting with players in a personal manner; it also ensures fans can get tossed up balls or be handed balls over the glass (netting stops the practice of tossing balls to fans thereby interfering with the interaction between players and fans).

It also minimizes fan interference while allowing players to still reach for balls. No player can ever catch a line drive foul ball headed on a trajectory that takes it into the seats. They are only able to snag pop-ups and long flies. Line drives are low and fast; they are not elevated and slower. Thus, fans have more time to react and adjust to the fly fouls. Glass will protect those fans in line drive territory. This argument has gone ignored by Manfred and the MLB Players Association.

 

Maintaining Game Integrity, Obstructions and Fan/Player Interactions

Every baseball player, owner, manager, coach and fan understands the most fundamental part of baseball off the diamond is the player/fan interaction. No other pro-sport in the United States has this type of personal engagement. One can’t go down to the bench in football and ask for an autograph; in baseball, you can lean over the wall and peak into the dugout and ask for and nearly always get an autograph before and after, and in some parks during (an usher way be willing to help a fan), the game. Netting, as detractors assert, makes this crucial aspect of the game nearly impossible.

The tempered glass is the best option for protecting fans and maintaining the basic integrity of the game. And it can be done for at least the same price, but probably more cheaply. It is therefore more cost efficient to use the tempered glass found around every professional hockey rink than it is to extend netting.

In addition to the monetary benefit of installing glass rather than netting, MLB and the MLBPA needed to understand how glass takes out of the equation any and all interference issues which have plagued the game. Fans, like Bartman, cannot reach over the railing and touch a ball that is actually fair and happened to curve into foul territory. Netting will still allow fans to stick their hands into it somehow—even if only squeezing a hand through and pushing the netting forward. In this way, netting is an ironic safety hazard too; if a fan does get their hand stuck in the netting there is the potential for serious injury. It is reasonable to conclude netting would need cutting which would weaken the integrity of the safety device. The cost of replacing or suitably repairing the entire section of netting must also be figured into the equation. It would equal upwards of $5000 for the team in lost revenue. Glass would cost about $500 at most.

Cleveland FieldHowever, this potential for interference and for further fan injury is virtually non-existent when glass is installed. Fans can still reach through netting, grabbing the ball as it bounces past; they can’t reach over or through the glass.

Other arguments for netting assert there will not be any obstructed views, and fans will get used to the netting and look right past it, never seeing it after the first or second inning. However, this is only supposition. Many times we hear about fans sitting behind the home plate area netting mentioning they have some issues seeing the ball as it is thrown or batted. By adding tempered glass used around hockey rinks MiLB and MLB teams protect fans without any obstructions. This protection comes with the added benefit of costing the same as or less than netting while honoring of the feel of player/fan interaction.

In other fan safety articles and in my letters to Commissioner Manfred I recommended a 2-3 feet section (roughly half the width of the standard hockey pain) that allows most players to still reach into the seats to snag a pop-up foul ball, at four feet virtually all seats with the highest number of foul balls are protected without obstructed views they would have from netting and most players can still get a glove the wall.

One last benefit of glass over netting is the maintenance. Netting needs to be stored properly, raised and lowered during games and for special events, and is exceedingly heavy. Hockey glass, because it is designed for cold environments can be left up year around, even for concerts at the venue. It is easy to clean, takes up less storage space, and is more easily transported and replaced than netting.

 

Final Thoughts on the Perfect Solution: Glass

Because high line drives do occur on occasion, an extra precaution that could be taken by MLB is to move all families in to specially designated sections in the lower levels (and perhaps upper decks) in the outfield where children will be protected from the most dangerous foul balls and errant batts, and they will still be able to engage with the players.

These are win-win solutions ignored by MLB and MiLB. To reiterate, fans are protected from nearly every ball and bat that has a line drive trajectory (the trajectory that causes the most injuries), players are still able to reach for foul balls headed into the seats and the fans are assured a non-restricted seat as well as added protection, particularly in the front rows.

There are those who argue breaking glass will harm spectators when it shatters. This is a fallacious argument indicating the individual has never been to a hockey game or played it. When hockey rink glass shatters, there are no jagged shards that will pierce any part of the human skin. The glass is virtually identical to windshield glass. On the other side of the safety argument, however, if netting ever failed, perhaps as a result of too much weight on the restraints in general from faulty installation or due to unruly fans climbing it when their team wins the World Series, the netting could fall and multiple deaths can result. Only one death from a foul ball has ever occurred. However, it actually could have been avoided had it not been for gross medical incompetence; it took nearly three days for doctors to assess the problem caused by the ball, the problem that led to a boy’s death. Tempered glass, therefore, appears to be the best option.

These points, unfortunately, are ignored by MLB, particularly the current administration under Manfred. The fact is tempered glass such as what is found in hockey rinks is the better option all around. There are no obstructions to view; there is protection to fans in the most dangerous areas; it allows players and fans to still reach for pop-ups; it limits fan interference and preserves the integrity of the fan/player interaction by allowing players to toss balls into the stands; and glass allows kids to sit in the front rows with no danger of injury is no special sections are designated. Netting will end all of these aspects of baseball. These benefits to the game and to fans are important, but MLB is a business and looks at the financial bottom line. In this case, tempered glass makes more sense as well. It is priced competitively with netting, in fact it is less expensive and an easier to maintain material.