Sports Law • Risk Management

MLB Protective Netting Extension: To Protect the Fans or to Protect the Facility Owners?

The start of the 2018 season will see all 30 MLB install protective netting to the near ends of each dugout with some teams extending their protective netting even further. In doing so, these clubs are extending the protection to spectators who are dangerously close to the action. Baseball, since the early 1900’s, has been operating under the safety net of the “Baseball Rule,” the assumption of risk that states that injury from objects leaving the field of play and into the stands are an open and obvious risk that is inherent to the game. In purchasing their tickets and attending a game, spectators agree to the Baseball Rule, which might include their suffering injuries from balls, bats, gloves, and even athletes making their way into the stands.

However, baseball today is vastly different from the games played a century ago.

Pitchers pitch faster, batters swing harder, and equipment is specially designed to achieve the maximum impact. Batted balls into stands can reach speeds over 105mph, entering the stands in less than a second after impact. Additionally, risk has increased with the advancement of entertainment options in stadium: large screens displaying statistics and advertisements, phone apps for mobile concession ordering, and even mascot interaction during gameplay keep the fans’ eyes off the field.

Yet, with the addition of safety measures there are always concerns for the impact to the fan experience. Potentially the extension of protective netting may further obstruct sightlines and disrupt fan engagement with athletes at the dugout, which may reduce the value of the seats along the baseline. Also, it will cost teams to install, inspect and maintain the extra netting and they face the risk of being liable for failure a person being injured in the event that the netting is improperly maintained. Architectural consultation, stadium modification, netting installation, and regular maintenance could prove too much for a small club in the lower leagues. Those financial costs are especially important to minor league teams who have not yet decided on extending the nets.

Weighing the benefits of safety to the costs of the netting itself and the potential of negative fan feedback is essential. However, with the courts relying less and less on the Baseball Rule being a team’s protective netting against lawsuits from spectator injuries, installing literal protective netting for the fans may become a necessity. As extended protective netting becomes the standard, a facility manager may liable for failure to meet this new standard. So now the question is a matter of when – not if – installing the netting becomes a priority.

(authored by Steven Clark, edited by Angela Hayslett)