Net gain: Minor League teams enhance fan safety

Safety first.

Heading into the 2018 season, every Major League stadium will have expanded netting that extends, at minimum, to the far end of each dugout. Dozens of Minor League teams have followed MLB’s lead, with the simple goal of minimizing injuries related to foul balls and bats entering the stands.

The push for expanded netting began in earnest in December 2015, when Commissioner Rob Manfred issued list of recommendations on the topic. Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner quickly followed up with a statement of his own, remarking that “Minor League Baseball clubs strive to offer safe, family-friendly facilities. … We wholeheartedly endorse these recommendations made by Major League Baseball in regard to the protective netting in our ballparks and encourage our clubs to implement these recommendations as soon as practical.”

“Practical” is a key word, as teams must weigh a variety of issues related to expanded netting. Will it alienate fans? Will it impact field access? If the facility is municipally owned, will the city approve the cost? These issues have not necessarily served as deterrents, as Minor League teams announcing expanded netting has become commonplace over the last two offseasons. It’s a trend that shows no signs of abating.

“My sense is that there has been an acceptance of and a desire to extend the netting,” Myrtle Beach Pelicans president Andy Milovich said. “The pendulum has swung and most operators and teams recognize that this is in everyone’s best interest, if you can figure out how to pay for it and make the netting work in the footprint of an existing stadium.”

On Feb. 28, the Pelicans announced that netting will be expanded at their city-owned home of Field.

“The city [of Myrtle Beach] had been contemplating this for a while,” Milovich said. “They approached us to gauge our interest and we were in complete agreement that it needed to be done. We have over 200 games a year at this ballpark, not just Pelicans baseball.”

Other team executives expressed similar sentiments.

“If there’s anything we can do to enhance the guest experience from a safety perspective, we want to do it,” said El Paso Chihuahuas vice president and general manager Brad Taylor, who recently oversaw the installation of expanded netting at Southwest University Park. “As one of the newer parks, we already exceeded the required [netting] minimum, but we wanted to provide more coverage.”

“We’re always worried about bats and balls that go into the crowd,” Trenton Thunder chief operating officer and general manager Jeff Hurley added. “As far as myself and our ownership group, it was a no-brainer to do this [at Arm & Hammer Park].”

Lake County Captains general manager Neil Stein said that expanded netting was something that his team had looked at “on and off for over two years.” The Captains play at Classic Park in the Cleveland suburb of Eastlake, Ohio.

“We’ve had to take a look at [stadium] infrastructure, seeing what needs to be done,” he said. “Our field access gates will be impacted, so it’s not a super-quick project. … Our city owns the stadium and per our lease, netting is their responsibility, so we had to get them to approve it. They didn’t have to, but they’re the ones that get called if there’s an incident. If we can help prevent that from happening, then it’s a worthwhile investment.”

Much of the debate over expanded netting has centered around its potential impact on fans’ view of the playing field. Mindful of the reaction of season-ticket holders and other regular ballpark visitors, teams are taking a proactive approach in communicating with them.

“We gave the courtesy of a heads-up to our season ticket holders, and we didn’t have one person react negatively,” Taylor said. “We were prepared to tell people that, ‘Hey, if you want a different seat, then we’ll accommodate you.’ But we didn’t have to do that.”

“It hasn’t been that bad,” Hurley added. “We invited our season-ticket holders and plan holders to come in [to the ballpark] and see how things look with the new netting, and gave them the option to move. But it’s a positive story we have going here, and I think fans understand that and are looking forward to it.”

Stein said that he and his staff called more than 100 season-ticket holders and there were “about a half-dozen” who wanted to move.

“We thought it would be far more controversial with fans than it ended up being,” he said. “I think one of the things that helped us was that the Indians announced [expanded netting] about a month before we did, so that created an awareness. It helped that the Major League team had done it, so there wasn’t as big of a pushback.”

One of the reasons that fan uproar has been minimal is the quality of the nets themselves. Most of the new netting installed has consisted of thin Dyneema-brand twine, which provides a greater visibility than the traditional nylon netting to which most fans are accustomed. As the Pelicans stated in their news release, “The netting uses a green coating over durable black-fiber Dyneema twine, which serves as a camouflage against the backdrop of the playing field.”

“We wanted to make sure people knew [about the new netting] before season tickets went on sale,” Milovich said. “We had net samples on site so people could look at it and touch it, just to get an idea of what it would be like.”

In Milovich’s view, expanded netting is a necessity in today’s Minor League baseball environment.

“There’s an inherent risk in going to a baseball game and always has been,” he said. “But that risk, combined with our devices and short attention span, requires us to be proactive so that we can deliver the fan experience we want to deliver. … I have kids, and it makes me more comfortable to not have to worry about their safety and overall well-being every time I hear the crack of the bat.”