Foul Weather Fans? MLB’s Early Season Chill Offers Look at Future

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By Adam Allington

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” New York Yankees great Yogi Berra once said. And that could spell trouble for Major League Baseball.

Three weeks into the season, the league has canceled 25 games because of cold, snow, sleet, and rain, tying the all-time record for the most weather-related cancellations in the first month of the season. By comparison, there were only 39 games canceled by the elements all of last year’s 26-week season.

While few would link three weeks of inclement weather to climate change, the fitful start to this year’s baseball season coincides with discussions in professional leagues including the NHL, FIFA, and PGA golf about how a changing climate could affect outdoor sports and the fans who watch them.

“The Earth’s climate is changing due to human activity,” said Fatma Samoura, secretary general of FIFA, the international soccer governing body. “We need to reduce the emissions that enter the atmosphere.”

With soccer considered the sport with the largest global audience, FIFA was also among the earliest sporting groups to factor climate change into its planning and development. The 211-member association launched a campaign this week to offset 2.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent for every ticket holder traveling to this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

‘Born on Frozen Ponds’

In March, the National Hockey League announced plans to step up its environmental commitments over concerns that climate change is threatening the frozen ponds and rinks where many of its players first learned to skate.

“Hockey was born on frozen ponds—climate change is impacting access to our sport outdoors,” the league said in its second sustainability report released March 28.

MLB, by comparison, has largely stayed quiet on the issue of climate change.

“We promote and instill sustainability-focused practices and initiatives in a number of ways, and we are proud of the leaguewide steps we have taken,” the league said in a statement to Bloomberg Environment. “Beyond that, however, we are not in a position to address questions regarding climate change.”

The league did point to the expansion of sustainable practices including increased recycling and decreased water usage. More than half of all MLB clubs use LED field lighting, which uses less electricity and decreases the overall carbon footprint of stadiums.

Attendance Dip

Last year saw regular season attendance for MLB dip below 73 million for the first time since 2002, the third straight year of declining fan attendance at games, according to Baseball Reference. Attendance issues last year were partially blamed on hurricanes that pummeled Texas and Florida.

“As a climate scientist, I think the biggest impacts will come in the form of increasingly higher summer temperatures, which could make sitting in a baseball or football stadium borderline miserable,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change set a goal of holding average global temperature rise this century to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

But even that level of temperature rise could have major implications for outdoor sports, especially such winter sports as skiing and snowboarding. A 2018 economic report by Protect Our Winters, a climate advocacy nonprofit, found that a low-snowfall year in the U.S. translates to a loss up to $1 billion for the winter sports industry.

Indoor Stadiums?

While it is not that unusual to experience a bit of lingering cold weather in April—and this year’s MLB opening day was March 29, the earliest ever, and four days earlier than in 2017—baseball remains a game best played in warm, or at least relatively warm, weather.

But three weeks into the season, many teams have seen more snow and sleet than spring-like weather.

“I think playing in the cold sucks,” said Anthony Rizzo, first baseman for the Chicago Cubs, which had three of its last four games canceled because of cold or rain.

“In a perfect world, we’d start the season later. As a fan you’re going to a baseball game in April, and it’s raining, snowing and [with] freezing rain. Is it really that much fun? That’s my question,” Rizzo said this week in an appearance on ESPN 1000, an AM sports radio station in Chicago.

While MLB can’t change the weather, some have pointed out that it could change its stadiums—either by building more fields with retractable roofs, which could add to ticket costs—or by starting the season with Northern teams on the road, or in domes. That’s a suggestion warm-weather teams have typically balked at.

Eroding Golf Courses

In the U.K., increased rain and rising sea levels have been singled out for their impact on the popular sports of soccer, cricket and golf, according to a study from The Climate Coalition, an organization of some 130 nongovernmental groups in Britain.

The Montrose Golf Links on Scotland’s Angus coastline is the second-oldest continually used course in the world, after St. Andrew’s. At Montrose, rising North Sea tides and coastal erosion are slowly encroaching at a rate of a several meters per year.

“Golf is being affected in a huge way,” said Chris Curnin, the club’s financial director.

Curnin told Bloomberg Environment that Scotland’s ancient golf courses are mostly located on the coast, on “links land"—the sandy section linking the sea to the arable land.

“As the sea level rises, we’re left with nowhere to go,” Curnin said. “Wetter summers also mean less quality playing time, which in turn affects golf club income and can put people off becoming long-term players.”

President Donald Trump, who has said he will pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, owns two golf courses in Scotland, as well one in Doonbeg, Ireland. After years of petitioning, a county council in December granted approval to build a seawall around part of Trump’s Doonbeg golf course to protect it from erosion.

The cold weather also means attendance is way down, and if fans don’t mind bundling up, they can can scoop up great deals on tickets, often less than $5 on the secondary market.

So if you’ve always wanted to get a foul ball, now is an ideal chance.

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