Historic weather a mixed bag for MLB

BY foxsports • May 15, 2011

Marc Ganis has used his financial expertise to help cities and teams build new NFL stadiums. He worked with the New York Yankees on their $1.5 billion baseball palace. He was involved in the sale of the Chicago Cubs from the Tribune Co. to the Ricketts family, too.

Some 19 months have passed since the Cubs transaction closed. Now, Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant, has a lower-profile role with the franchise: season-ticket holder.

On Sunday, Ganis hoped to visit Wrigley Field for the series finale against the defending champion San Francisco Giants. Day baseball. Nothing better, right? The season is still young enough for Cubs fans to hope. The entertaining Carlos Zambrano was scheduled to start against Giants ace Tim Lincecum.

But the word went out more than two hours before the first pitch: postponed.

Again.

The Cubs may be mired in fifth place in the NL Central, but they are tied for the major league lead in rainouts (three).

“This is the worst combination of bad weather and a lot of early season home games that I can recall,” Ganis said after his Sunday plans were washed out. “Then there are fewer home games in July and August. It should be exactly the opposite. It doesn’t make sense.”

On this issue, head-shaking isn’t confined to Chicago’s North Side.

Already this season, Major League Baseball has witnessed more weather-related postponements — 26, including three on Sunday — than it did all of last season (21), according to MLB data provided to FOXSports.com.

The 2004 season, with 50 postponements, is the high-water mark for the current millennium. Because baseball is more than halfway to that figure now — with only one quarter of the season gone — 2011 could go down as one of the soggiest seasons in recent memory, even if technological advances are enabling fields to drain better than ever before.

It would be foolish to blame baseball for vagaries in the weather, as if El Niño (Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez) had any effect on La Niña (the oceanic phenomenon). But decisions by MLB within the past year have indirectly contributed to the spike in postponements.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig has said repeatedly that he would like to avoid playing World Series games in November. In keeping with that effort, this year’s regular season opened on March 31 — four days earlier than in 2010. So, more games were scheduled during a month when the threat of lousy weather is particularly acute.

Then there is the schedule itself: Teams in 12 of baseball’s least-favorable spring climates (see inset tables) were scheduled to play 27 more home games through May 15 than as of the same date last year.

On some level, there is only so much that baseball officials can do about it. The games have to be played somewhere.

Katy Feeney, the MLB senior vice president for scheduling and club relations, told the Chicago Tribune recently, “There are more cold-weather teams than there are those that play in warmth/domes. And warm-weather teams don’t want to play all their games at home in April and May (when kids are in school) and be gone all summer.”

Yet, there is no denying the economic double whammy of an earlier start date and poor weather. The rate of postponements has more than doubled since last year. Apart from the rainouts, uninviting conditions for many games that are played have contributed to a drop in average attendance by about 2,000 fans, to a little more than 28,000 per game.

“For whatever reason, Major League Baseball decided to front-load the schedules this year in the northern and northeastern cities,” Ganis said. “Maybe they did it because of competitive balance reasons. But it has proven to be relatively disastrous, because of the teams that have lost ticket sales because of the bad weather.

“How many hundreds of thousands of fans have not gone to baseball games, that otherwise would have, but for the bad weather when a game was actually played?”

With every postponement comes a decision for teams that blends economics and public relations. Do they mandate that fans use their tickets only for the makeup date of that game? The Boston Red Sox, with a Fenway Park sellout streak dating to 2003, have little choice but to stick to that policy. But other teams are able to offer fans the opportunity to exchange tickets for similar seats and similarly priced games, as the Texas Rangers did after their May 11 rainout against Oakland.

Weather trends are closely intertwined with the game’s future, in light of MLB’s likely postseason expansion in 2012. Selig said during Sunday’s Civil Rights Game on TBS that his 14-member committee for on-field matters offered its unanimous support for an additional wild-card team in both leagues. While such a change would need to be collectively bargained, it’s doubtful the players’ union will stand in the way.

The expanded playoffs would stretch the baseball schedule at a time in world history when weather patterns are becoming increasingly volatile. There is broad consensus within the scientific community that climate change — i.e., global warming — is occurring.

While those effects could become more apparent (and damaging) toward the middle of this century, baseball could benefit from them in the near term: Robert N. Stavins, a professor of business and government at Harvard University, said climate change would make extending the postseason “easier, not harder.” It might be that November postseason games would be played in milder weather than March regular-season games.

For now, though, baseball officials are likely most concerned with filling stadiums during this regular season. And the news isn’t all bad. Joe Favorito, a sports marketing consultant and Columbia University instructor, believes a postponement or two could be a boon for certain teams — under the right circumstances.

“If you’re a northern team that lost a game when you were going to have 8,000 people in the stands, and you’re going to make that up in July, I would think that’s a positive,” Favorito said. “It’s not something you really want, but if you can get 20,000 or 25,000 for the same game in July, I don’t see it as a negative.”

Meteorologists talk about relative humidity. But that statement is relative optimism.



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