Fans Enthusiasm Creates Risks For Pro Sports Leagues,Their Insurers

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Zealous sports fans have liability insurancecompanies caught in a rundown between the desire to get up-closeand personal with superstar athletes and managements need toprotect spectators from the inherent hazards of the sport.

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The new generation of retro-style baseball stadiums was designedto bring fans closer to the action. The downside is that fansseated along the first- and third-base foul lines are only a splitsecond away from being struck by a screaming line drive.

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“Fans clamor to get closer to the action, and teams try toaccommodate their wishes,” said Major League spokesperson MatthewGould. “If a pitcher is throwing the ball at over 90 miles an hour,a homerun hitter can produce a foul ball with the velocity of amissile.”

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Professional sports franchises have taken additional steps toprotect fans this season in reaction to the 13-year-old girl whowas killed in March after being struck by a puck at a NationalHockey League game in Columbus, Ohio. Brittanie Cecil of suburbanColumbus walked out of the arena the night of the game, but diedtwo days later as the result of a ruptured artery, according to theautopsy.

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The NHL has ordered all 30 of its teams to install protectivenetting above the standard Plexiglas to safeguard the crowd.

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“When you have a tragedy, it becomes time to re-evaluate and seewhat needs to be done,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “As theparent of a 13-year-old daughter, I think about this on a dailybasis.”

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None of the 30 Major League Baseball teams would identify theinsurance company that protects ownership from the legalramifications that could arise from a fan who is injured during agame. But modifications have been made to each stadium this seasonto protect the fans that sit in the most vulnerable locations.

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All professional baseball ballparks have a 30 to 40 foot-widescreen behind home plate to protect fans in the most expensiveseats. For example, the screen at Houstons Minute Maid Park(formerly Enron Field) was extended this spring as far as thecamera wells adjacent to each dugout.

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Signage and pre-game announcements have also been increased atmajor league ballparks to warn fans of the danger from ballsleaving the playing field. Many teams repeat the warnings duringthe game on the public address system or on the video scoreboard.Some teams will even relocate fans who feel unsafe in theirticketed seats.

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But most fans seem willing to take the risk in trade for a $4souvenir.

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“One of the biggest thrills of any fan is to catch a foul orhome run ball,” said Paul So, manager of guest relations for theToronto Blue Jays. “By eliminating this, it may detract from a fansenjoyment. In addition, the net may act as a partial visiondistraction.”

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“It would be difficult to put up netting in front of the fieldlevel boxes that does not obstruct the fans view of the action onthe field,” said Kelly Kim, corporate communications representativeof the San Diego Padres.

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“Most fans wouldnt stand for netting to protect them from foulballs or the occasional thrown bat,” said Kristy E. Suworoff,coordinator of guest relations for the Milwaukee Brewers. “Theywant balls hit in their direction.”

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Baseball keeps records on almost every element of the game, evenfoul balls. According to MLB statistics, an average of 35 to 40balls are hit into the stands during every game. Injuries occurmost often to fans sitting along the first and third base lines,but there have been reports of injuries in almost every corner of aballpark.

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The majority of claims filed with Francis L. Dean &Associates Inc. in Wheaton, Ill., were for broken noses, simplefacial lacerations, broken glasses or dislocated fingers. Thefamily-run company is the self-proclaimed nations leader in sportsinsurance.

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“Most people are too embarrassed to file a claim against theirown team,” said Vice President John Dean. “Policies can insureteams for up to $1 million per incident, but most people are happyif we simply take care of their medical bills.”

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Management tries to avoid claims by rushing a teamrepresentative to personally care for an injured fan. One teamspokespersonwho asked to remain anonymousprofessed that most claimsagainst his National League team were settled with just a hot dogand an autograph.

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The only reported death in Major League Baseball took place inMay of 1970, when a 14-year-old fan was hit in the head by a foulball off the bat of Manny Mota at Dodger Stadium. The youngster wasgiven two aspirin and returned to his seat. He died four days laterof a severe brain injury.

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Fan enthusiasm is creating different kinds of risks at golftournaments, where even the normally polite spectators have turnedrowdy, pushing through temporary barriers and ignoring restrictedareas in their pursuit of Tiger Woods and other top-flight playerson the professional tour.

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In golf, slips and falls outnumber the claims from spectatorsstruck by a hook or slice off the tee, according to Pat Hirigoyenof St. Paul Property and Casualty Insurance Company. St. Paulprovides coverage for sponsors of PGA tournaments as well as manyof the courses that host Tournament Players Championships throughits Eagle 3 Program.

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Mr. Hirigoyen said his company has responded to more injuriesfrom tipped-over golf carts than from spectators who were hit by astray shot.

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Todd Rhinehart is executive director of the NEC World GolfChampionship this month (Aug. 20-25) at the Sahalee Country Club insuburban Seattle. He said the real danger to individuals in agallery comes from the Pro-Am portion of the tournament thatnormally precedes a PGA or Senior PGA event.

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“A Tour professional rarely misses so badly that their ballflies into the crowd,” Rhinehart told NationalUnderwriter. “The danger comes from the crowds that followcelebrities like [basketball players] Michael Jordan and CharlesBarkley. The amateurs who play with the golf pro can pose a realdanger to onlookers.

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“Take Charles Barkley. He is a terrible golfer.”

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Dan Aznoff is the former editor of Insurance West. He nowcovers the Seattle Mariners and baseball in the Pacific Northwestfor The Baseball Journal. Aznoff is a freelance writer who makeshis home in Bellevue, WA. He can be reached at [email protected].


Reproduced from National Underwriter Property &Casualty/Risk & Benefits Management Edition, August 5, 2002.Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serialpublication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as anindependent work may be held by the author.


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