Incentivizing good fan behavior

Fan interference is far from an everyday problem, but as many who watch the game can attest, it takes away opportunities for one team or another several times over the course of the season.

Before video review became a reality, fan interference that was missed could not be rectified. Look no further than Derek Jeter’s home run in game one of the 1996 ALCS. Even today it can still cause major problems. Josh Reddick has a case for the impact of Victor Martinez’s fly ball that was ruled a home run despite interference in game four of last year’s divisional series. Official review of such a play becomes a highly-contested judgment call.

There’s a major problem in terms of prevention, the one approach that could lessen occurrences. How can fan interference be stopped before it happens so it doesn’t continue to work against the integrity of the game?

The primary means to prevent interference is usually an announcement. But it’s a drop in the midst of a sea. This message is usually made along with similar warnings concerning the behavior that will result in ejection from the stadium and/or fines or jail time. In that context, it’s not enough. The announcement is clearly the least memorable compared to surrounding ones, and those who don’t occupy their seats until later innings may miss it altogether. It’s time for a positive way to present the message to catch their attention.

Though fans should be expected to know the rules of the game enough to not grab a ball that’s in play, simply assuming that’s the only way to operate is not only passive, but ineffective. This assumption also makes it seem more like baseball is a niche sport — when people reach into play to grab a home run ball, the baseball connoisseur rolls his eyes at yet another peon who doesn’t know the rules.* This mindset doesn’t help promote the game.

Baseball attendance is currently doing better than might be expected, though, as all but two teams host at least 20,000 fans each game, better than than the four teams below that total at the start of the millennium. Attendance may be down from last year in many parks, but coupled with the overall trend, that’s not the sign of a niche sport.

While I do believe those who go to the park should be mindful of their surroundings and know enough about the sport to avoid causing problems, I’m not so naive as to think it will always happen. For just one example, here Buster Olney discusses Curtis Granderson schooling an interfering fan. It would seem some people either don’t bother to know this simple rule or don’t care. Given that reality, as well as the lack of solutions floating around, I have a crazy idea.

There is a small way teams can create an incentive for people to pay attention to the game, at least enough to not grab balls in play.

We learn good behaviors by positive reinforcement. Parenting finds benefits from positive reinforcement as well. So does teaching in the classroom. Clubs can use those benefits to teach attendees this aspect of fan etiquette.

Teams could offer a promotion: for every game where the opportunity to grab a ball in play arises and the fans leave the ball untouched, the team gives a fan in qualifying areas something of greater value, either intrinsically or monetarily, than a game-used ball; perhaps, for sheer example, an autographed ball or bat.

Quite simply, it’s not immediately obvious to non-baseball fans that a ball that bounces or flies toward the stands may not actually be up for grabs. If it is in the minds of these people that not pursuing a ball in play might benefit them, they might be less inclined to go for it. Every time the promotion is announced, and especially when it’s given to a fan, will help solidify the idea: don’t touch a ball that might still be in play.

Perhaps the more seasoned fan will also help prevent interference. The added bonus of a potential reward certainly wouldn’t lessen that chance. Those fans who are already attentive to such things can truly only benefit.

Teams already offer a number of promotions during games, and most don’t have anything to do with something the recipient has done. Perhaps it’s time to add a “freebie” fans can earn.

Many promotions are paid for by outside sponsors (e.g. “Citizens Bank Seven” and “Sunoco Lucky Row” at Phillies games). Maybe some corporate partner would be willing to work with the team to provide incentive to fans. A number of years ago, I believe it was Nokona who sponsored a glove giveaway to those who made great grabs in the stadium. It’s a good example of a decent (and in that case, useful) souvenir being given to a fan who’s done something right. The stands could use more of that.

If a number of clubs implemented such a plan, a fan might get a free bat, spectators would be a little more knowledgeable, and the game would be better off for it.

 

*Given the “niche sport” reference, I’d recommend Chris Ballard’s long-form article on U.S. soccer spectators, but the link is broken, presumably from a glitch following a site redesign.

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