If a thunderstorm had loomed over the stadium, or a downpour had erupted or a heatwave had rolled through Houston that October night, the tens of thousands of fans watching Game 7 of the World Series in Houston’s Minute Maid Park would have been protected by its retractable roof.
The park is climate controlled, one of several stadiums in the league that shield players and fans from extreme weather. As temperatures around the globe continue to rise — July was the hottest month ever recorded — experts say many other teams in Major League Baseball could be forced to adjust to climate change. And it won’t be the only sport facing this problem.
Economists say climate change will have a profound economic impact on many sports in the coming decades. Already, leagues have shifted schedules to adapt to heat, teams are considering pricey new air-conditioned stadiums, and entire communities that rely on sports revenue face an uncertain future.
While most sports will be affected in some way, experts say a few — such as baseball, soccer and skiing — will be hit harder than others.
Postponements, domes, and empty seats
Baseball, with its 162-game season — played mostly in outdoor stadiums — is easily upset by changes in weather.
While football and soccer teams can play through rainy spells, these conditions make a baseball game nearly impossible. Pitchers can easily lose their grip on the ball, puddles collect on the infield and players can slip and hurt themselves.
“Baseball is more vulnerable to weather delays…because you literally can’t play baseball in the rain. It’s not safe,” David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University, said.
The league saw its highest number of postponements in nearly three decades in 2018 — with 54 games affected by the weather. 2019 saw fewer events.
“If you have more frequent rain delays, you’re imposing additional costs on the owner,” said Berri, citing salaries for the original game’s crew, reimbursements for fans’ tickets and the expense of a rescheduled game.
Brad Humphreys, professor of economics at West Virginia University, said as teams encounter difficulties caused by climate change, they might resort to climate-controlled stadiums — if they can find a way to pay for them. The structures can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If… climate change is affecting their ability to practice or their ability to sell tickets, then they might need to replace outdoor facilities with domed facilities or with a retractable roof, and those things are really expensive,” Humphreys said.
The Texas Rangers are ditching their stadium for an air-conditioned model with a retractable roof, a concession to the punishing Texas heat that costs more than $300 million. They join the Astros, which have been playing in air conditioning for more than 50 years.
While these stadiums protect fans and players from heat, they’re often damaged by other forms of extreme weather. The Miami Marlins’ stadium took a beating when Hurricane Irma stripped it of some of its rough outer membranes, warranting a replacement of that layer.
Experts say climate change could be one of the reasons – but certainly not the sole one – that baseball has seen attendance dwindle over the last decade.
While the die-hard fan might show up to a game when it’s over 100 degrees, Humphreys said some fans would choose the comfort of their couch over baking outside in the stands for hours.
“People might just say forget about it. I’m not going to a baseball game. It’s 105 degrees,” Humphreys said.
Considering how it requires favorable weather conditions, and because cancellations are costly, economist Andrew Zimbalist said, “in the United States, probably baseball is the most vulnerable,” to climate change.
Major League Baseball declined to comment for this story.
A costly schedule change
The soccer world took an economic walloping when the Qatar World Cup was moved from June to November 2022, upsetting schedules of many teams and imposing rescheduling costs on owners.
The move came after a FIFA evaluation cited high temperatures to be health concerns for fans and players.
“The fact that the competition is planned in June/July, the two hottest months of the year in this region, has to be considered as a potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectators, and requires precautions to be taken,” the report read.
The move has forced other leagues to change their schedules in order to send players during their typical peak practice and playing times.
The schedule change came “much to the chagrin of all of the soccer leagues in the world who don’t want to have to release their best players right during the middle of their season,” said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross.
The economic effects of this decision rippled far from Qatar.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, former chairman of the European Club Association, released a statement saying: “The European clubs and leagues cannot be expected to bear the costs for such rescheduling. We expect the clubs to be compensated for the damage that a final decision would cause.”
Though it already pays clubs to send their players to the event, FIFA set aside $209 million — an increase from past years — for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to cover the costs for the European Club Association.
Humphreys wonders if the Qatar schedule shift is just the start.
“I mean, what if it’s not just Qatar? What if [it] becomes difficult to hold World Cups in the summer just because of climate change?” Humphreys asked. “If they hold it somewhere and it turns out to be much too hot to feel they have to move the entire World Cup to the fall when it’s cooler, that could continue to be disruptive to the European leagues.”
FIFA is taking note of the heat, introducing water breaks for the first time during the 2014 Brazil World Cup. They have also created a policy for optional cooling breaks starting in 2014.
Teams have still run into issues, though. In June, a Nigerian player collapsed during practice the night before the African Cup of Nations’ first game. His illness was later attributed to severe dehydration.
“FIFA regularly monitors this matter, maintaining constant contact with current and on-going studies and reviewing our protocols, with a view to finding solutions that are applicable across the global football community,” a FIFA spokesperson said.
Communities on the line
Rising temperatures haven’t caused issues just for over-100-degree baseball fields or soccer pitches. They’re also wreaking havoc on snowy — or rather, snow-deprived — skiing slopes.
Matheson argues downhill skiing “is by far the No. 1” sport that will be economically hit by climate change because unlike other sports that can shift seasons or locations, a ski resort can’t be lifted to a more favorable location. If it doesn’t have enough snow for that season, he said, it’s out of luck.
“If you’re a big old ski resort, you have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in your facility. Your local town has all built up around the availability of skiing here and you just can’t up and move that 200 miles north for cooler weather and better snow,” Matheson said.
It’s a concern in the industry, after a ski industry expert reported in 2015 that 31 percent of ski resorts are in danger of closing. One of the reasons behind this is a lack of snow.
A study in Geographical Research Letters, a scientific journal, showed that average snowfall has fallen 41 percent for the western United States since 1998, significantly shortening the skiing season. Many hills are leaning on snow machines as a strategy to lengthen their seasons.
It’s no wonder they’re going to great lengths to get patrons to show.
Skiing is more connected to the economic fabric of a community than football, soccer or baseball, Matheson said. Home values in areas near ski resorts could experience at least 15 percent drop in value by 2050, according to one study.
The cost of climate change
While climate change is undoubtedly going to affect sports around the world, it shouldn’t be the reason we’re worried about it, Berri said.
“It seems rather silly that you may have to tell people that global warming is important because it might affect rainouts at a baseball game,” Berri said.
“So you say, ‘Ok, global warming may result in the deaths of millions of people around the world,’ ” and, Berri said, people might not respond passionately. But he said if you add to it that climate change “also might lead to more rainouts for the Orioles. Okay, now you get a problem.”
Researchers said the economic impact of climate change on sports isn’t being widely studied in the field or discussed among sports owners. Berri says the most effective way to raise interest in this issue is to show owners how and why they’ll lose money.
“If you could document that this is going to be a cost in the future? Yes…,” Berri said, “the people who are directly affected and have costs imposed upon them take this very seriously.”