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Weather delays suggest changes may be on the horizon for Steelers and the NFL at large

With severe weather increasingly posing a threat to players’ well-being and TV ratings, the NFL definitely will take notice.

Like the indefatigable Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound in a rainstorm surrounded by high water, most football fans consider game-day weather as something to be embraced, or at least discounted. After all, football is an outdoor sport traditionally played on muddy fields or snow-covered, “frozen tundra.” And perhaps more than anything else, football fans hate to see any substantial changes in a sport they’ve always loved. But if you’ve been paying attention to your TV weatherperson in recent years, you’ve likely noticed that severe weather events in the U.S. and elsewhere are on the rise. Scientists cite many explanations for this phenomenon but what mainly concerns football fans is the significant impact of bad weather on their enjoyment of the sport.

Consider that the kickoff for the very first game of the 2018 NFL season — played on Thursday, September 6th between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons — was delayed 45 minutes due to lightning in the Philly area. So right off the bat, weather had thrown cold water onto one of the league’s most highly-anticipated events. But as the Steelers and Browns discovered on their own Opening Day, a lot more water was in store. On that same Opening Sunday, the Miami Dolphins finally defeated the Tennessee Titans 27-20 in a game delayed twice for a total of nearly four hours — going into the record book as the longest game in NFL history at seven hours and 10 minutes. Also on Sunday, the kickoff to the Dallas Cowboys clash with the Carolina Panthers was delayed due to a severe storm in the Charlotte, NC, area. On August 28th, severe flash flooding in Green Bay turned historic Lambeau Field into a flooded mess, with the ground-level player runways into the stadium taking on the look of canals.

College football also has been affected. On the Saturday before the Steelers’ opener in Cleveland, Cardinal Stadium at the University of Louisville was totally swamped when the area received 3.84 inches of rain in a single day. Time-wise, the Cardinals’ game on Saturday was the longest ever in the school’s history, interrupted by three separate weather delays. At the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium, the same weather system which flooded Lambeau Field turned the Hawkeyes’ gridiron into a lake, creating bulging bubbles in the artificial surface which protruded from the bizarre waterscape, resembling tiny islands.

Similarly, during April and May of this year, various news sources reported a huge uptick in the number of major league baseball games postponed due to bad weather, scrambling the league’s later-season schedule — and to make matters worse, the same weather pattern has returned in August and September. While fans often say poor weather is no reason to postpone a football game, the weather events we’re dealing with these days are more akin to the Charlie Brown variety, where players might be better equipped if they were wearing scuba gear. In terms of the amount of rainfall received within certain 24-hour periods, these events increasingly are outstripping almost anything ever experienced in the areas affected. The resultant flash-flooding has frequently been dubbed “biblical” by local news media.

The NFL is taking note of these events principally for two reasons, each one weighing on the league’s sacred bottom line. First, severe weather can threaten player safety due to lightning and also by increasing the risk of certain injuries linked to slick playing surfaces. It’s no secret that player safety is a major priority for the NFL these days. Beyond the purely humanitarian reasons for player-protection measures, the league also knows that losing star players to injury has a direct and negative impact on the level of fan interest, TV ratings and revenue. For example, in the Miami-Tennessee fiasco, in addition to losing the game, the Titans lost three of their key offensive players — QB Marcus Mariota, TE Delanie Walker and Left Tackle Taylor Lewan — to various injuries.

The second reason for the league’s concern is that weather delays further slow down the games — events which many TV viewers already consider as too lengthy. Viewer studies have shown a rather steep decline in the number of people tuning in when games are restarted following substantial delays, as well as when delayed games such as the recent Dolphins-Titans tilt drag on interminably. In the mass media, eyeballs translate directly to profits, so you can be sure the NFL is quite concerned about the impact bad weather has on viewership. They’ll analyze revenue comparisons between games played under acceptable conditions and those subject to weather delays. If the current trend of severe weather continues, and bottom-line comparisons dictate, pro football franchises will find themselves under increasing pressure to replace older, outdoor venues with enclosed stadiums — or perhaps retrofit their existing stadiums with retractable roofs.

At the core of this issue is the reality that football fans generally do not want to see their favorite teams denied a victory or (worst of all) a championship due to ridiculous field conditions. It’s the same reason why, when the NFL selects sites for future Super Bowls, a key criterion is choosing a site having either an enclosed stadium or an outdoor stadium in a city distinguished for its fair wintertime weather (e.g. Los Angeles, Miami, Tampa, Glendale, AZ). The last thing the NFL wants is a weather delay during its signature event of the year.

As we approach Week 2 of the 2018 NFL season, three games already have been delayed by weather. When temperatures plummet as winter approaches, this excessive rainfall will turn to ice or heavy snow, which presents its own unique obstacles. If excessive precipitation were an anomaly, then we’d expect it to pass in time and we could all go about our normal business. But unfortunately, scientists predict — if anything — these severe events will increase in the future.

We’ve just seen the remnants of a Gulf Coast hurricane move through the central U.S., creating the aforementioned flooding problems in Week 1. At the time of this writing, Hurricane Florence has struck the East Coast and is dumping massive quantities of rain on North and South Carolina, knocking out power to nearly a million customers and canceling hundreds of flights. Having made landfall on Friday, the slow-moving tropical storm will continue to bring heavy rain and high winds to the Carolinas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania this weekend, potentially affecting some additional NFL games.

Since we normally associate September football with more-or-less ideal field conditions, it’s troubling that severe weather appears to be playing such a disruptive role at this early stage of football season. As witnessed in Cleveland last Sunday, it’s also impacting the quality of the NFL product — even when games aren’t delayed. If the current foul-weather trend persists or intensifies as time goes by, we might be looking at a future of mainly — or perhaps strictly — indoor sports. So if you’re a fan who revels in the glories of mud-bowl games — or if you’re that stubborn, Charlie Brown who insists on playing ball no matter how high the waters rise, it’s probably a good idea to get your fill of outdoor football while you still can.