Weather intelligence is going to be increasingly essential to keep sports safe for athletes and fans as the effects of climate change intensify.
My favorite rain delay occurred at a Cincinnati Reds game on July 1, 2013. On a balmy summer night, a heavy downpour settled on Great American Ballpark, and while most fans sought the sanctity of the grandstand, a couple diehards in the bleachers performed the most epic rain-drenched air guitar solos I’ve ever witnessed, perfectly in sync with the stadium speaker system. Their performance made the big screen, an impromptu music video, and most of us, a couple beers deep and indifferent to the behind-the-scenes machinations that called for the delay, cheered heartily. When the game was finally called off we found a nearby bar from which to watch the deluge.
Despite the casual relationship most fans have with weather, which feels at best like a pleasant backdrop to a game, and at most like a rude impediment, behind the scenes, a lot is at stake for the athletes, teams, organizations, and events that rely on smooth skies to allow for consistent conditions. It is no exaggeration to say that the difference between rain or sun, or a good forecast and a surprisingly poor one, can be millions of dollars. Retractable roofs have considerable costs to open and close, broadcasts might have to air reruns in prime time, and franchise athletes can blow out a knee on a slippery surface. Being able to predict the weather has become of paramount importance in modern sports. We have entered the era of high-stakes weather intelligence.
Many organizations now rely on companies that specialize in weather intelligence in order to help make critical decisions. Dan Slagen, Chief Marketing Officer at Tomorrow.io, a company that specializes in weather and climate security, explained to me that when the clouds start rolling in, the last thing an organization wants is for everyone to start pulling out their phones and becoming amateur meteorologists.
What many people don’t realize when they compare weather apps is that they are all pulling data from the same service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Unbeknownst to participants, arguments about whether those colorful swirls on your phone indicate that the storm system will hit the stadium or drift wide of it are really exercises in interpreting the same NOAA data via different user interfaces.
What is weather intelligence and what does it have to do with climate change?
Such inconsistencies can cause operational nightmares. Slagen offered one client, the New England Patriots, as an example of how Tomorrow.io streamlines weather responses at the ground level. He described a scenario in which inclement weather is approaching, and vendors receive a notification on their phone telling them to break down tents on the north end of the stadium and move them to the east end.
“On the back end, our system is saying that within 15 minutes the wind is going to hit 30 miles an hour, the merchandise is going to go flying, the tents are going to become a safety hazard, and they’re going to lose thousands of dollars of merchandise.”
By employing a weather intelligence company to provide this instant analysis, organizations can stay a step ahead and remove the guesswork that comes from staring at dark clouds on the horizon or colorful swirls on a phone. “We take raw data and turn it into actionable insights,” said Slagen.
Ryan Bjorn, the Field Superintendent at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots and New England Revolution play, confirmed how crucial such intelligence can be. “Weather impacts our day-to-day operation more than any other factor,” he explained. “Things like precipitation expectations and lightning monitoring are at the forefront of our needs, but other factors such as frost prediction, wind gust monitoring and the alerts we set up are crucial to our operation here.”
Interestingly, such proactive analysis has also given athletics organizations a unique glimpse into a driving force of inclement weather – climate change. You can be one of the last climate change deniers on the shrinking iceberg of plausible deniability or the most ardent environmental activist, but when it comes to making decisions that actively impact the sports industrial complex, all that matters is getting it right. And that means being aware of how weather is consistently intensifying, and even how organizations can play a role in pushing awareness and striving for sustainability.
Kristen Fulmer, the founder of Recipric, a sports and sustainability consulting firm, underscores the impact of the climate on athletics events. “Without a clean, healthy planet (including less polluted air and water), people really won’t be able to enjoy their favorite sports inside or outside as much,” she explains.
On the flipside, organizations can play a powerful role in helping raise climate awareness.
“Sports have a direct environmental footprint — from travel to and from events, to waste produced by spectators, the athletic industry could play a sizable role in reducing environmental harms. Not only does the sports and entertainment world have a large footprint, it also holds an influential power to inspire change from fans and followers. Prominent athletes and their sponsors, teams, and leagues can use their platform to amplify the importance of protecting the earth.”
Weather intelligence is part of this puzzle, helping organizations make scalable decisions that can address short-term needs and long-term solutions. “Weather intelligence is helpful for the sports industry to be both proactive and reactive,” she notes. “Access to this data helps us react quickly to dangerous weather events, protecting fans, athletes and staff.”
Analyzing weather trends, explains Fulmer, can also help organizations understand how to mitigate future threats and create more sustainable infrastructure. “This might help a venue decide to invest in parking lot upgrades to reduce future flooding risks; to purchase on-site battery storage to avoid power loss; or even to procure more potable water to support the surrounding community if they lose access to clean water.”
With weather intelligence seeming to function on such a high, systems-level plane, one might wonder what the average fan can possibly do. Slagen points out that a little consideration can go a long way, whether that means carpooling or using public transportation to make it to the game, cleaning up after yourself and recycling your accumulated food and beverage containers, or listening to event staff when directions are given regarding a weather alert, as they are likely acting off of robust safety protocols. Of course, if you are keen on unleashing your best air guitar performance in the rain, by all means, carry on. Just don’t forget that, like your favorite athlete, what you do away from the stadium can be as impactful as what you do while you are there.