In the world of sport and entertainment, fans have grown accustomed to the traditional viewing methods of television and have even started to move toward the new ‘mainstream’ of wireless Internet streaming via our computers and even mobile devices. As viewing methods continue to propagate ultimate access to the population as consumers, we begin to forget where the viewing all started as well as the reasons we came to love it, from gladiator fights centuries ago in the Roman Colosseum to the Game 7 of an improbable matchup in the World Series. Public assembly venues have been the birthplace of spectatorship and have cultivated the most rudimentary and violent of sports of olden times to the most complex (and sometimes violent) games we watch today. There are many types of public assembly venues that vary according to a bevy of factors like geographical location, climate, space, type of entertainment, public necessity and so on. You are most likely familiar with a majority of these venues such as arenas, amphitheaters, and performing arts theaters; but in today’s world of large spectator sports, only one is king: the stadium.
These venues are generally built for economic and social stimulus to the local economy, to aid new business development and as a sense of community pride. Now and again, we see city after city trying to ‘one-up’ each other by constructing the most state of the art, the most expensive, and frankly the most ridiculous stadiums imaginable. Public assembly venues don’t just differ from each other in terms of the types listed above; there are different and sometimes unusual types of venue ownership, ranging from the traditional public ownership by city, state or government and private ownership by a person or entity to academic institution and non-profit organization owned venues. Even the management of venues can differ from one another and do not necessarily run parallel to the venue’s ownership. Each common function of these venues plays a vital part in its overall efficacy and the enjoyment that accompanies it; the administration and management mentioned earlier tops the operation, followed by the normal business and financial responsibilities, or marketing and sales strategies, but for a place that is meant to serve spectators, safety and security is an issue that should be at the forefront of importance.
Fan safety at public assembly venues has gained tremendous attention over the last few years, because of the increasing number of incidents occurring in a variety of venues across the entire world. These incidents can range from spectator violence or objects striking spectators, crowd management, security mishaps, structural/maintenance issues, and many more. In order to effectively run a venue you need to be able to provide a duty of care to your patrons and community that is in line per your mission statement, and this responsibility brings about the need for methods such as preventive procedure, liability and insurance concerns, adequate security, and up-to-date maintenance to name a few. The mission statement of the Atlanta Braves, the primary tenant of Turner Field, is one that focuses heavily on the fan experience and improving community enrichment. Their mission states,
“The Atlanta Braves want to make a difference in our community. Winning is obviously our goal, but just as important is the mark the Atlanta Braves leave on the lives of our fans, especially our young fans. The more involved we get in the community, the more enriched our lives and the lives of our fans will be. The Braves connection and commitment to our neighbors reaches far beyond the walls of Turner Field, it extends to the hearts and homes of the many people that support our team. We will work rigorously to improve the quality of life and share our love of baseball with our community (Atlanta Braves Organization, 2016).”
Turner Field, also known as ‘The Ted,’ is the name of the ballpark stadium residing in Atlanta, GA, which has played host to the Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Atlanta Braves, for almost 20 years. The venue got its name after Braves’ Owner Ted Turner, a media mogul who made his name through cable broadcasting and the founding of Cable News Network, or CNN. However, Turner Field hasn’t always been home to the Atlanta Braves and was in fact actually built to host another sporting event. The ballpark was originally built for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and was then converted into a baseball stadium. It replaced Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, a multipurpose stadium the Braves shared with the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League (NFL), which has since been vacated by the Atlanta Falcons as well (Reichard, 2012).
In 1990, the International Olympic Committee announced that Atlanta would host the 1996 Olympics Games, leading the city and Braves to join forces in building this new stadium (Turner Field). Plans for the facility were unveiled in November 1992 and construction began in July 1993, and a city owned site just south of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was chosen to construct the new stadium, which was built and shaped for the purpose of baseball, using a brick and limestone exterior similar to other ballparks in the country. The architect for the project was the Atlanta Stadium Design Team, which included Ellerbe Becket, Heery International, Rosser International, Williams-Russell and Johnson with Barton Malow acting as project manager (Turner Field). Opening day for the newly constructed, designed and then retrofitted stadium was on April 4t h , 1997, when the Braves defeated the Chicago Cubs, 2016 World Series Champions, 5-4.
When built, the large open-aired stadium with its fixed seating held a capacity of 48,586 spectators, along with 58 private suites, plus 3 additional party suites. The playing surface used is prescription athletic turf, featuring a hybrid Bermuda grass, and they grow the field turf in an area below the scoreboard beyond the center-field wall for maximum utility (History | Turner Field). The public assembly venue cost an estimated $235 million to construct, and, because Turner Field was originally intended for the Olympics, it was 100% privately financed via the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic games. Turner Field was and is still owned by the city of Atlanta and Fulton County via Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, and the Atlanta Braves had a 40-year lease at $1 million per year until 2016 as the venue’s sole and primary tenant (Reichard, 2012).
Although this public assembly venue is owned by the city of Atlanta, Turner Field has been privately managed by the Atlanta Braves organization itself. According to Adonis “Sporty” Jeralds, some reasons for private management of public assembly venues include bureaucratic controls, customer and tenant dissatisfaction, physical deterioration of the venue, funds for renovation, expansions and equipment as well as the need for experienced managers. This privately managed public assembly venue is located on 755 Hank Aaron Drive SE in Atlanta, GA between Ralph David Abernathy on the north, Hank Aaron Drive on the east, Bill Lucas Drive on the south and Pollard Boulevard on the west, near the junction of three major interstates for ease of access: I-75-85 and I-20 (History | Turner Field).
Upon arrival at Turner Field, fans usually park north of the ballpark, beyond the outfield stands and pass over the former site of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium as they walk towards Turner Field. As you approach the ballpark, you can examine the brick and limestone walls mentioned earlier as well the blue seats in the upper deck. After reaching the main entrance at Grand Entry Plaza, fans are greeted by an inside area with entertainment and concession areas of food and game filled pavilions, including Scouts Alley, where fans can learn about scouting, test their throwing and hitting skills, and even participate in trivia games and other interactive activities, making it a fun experience for the whole family (Reichard, 2012). Once at the field level, you can observe the seating sections and bullpen are located similarly to other ballparks; however, because of the layout, fans are able to walk the entire lower concourse and never lose site of the game action on the field. Getting to some of the more unique features of the venue, we take an escalator or elevator up to the Lexus level that extends from right field around home plate and to left field, where the 755 restaurant is located.
Perhaps regarded as the best part of this level is the air-conditioned concourse from which fans can see the beautiful Atlanta skyline or head right over to Turner Beach, featuring a cabana bar, food concessions, a picnic area, and lounge chairs. Monument Grove is located in the Grand Plaza Entrance and includes statues of Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Ty Cobb, and many other Braves greats. The Braves Chop House is an 8,000 square-foot dining restaurant located above the Braves bullpen, which allows fans to dine during the game. Prior to the start of the 2005 season, the Braves spent $15 million in improvements to Turner Field. After the 2007 season, 158 seats were added directly behind homeplate that are only 43 feet from the action. These are the most expensive seats at the ballpark and have access to a 5,000 square foot lounge adjacent to the Braves clubhouse (Reichard, 2012). After getting to know the venue, we can say hello to the organization that occupies and runs it.
The Braves organization is comprised of many different departments; however, these departments can be narrowed into four distinct categories, starting with the Owner/Executive department, followed by the Baseball Operations department and Business Operations department, and finally the Sales and Marketing department (Atlanta Braves Organization, 2016). According to the Atlanta Braves MLB website, there is a total of 251 employees amongst these four divisions. First, we have the Owner/Executive branch, which holds nine full-time positions, consisting of the Chairman, Vice Chairman, President of Baseball Operations, Development, and Business, a Senior Vice President, CFO, CLO, and Chairman Emeritus (Atlanta Braves Organization, 2016). These positions act as the heads of the other three departments and hold the overall power in the organization. Next, we have the Baseball Operations department, which is split into five smaller subdivisions, totaling 59 full-time employees. This section of the organization includes the grounds crew, medical staff, media relations, clubhouse personnel, and operations executives that control all things regarding the baseball side of the organization, ranging from the General Manager, or GM, all the way down to the assistant athletic trainer (Atlanta Braves Organization, 2016).
While the owner, his or her executives, and the baseball operations make up the crux or what the public perceives as an entire organization, the other departments play some of the most vital roles in why the organization works efficiently or at all, as well as the reason for many of the fans wanting to be a part of the Braves experience. The Business Operations department is similarly split into smaller groups, with a whopping 11 different subdivisions, consisting of Accounting, Administrative Services, Guest Services, Human Resources, Information Technology, Merchandising, Museum, Special Events, Stadium Operations and Security, Properties, and Legal branches of the organization (Atlanta Braves Organization, 2016). This department is the largest of the organization with a total of 96 full-time employees, ranging from positions such as the Vice President and Controller of Accounting all the way down to Electrical Technician.
Finally, the Sales and Marketing department, encompasses 87 full-time employees over nine subdivisions, which are responsible for Community Affairs, Fan Experience, Sales and Marketing, Corporate Partnerships, Marketing, Alumni Relations, Ticket Operations, and Ticket Sales. With positions from Senior Director of Fan Experience all the way to Ticket Sales trainee, the Atlanta Braves are devoted to its mission statement of leaving a mark on its fans by making a difference that enriches the love of baseball within the community (Atlanta Braves Organization, 2016).
In order for the Braves organization to truly be successful in all of its endeavors, it is necessary that all of these branches work together like the players on the team must work together in order to win. More importantly, it is essential that these departments always work in support of the objectives of their mission statement. If one of these departments were to not perform at an acceptable level, striving to achieve the organizational goals set forth, the whole organization could be put in jeopardy. This is especially the case due to the long and strenuous 81 home game schedule of the MLB season. All of the cogs must fit together well like the pieces of a puzzle or the players of a team in order to achieve and sustain short-term as well as long-term success.
Just like in baseball, in venue management a ‘slip-up’ can occur every now and then; a fly ball goes deep left field, allowing a few base runners or maybe even a run or two, but the team works together to get the ball back to the pitcher securely, so they can move on to the next inning. On August 29th , 2015 longtime Braves fan Gregory Murrey fell from his 2n d row seat in section 401 and landed 40-feet below in section 202. Murrey reportedly tumbled over several women in the front row of section 401 before falling over the railing to the sections below. He was attending a regular-season home game between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees in which 49,243 fans were in attendance, when several dozens witnessed Murrey’s fall as he landed in their section, miraculously managing not to land on any other spectators. He fell headfirst and was immediately treated with life-saving measures by the in-house paramedics team; however, it was later announced that Murrey was dead on arrival at nearby Grady Memorial Hospital (Stevens, 2015). A toxicology report was released on September 24, 2015 that stated Murrey’s blood-alcohol level was .104 at his time of death, indicating a measure above the legal limit of .08 in the state of Georgia (Suggs 2016).
We were able to conduct an interview with an attendee and eye witness, Shannon Donohue, to the event and incident involving Murrey. Shannon, the daughter of the New York Yankees’ Athletic Trainer, was enjoying the game from just a few rows back in a section behind home plate when out of nowhere came a loud noise, resembling the sound of a gunshot. A woman with military background next to Shannon instinctively sprung up and shielded Shannon and other spectators with her own body as others started to sprint for the exits. Once Shannon realized what had taken place, she immediately called the Braves’ security team, who arrived on the scene without delay. A man, later identified as Gregory Murrey, had fallen from the upper deck into the section adjacent to them. After being made aware of the situation, the security team then restricted access to the section as they hurried to put Murrey onto a stretcher. Shannon said that the Emergency Medical Service (EMS) arrived just minutes later, and that the entire ordeal lasted around 20 minutes total. Shannon and the other family members of the Yankees’ organization were escorted out near the clubhouse and did not return to their seats. The game was delayed for an additional five or so minutes before play then resume. Shannon recalls she had friends in the upper deck who were never even aware of the ongoing situation. Overall, she summed up the experience as “scary” and “surreal” to the extent that she needed counseling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the friends that accompanied her said they would “never go to another Braves game again” (Donohue, 2016).
As of April 19th 2016, Murrey’s family filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta Braves and Major League Baseball, claiming negligence based on the height of the guardrail in the section where Murrey fell. The lawsuit claims that the railings in the stadium should have been 42-inches, which the suit considers the industry standard. The railings in section 401 were actually found to only be 30-inches high. No damages have been awarded to the victim’s family at this point as the lawsuit is still pending litigation, but the family of the victim is fighting to have railings raised at major league stadiums, while also seeking a monetary settlement. Michael Neff, the attorney representing Murrey’s widow, has stated that it would be “premature to put out a figure” for the monetary settlement, but that his client was seeking “compensation for the value of Greg’s life.” Murrey’s accident was the third fatal incident involving a fan at Turner Field since 2008 (Suggs 2016).
Immediately following the incident, the Braves issued a statement saying, “there was an accident during tonight’s game involving a fan. The fan was immediately treated at the scene and transported to a local hospital.” They later confirmed the death of the fan by stating that “we have received confirmation that the fan involved in an accident at this evening’s game has passed away. The Atlanta Braves offer their deepest condolences to the family.” (McLaughlin & Robinson, 2015). According to our interview with an eyewitness of the tragedy, “not many people even knew what was going on. They paused the game for five minutes and went to a commercial break on TV” (Donohue, 2016). On Sunday, the Braves President, John Schuerholz, addressed the media expressing his sentiment: “We’re all dealing with the sadness and the tragedy of it, for the gentleman’s family and anybody who happened to witness it. It’s difficult, and that’s what our focus is right now…trying to do everything we can to help the families deal with this as best as possible. Not only the family of the gentleman, but others who witnessed it, experienced it.” He went on to further comment on the plans made for their new stadium to be completed in 2017 in Cobb County. Schuerholz states, “Every facility that’s getting built, there’s a great deal of communication with architects, with engineers, and with the league, abiding by league standards for the industry. So we certainly will do that.” (Stevens, 2015).
The Braves declined to make a statement concerning the height of the guardrails at Turner Field, which is a major point of emphasis in the Murrey family’s suit against the Braves and MLB. The Braves also have not provided specifics about what the height of the guardrails will be at their new stadium, Sun Trust Park. In a statement made back in August, they said that ensuring their fans safety while in the ballpark has, and always will be a priority for their organization. They even went so far as to say that they are working with architects for improved safety (McQuade and Rossino, 2016), and Schuerholz noted that grief counselors were made available to players’ friends and family members who witnessed the fall (McLaughlin & Robinson, 2015).
After the Murrey family filed their lawsuit on April 19th of this year, there has been little said about the incident. An MLB spokesman said the league didn’t have any comment at that particular time, and a spokesperson for the Braves did not immediately return an email. The Braves issued a statement following the incident that they were constantly evaluating ways to ensure fan safety while maintaining game-day experience. Neff, however, claims that “nothing has gotten done and no commitments have been made on the Braves’ part of Major League Baseball,” and that “[the Braves] didn’t have any interest in talking to [them]” (Larimer, 2016). According to a building permit for the Braves new stadium, SunTrust Park, the guardrails range from 30-inches in the lower bowl to 47-inches in the upper bowl. The guardrail that Murrey fell over was only 30-inches high, but, speculative as it may be, it is supposed that had the rails been 42-inches high, only 5-inches shorter than the projected guardrails at the new stadium, Murrey would not have fallen (Suggs, 2016). According to the several newspaper articles read, Turner Field has not done anything to ensure that this event doesn’t happen again, but one of the main reasons no action has been taken is because they are building a new stadium that is set to open for the 2017 season.
When it comes to fan safety, specifically fans falling in ballparks, this isn’t the first occurrence in Major League Baseball, nor is it the first incident at Turner Field. Back in 2008, Justin Hayes fell four levels at Turner field as he was attempting to slide down a staircase railing when he fell; then in 2012, Ronald Homer Jr. fell 85-feet over a railing into a parking lot at ‘The Ted,’ however his death was later ruled a suicide. Elsewhere in Atlanta in 2012, Isaac Grubb fell 45-feet to his death at the Georgia Dome while his blood alcohol level was .169 (Suggs, 2016). Similar incidents have occurred at other baseball stadiums such as the Texas Rangers’ ballpark, where Holly Minter fell over a rail in 1994 and suffered serious injuries (Larimer, 2016).
Although there have been several incidents in Major League Baseball involving spectators falling over railings, MLB has not been very quick in responding to these events. Clubs have been aware of spectator falls due to insufficient height of guardrails in upper decks for decades, with evidence of at least six different instances involving an individual falling at a MLB stadium dating all the way back to 1994. Only one team, the Texas Rangers, had a significant response to an incident, raising the height of their guardrail to 42-inches (McQuade & Rossino, 2016). The industry has responded to the issue of broken bats and foul balls striking spectators in the stands by enlarging the nets that protect the fans at baseball games; however, little has been done in regards to guardrails, mainly due to the fact that their height can affect sightlines (Boren, 2015).
As an independent consulting firm hired by the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM) in an effort to ensure that an incident like this never occurs again, we have gone through incidents, both past and similar, to gain more of a background and further understanding of the core issue. After an extensive evaluation of fan safety regarding falling at ballparks, we have determined that the Braves have chosen the best and most efficient course of action in constructing a new stadium with guardrails that are not only higher than the previous stadium’s guardrails but are also an additional 5-inches higher than the standard deemed safe by the Murrey case. The call on the field is the Braves slide in…safe.
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