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Lightning delay at Denver Broncos game: Right call?

With tens of thousands in the stands and millions watching at home, Mother Nature decided to take control of Thursday night’s preseason showdown between the Broncos and the Seahawks, delaying last night’s exhibition opener by 45 minutes due to a lightning strike near the stadium – causing plenty of fuss from Broncos fans. So was the delay the right call? Let’s take a look.

First, the weather-y stuff: the team said that a lightning bolt struck within eight miles of Sports Authority Field at Mile High (the strike appeared to be due north of the stadium, by the way) last night. Both teams were forced to leave the field at around 7:45 p.m. MT during the first half of the game, and they didn’t resume play until approximately 8:30.

Fans inside the stadium probably looked up and cursed over-cautious league officials. The sky was blue and the storm appeared a ways away.

But that’s the problem.

Eight miles (the lightning strike radius limit the Broncos say they’ll suspend play for) might seem like a rather arbitrary number, and to a degree, it is. But it’s certainly one that errs right in the middle of safety and not overdoing it, either. Lightning can – and has – killed people from as far away as 20 miles from a parent storm, so eight miles seems a fair amount of warning and distance between overcautious while keeping fans safe.

Stadiums like Mile High are built high up, several stories tall, and are often the tallest structures in the general area, making them the most exposed to a potential hit from lightning. Lightning almost always strikes the tallest conductor from the ground, and a stadium built with metallic objects unfortunately fits the bill for that. Hence, the (meteorological) caution.

There’s recent history here, too. Earlier this summer, a fan tailgating in advance of a Columbus Crew match was seriously injured by a lightning strike. The fan took shelter inside a port-a-potty outside Crew Stadium and had to be transported to the hospital as a result of the strike, which fortunately didn’t kill the victim. Two people have been killed in Colorado this summer from lightning strikes (both in July), and over a dozen others have been injured in the Centennial State.

Still not convinced? Nineteen people have been killed this year via lightning strikes in the U.S. – the overwhelming majority of which were in preventable situations (outdoor recreation is always a leading activity during fatal lightning strikes). In total, 280 people have died in America from lightning strikes since 2006, making lightning the fourth-biggest weather-related killer in America every year.

And almost all lightning deaths are preventable.

But ultimately, like everything in our lives, the Broncos’ decision more than anything likely comes down to cold, hard cash. Teams are liable for the safety and well-being of their fans (hence all the text numbers fans have at their disposal), and the worst-case scenario of a strike to a fan would almost inevitably end up with a multi-million (and by multi, I mean multi) dollar lawsuit at the desk of the unfortunate team’s owner.

But whatever the reason and/or motivation, the Broncos got it right last night. Hopefully, other sports teams take their example and put safety over sport more often now and in the future.

Meteorologist Chris Bianchi

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