Aug 24,2001

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BASEBALL

The Great Ticket Crash

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The looming lockout

Bonham isn't among those who think that fans are getting so turned off by sports that they won't return if ticket prices come back down. "I don't think it's too late," he says. "I do think that long-term, major-league sports executives have to find other ways to increase revenues than increasing the burden on the fan. I think the fan's back is bowed pretty heavily, and is about ready to break."

But if the fan demand curve breaks -- and with a recession looming, things don't look likely to get any better -- teams could find themselves with a lot of fixed costs (stadium bond debt, multimillion-dollar shortstops) and not enough revenue to pay the bills. And a dip in the larger economy could take a double toll: while Bonham doesn't see corporate suite sales being dramatically affected by an economic downturn, items like sponsorships and naming rights could fall off the table. This could be great for fans sick of both high ticket prices and ad logos plastered across every available surface (at Yankee Stadium, the three-stripe Adidas logo even invades the bullpen awnings and the grounds crew's caps), but it could make for some interesting times for sports franchises themselves.

Football and basketball, with their rich shared TV deals, are in better position to weather the storm of a revenue slowdown than are baseball (no revenue sharing to speak of) and hockey (three team bankruptcies in recent years, though no teams have outright folded yet). Things could get especially interesting for the San Francisco Giants, who built Pac Bell Park largely with their own money last year, and now must draw crowds of at least 30,000 a game for the next 20 years to pay off their stadium debt.

All of which is one reason why -- you saw it coming, didn't you? -- a baseball lockout is all but certain after this season. And if team owners and players are fighting over pieces of a shrinking pie, the bloodshed will only be all the more vicious. "When MLB faces a work stoppage, which I think they will, the cost of their tickets are going to be the least of their problems," says Bonham, who predicts that the next labor-management war will wipe out at least one season, possibly two. No money will be coming in -- with the exception of the national Fox TV contract, which the network foolishly agreed to guarantee in case of work stoppage. (Or not so foolishly, if you think Dodgers owner Rupert Murdoch intended to fund the owners' war chest.)

Anything could happen, says Bonham, from less flush teams going bankrupt to the emergence of a new league. "If the work stoppage happens as I and others expect it will, it's going to be unprecedented in the world of sports," he says. "And it's going to be anybody's guess what both the short and long-term impact will be." But look on the bright side -- minor-league tickets are really cheap.

Questions or comments? Please write to Neil deMause at neil@demause.net or to the SportsJones editors at sjeditor@sportsjones.com




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