Aug 24,2001

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BASEBALL

The Great Ticket Crash

The "Bottom Line" on Major League ticket prices and baseball's immediate future




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by Neil deMause

The end of the boom

In case you missed it, the Detroit Tigers management did something unusual last month: They lowered ticket prices. That's right, lowered. As in, a ticket in the front row of the upper deck that would have run you $50 last season will cost just $35 in 2001. And those seats way out in right field, out beyond the foul pole? Why, they'll be a mere $15, down from $25 during the 2000 season.

There's no mystery why the Tigers took this step. Last year, to mark the occasion of their move from cozy Tiger Stadium (the most notable feature of which was an overhang that put fans literally on top of the right fielder) to sprawling Comerica Park (the most notable feature of which is a five-story-high Ferris wheel), the team hiked ticket prices by an astronomical 103%, going from the 20th priciest seats in the majors to the 4th with one stroke of the ticket printer. Fans, predictably, responded by showing up disguised as empty seats.

Though the Tigers' website boasts of Comerica drawing "a staggering 2,533,752 fans, which was the second largest total in team history," that's also the worst first-year attendance for any new ballpark since the Minneapolis Metrodome way back in 1982. So the price reduction shouldn't be that big a shocker, given the immutable laws of supply and demand and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch's immutable desire to maximize his profits.

Still, it's almost unheard of for a team to lower ticket prices these days, especially one in a new stadium. (The Arizona Cardinals, for example, who finished dead last in both NFL attendance and the NFC East this season, are raising ticket prices by $5 a seat for 2001. It shouldn't be any trouble calling audibles at Sun Devil Stadium next year, anyway.) Over the past decade, in fact, ticket prices have soared at an unprecedented rate -- in baseball, the average ticket price has doubled since 1991 -- as new stadiums and arenas have largely replaced bleachers and general admission seats with high-priced club seats and corporate boxes. The price hikes have meant that the nature of the game has changed, as generations of sports fans have grown up thinking of a live sporting event as either a once-a-year treat or a corporate perk.

But there are signs that the owners' boom times may be coming to an end. Talk of a "luxury box glut" began to circulate a year or so ago, as sports industry pundits began to wonder whether there would be enough corporate demand to buy up the luxury suites in all those new stadiums and arenas, especially should there be a -- gulp -- economic downturn. Several NHL teams began introducing cheaper seats last year, and the NBA dictated that all teams in this post-Jordanian era offer selected seats at just $10 apiece.

Is it possible that ticket price inflation is finally hitting some sort of ceiling? "Well, if they're not hitting the ceiling, they're certainly hitting the light fixtures," says Dean Bonham, the veteran sports industry consultant. "We're seeing a lot of resistance from fans, a lot of negative comments about the cost of going to games. A lot of fans in the marketplace have gone from attendees to viewers."

Next page: It's not too late to lower the prices



Respond: sjeditor@sportsjones.com

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