18 April 2006

Ticket price comparison

The start of the baseball season is usually accompanied by two neat statistical news releases. Forbes Magazine's 2006 team valuation figures are not available, but Team Marketing Report's newest MLB Fan Cost Index is. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the elimination of the Coliseum's third deck led to a 25% increase in the average price of a seat. What is surprising is the fact that many teams with new stadiums are towards the bottom of the list. Granted, most of those teams (Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee) have been perennial cellar-dwellers in medium-to-small markets, but there appears to be a clear correlation between on-field success and ticket price. Baltimore and Seattle charged a hefty premium when their teams were more successful and their stadia were newer. As both went into the tank in the last few years, price hikes have been fewer.

To put things into perspective, here are a few more bullet points that you might find interesting:
  1. In 1999, the A's average ticket price was $10.10. That means that in seven years, ticket prices have gone up 118%.
  2. 1999 payroll was only $26 million. The current payroll is $62 million, a 138% increase. Pay-to-play is the name of the game.
  3. There's no better indicator of MLB clubs' revenue disparity than ticket prices. Ten years ago, Boston had the highest ticket price - $15.43. Cincinnati had the lowest - $7.95. Boston still holds the mantle of as ticket price champ, with its average price at $46.46. Kansas City now has the lowest - $13.71. There's also a multiplier effect because teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs routinely sell their seasons out, as opposed to the oft-lackluster attendance records of the lower-revenue teams.
The Fan Cost Index is frequently cited by analysts and economists, but it tends to paint the fan experience with too broad a brush. Before his untimely passing, Doug Pappas wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus that deconstructed the FCI and sought to obtain more granular, circumstance-based data.

Now that the A's have raised ticket prices 25% over last season, what's in store for the remaining years on the Coliseum lease? And what can we expect when a new ballpark is opened? Will it have a China Basin-like pricing structure, or will it look like PNC Park's tiering system?

Third deck closure (again)

A new piece in Slate by SF Weekly contributor Tommy Craggs provides a nice forward for today's upcoming post on ticket prices. Craggs bemoans the loss of the Coliseum's upper deck, especially section 310, where he and his friends frequently sat during games. Perhaps a little too romantically he writes, "Underpoliced and sparsely populated, the coliseum's scruffy upper deck was perfect—the ballpark equivalent of Wyoming." There's value in being able to stretch out, place one's jacket on an adjacent chair, or use the next row of seats as a footrest. It's also nice to be able to render a printed row and seat assignment useless. Plus it doesn't hurt that vertical circulation in the Coliseum has always been excellent, making "trading up" quite easy.

Of course, Craggs doesn't mention that sitting in 310 often made one feel like he was watching the game while actually sitting in Wyoming. Believe me, I'm a cheap guy who loves my bleacher seats and used the "View level" as a reliable fallback when the bleachers were sold out, but the seating bowl's curvature was not conducive to actually watching a ballgame. I've had a chance to sit in every section in the Coliseum, even the odd Loge boxes in the corners that act as not-quite skyboxes. I absolutely sympathize with AN's Brian in 317 and FreeSeatUpgrade, who have championed the upper deck ever since the announcement to close it was made. Unfortunately, they're a small subset of A's fandom, and their counterparts in other cities have been slowly becoming extinct over the past two decades - or at the very least homeless.

The funny thing is that the upper deck vibe hasn't completely evaporated. It appears to have moved to the Plaza Outfield area (formerly Plaza Bleachers). While these sections are more likely to be sold out for high-demand games, the typical weekday series against Texas or Kansas City will render the Plaza Outfield a veritable pasture. There are far fewer desirable seats (front row for the most part) in Plaza Outfield because so much of the outfield is obstructed by the sheer height of the deck. It's still an interesting vantage point, especially if one get there early enough to sit in dead center.

My cynical side points to a strictly business ethos in the closing of the upper deck, in that sections 315-319 were too good. Similar seats in other stadia cost upwards of $20. Yet A's fans were only paying $9, or $1 on Wednesdays. For many, the price of a View level ticket acted as a cover charge, and upon entering the stadium they made a beeline for the Field level. If not trading up, finding a slightly better perch in the upper deck was likely as long as there were plenty of empty seats in the area.

Last September, Craggs also wrote about the ballpark design Wolff unveiled in his August press conference. He alluded to the scarcity issue in that piece as well, though in the throes of a pennant race I doubt anyone was even considering the idea that Wolff would experiment with the stadium in such a drastic way. The days of an A's being an inexpensive social scene are coming to an end.

Or are they? Certainly there are potentially innovative ways to bring these fans in without completely destroying their wallets, right? The A's transitioned several season ticket holders from the 300's during the offseason, but what about the young, spur-of-the-moment types? For them, I think there is a good solution: student sections. It works in college basketball and football, why not at an A's game? The student sections could be specially designated areas of either the bleachers or upper deck, with discounted tickets and special green T-shirts. Student sections at college hoops and football games tend to be loud, so they'd naturally work for cheering and heckling in baseball. Non-students would be welcome too, but a certain percentage of those seats would be set aside for students - say 500-1,000. At the new ballpark non-premium bar could be built into the stadium for the kids to visit after games - with a ticket stub acting as free admission. The best part is that it would be easy to market ticket packages to schools and students.

Some may argue that this environment is already in place at the Coliseum, but not the way I've defined it. The LF bleachers are always raucous due to the culture that's been there for decades. When the A's move to new digs, tickets will become even more scarce, which could further push fans away. Why not take a proactive approach and give it a new marketing twist? The more of those young fans can be kept in fold, the more likely they'll sign up for better seats as they get older, earn more money, have families, etc. Wolff said he likes the "neighborhood" concept being deployed at many new ballparks. Well, Lew, here's a group of fans just waiting for a neighborhood. What can you do for them?