Every year for Thanksgiving when I was growing up, my family and I would visit my grandparents in Pittsburgh. Some of my grandfather’s favorite stories to share were tales about watching Pittsburgh Pirates games as a kid in the 1930s at Forbes Field. He often recalled the hand-operated scoreboard in left field, the beautiful park beyond the outfield and the time he saw the Pirates beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series.
How much were the tickets that created these priceless memories? Around a dollar per ticket. Even adjusted for inflation, that comes out to only around $15.
That kind of cost is a joke when you look at ticket prices for professional sports today. The MLB league-wide average ticket price is up to $29 while the NFL is at $84, the NHL is at $62 and the NBA is at $54. Those numbers don’t seem that terrible at first glance; going to a professional sports game is a luxury, and those prices are not necessarily unreasonable for a ticket to a game.
However, those numbers are the league-wide averages over the course of full seasons and are misleading once picked apart.
The Team Marketing Report, a sports marketing publication, put together a Fan Cost Index to compute how much MLB fans across the United States could expect to pay for a day at the ballpark. The computation includes the cost of four average-price tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking and two adult-size caps, all generally considered to be part of the cost of a normal trip to an MLB game for a family of four. The total is now $211.68, a significant jump from the $29 price tag of one ticket. What’s worse is that these numbers go up year after year.
Behind the rising costs of admission is a hidden class bias that has become a trend in professional sports: higher ticket and food prices at stadiums drive away low-income fans who cannot afford to pay hundreds of dollars to attend games. While that in itself is a cause for concern, in turn, the atmosphere in stadiums has shifted to become more corporate and, perhaps, less authentic.
The change was evident when I attended a Golden State Warriors game last season. I saw plenty of Silicon Valley types in the seats, but less of the diehard fans who supported the Warriors through years of losing records. Consequently, while millionaire players and billionaire owners divvy up the spoils from record profits, the average fan now looks more like a Wall Street banker than a blue-collar worker.
In addition to forcing lower-income families out of arenas, teams are also tending to spend public money to build new stadiums, most recently with the Milwaukee Bucks, or threatening to move their franchises lest local governments offer the money to build new stadiums, as is the case with the Oakland Raiders. Even when local governments do decide to fund these arenas, teams end up charging more for tickets to the same taxpayers who subsidized the construction.
Take for example my hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers. In 2014, the team opened the brand-new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The $1.27-billion stadium was almost entirely financed through public financing, but it now costs a family of four an average of $641 to attend a game. In what world is it fair to take public money and then proceed to hustle fans with expensive tickets?
Teams have a responsibility to their fans to lower ticket and food prices. A family should be able to go to a game without taking a second mortgage out on the house. Lowering the price of attending games has its merits in decency and morality, but also in ultimately raising profits for executives.
Rather than fleece fans, major league sports franchises would be better off by encouraging their support. Lowering prices boosts attendance at games, which fuels interest in the team. That interest is convertible into currency through television ratings and merchandise sales. Plus, as TV revenue makes up more and more of a team’s income, attendance money is less critical to a franchise’s commercial viability than its ability to attract viewers and fans.
Professional sports leagues and their teams would be best served by drumming up goodwill through reasonable prices. Until then, fans will have to settle for stories about the days when cheap ballgames were played at legendary fields like Ebbets, Wrigley and Fenway. Sometimes progress actually feels like moving backward.
Russell Guertin is a rising sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. The Benchwarmer Report appears every other Tuesday.