When you can’t even afford the cheap seats

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(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

For tonight’s game at Staples Center, against the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, the Kings reintroduce their “All U Can Eat” value package — a $27 seat that includes all the hot dogs, sodas, nachos, peanuts and popcorn you can eat. Last year, that seat sold for $36.
Above, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Eric Godard hands out pizza to students in line outside Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh in hopes of getting “student rush” tickets to an NHL game between his team and the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. The Penguins took a block of 600 seats and offered them to area college and high school students for $20.
Welcome to the struggling financial economy, even for sports.
It leads us into this story:

By NANCY ARMOUR
The Associated Press

Buy their Slam Dunk Sampler ticket package, and the Indiana Pacers will throw in Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Kevin Durant for free.

A few weeks ago, the St. Louis Blues told fans to name their own price for season tickets — within reason, of course.

A family of four will be able to take in Oakland Athletics games for $50 on Fridays next season, meals included.

Even before the economic meltdown, leagues and individual teams alike had acknowledged that most fans can’t spend several hundred dollars — and some not even $100 — to go to a game. Now with stocks plunging and a steady drumbeat of layoffs, bankruptcies and foreclosures, sales efforts such as variable pricing, pay-as-you-go plans, package deals and even mandated cheap seats are growing.

They’re likely to only get more popular.


“We read the papers and know there are jobs disappearing and people being laid off,” said Greg Schenkel, the Pacers’ vice president of corporate and public relations. “We were not oblivious to the real world out there.

“We’re a business, too, and pro sports can’t act like we’re immune from that.”

The latest promotions may seem at odds with other developments in the sports world: Tickets at the new Yankee Stadium go for as high as $2,500 — face value — and some Dallas Cowboys fans are shelling out $150,000 just for the right to buy a seat.

Indeed, average ticket prices in all four leagues have been on a steady climb for more than a decade now, with the NHL and NBA seeing drops only after labor strife. The average NFL ticket this season costs $72.20, an 8 percent increase, while baseball’s went up 10 percent to $25.43 and the NHL is up 5 percent to $49.66, according to the Team Marketing Report’s annual survey.

The NBA’s average was $48.83 last season, the most recent numbers available, TMR said. Throw in food, drinks, souvenirs and parking, and going to a game appears to be a budget-buster.

But what’s really happening is a widening gulf between the big-spending ticket holders and money-conscious fans — with new efforts aimed at keeping everybody, especially the have-nots, in their seats.

“If you look at the straight numbers, yes, the average ticket price has gone up. But at the same time, for the Joe Average fans, it’s never been better,” said Dan Migala, president of The Migala Report, a monthly sports marketing publication.

“There’s more economic options,” said Migala, who scored a $5 ticket to a Yankees game this summer by using a sponsor promotion. “(There are) some great buys if you have some flexibility for opportunity, day of the week, advance purchases. It’s just required maybe a little more window shopping to find bargains.”

Part of the reason teams are able to give the economy-class fans a break is because the high rollers are still shelling out so much.

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Jack Nicholson is paying $2,500 a game for his courtside seats at Lakers games, and individual tickets can cost as much as $315 when the NBA’s best teams come to town. The best seats at Philadelphia Flyers games are $225 a piece. The highest-priced Super Bowl tickets will crack the $1,000 mark for the first time this year.

What many franchises have discovered is that by raising the cost of their premium seats and making them more attractive — throw in food and beverages, for example, or wait service or parking — they can hold or even reduce prices on seats elsewhere in their arenas and ballparks.

“We have definitely taken kind of the ‘Robin Hood’ approach to ticket pricing,” said Sam Kennedy, the Boston Red Sox’s executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer.

Most baseball teams are still in the process of setting ticket prices for next season,
but commissioner Bud Selig warned owners earlier this month not to “get too cocky.” The Washington Nationals have already said they’re cutting prices on 7,500 tickets in their 41,888-seat stadium next season, and the San Francisco Giants indicated they might have reductions in some seating areas, too.

“What you end up getting is a greater disparity between the highest-priced ticket and the lowest-priced ticket. That gap is increasing over time,” said Craig Depken, an economics professor at UNC-Charlotte who specializes in sports economics.

“I can see why the teams want to do it. They want to price differentiate as great as they can to ensure lower-priced tickets are sold, while keeping the higher-priced seats,” Depken said. “High-priced tickets tend to go, anyway. It’s the bleacher seats that are vulnerable.”

Even at Fenway, which has been sold out for every game since May 15, 2003, the Red Sox have been able to freeze ticket prices in some sections by adding premium seating areas or giving those customers more add-ons.

One year, Kennedy said, ticket prices remained the same in 80 percent of the ballpark.

“Make no mistake, we’ve done everything to try and drive revenue,” he said. “But we think that ticketing is an area where we’d be shortsighted to try and get every last dollar out of the market place.

“If you’re a working mom or dad and you’re trying to bring kids here, we have to think
like that when we’re pricing tickets and food. If they can’t afford it or are priced out, we’re going to lose a generation of fans.”

That was the NBA’s fear back in 1999.

Worried fans were being priced out of the game, the NBA mandated that teams have at least 500 tickets priced at $10 or lower for every game. There is now an average of 1,000 of those low-cost tickets per game, commissioner David Stern said Thursday.

“We said, ‘Let’s put an end to that forever,’” Stern said of fans being unable to afford tickets. “Now our owners want to do more.”

They don’t have much choice.

Even in tough economic times, consumers continue to spend money on entertainment items. But with other options out there — movies, museums, shows — it’s as much about the experience of going to the game as the cost of the ticket.

One popular idea is to give average fans some of the add-ons the big spenders enjoy. The Cleveland Cavaliers have 15 “McFamily Nights,” offering four tickets and vouchers for four McDonald’s meals for as low as $72. The Philadelphia 76ers are selling a five-game, all-you-can-eat package for $150.

In addition to their Friday Family deal, the Oakland A’s are doubling the number of $2 seats for Wednesday games next season — and throwing in $1 hot dogs for the whole stadium.

Teams also acknowledge they’re in competition not only for fans’ dollars, but their time.

Most clubs now offer “mini packages,” allowing fans to buy season tickets for a portion of the year rather than the entire schedule. The Pacers went one better than that with their Slam Dunk Sampler, giving fans 11 games for the price of eight, including the home opener against the defending champion Boston Celtics.

Several teams are now letting fans pay for season tickets over time, too, rather than coming up with a big chunk of money all at once. People who bought Columbus Blue Jackets tickets for this season even had two deferred-payment options: a 25 percent deposit with the balance due in two installments, or a 12-month plan.

And in the case of the St. Louis Blues, they let the masses decide how much they wanted to pay.

The Blues took 500 tickets — three sections in the lower bowl, one in the upper bowl — and told fans to submit bids for a full season, 10 games or individual games in October. If the bid met a base price (the Blues won’t say what those were, but it was below
the original price), the Blues accepted it and Ticketmaster, a sponsor, picked up the difference.

Though the promotion only ran for a week, 400 tickets were sold, said Peter McLoughlin, chief executive officer of St. Louis Blues Enterprises.

“It’s very important to be creative and be innovative,” McLoughlin said. “We think we’ve got a very positive story to tell. Sometimes, though, you have to get creative to break through the clutter and we thought this program, Name Your Price, did that.”

The efforts appear to be working. The NBA’s full-season ticket packages should be about the same as last year, and Stern said he expected attendance to be flat — no worse, no better.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that league’s season ticket sales are up 4 percent. As of early October, single-game tickets were up almost 13 percent.

“I think (those) are remarkable — if not startling — numbers in light of what we hear is going on,” Bettman said.

The NFL is a little more insulated from the current economic crisis, with its peak selling period coming over the summer, before the stock market bottomed out. NFL teams only play a fraction of the games that the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball do, too, making their tickets more of a precious commodity.

“Most of our tickets are already sold for the season. It may be an issue we deal with coming into next season,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We will continue to look at it, and maybe something will hit us that would be an intelligent approach to it.”

More than anything, teams and leagues have to fight the perception that fans are being priced out of the games they love. Fans can certainly spend hundreds of dollars to go to a game, if they choose.

But they can also go for about what it would cost to see a movie.

“They might be being priced out of how many events they’re going to, but they’re not being priced out of the events themselves,” said Depken, the sports economist. “Now, if they’re being replaced by another average fan, that’s just one person being substituted for another. It’s not possible to say it’s good or bad. It’s just what it is.

“We don’t all get to drive Ferraris.”

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