Ticket price hike is thankless message

JOHN EISENBERG

September 12, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

So, you figured maybe the Orioles would not raise ticket prices this once. You figured maybe, after experiencing the real-life fantasy of having taxpayers build them a ballpark and fill it beyond anyone's wildest expectations, the Orioles would have the humility it takes to say thanks in the most meaningful way of all: in the wallet.

Well, you were wrong.

The Orioles announced a rise in prices for the 1993 season yesterday. They might object to it being characterized as a rise, considering that they also lowered the prices of some seats about which fans had complained. But the fact is that they tacked $2 onto the price of virtually every seat in the lower deck.

Assuming the run on tickets continues, it will amount to no less than a $2 million increase in ticket revenue next year. And that is an extremely conservative estimate.

Regardless of the exact figure, the Orioles should be able to more than cover the likely increase in Eli Jacobs' management fee, which, according to a story that ran in The Sun in June, was $1.325 million this season.

This is the third time in the four years of Jacobs' ownership that the Orioles have raised ticket prices. They did not raise prices in the last three years the late Edward Bennett Williams owned the team.

Now, only a naive person would be shocked that the Jacobs Orioles are again shaking down their customers. Since he bought the team, according to The Sun's story, the operating profit has nearly quadrupled. This season it could reach $20 million. Meanwhile, the player payroll remains among the lowest in baseball.

The team's on-field image is young and plucky, but the front office of Jacobs and Larry Lucchino is as tough and mercenary as it gets. How kind-hearted was it to announce an increase in prices right in the middle of a pennant race? Is that fan-friendly or what? It was as if they were so excited about this latest shakedown that they could not wait to tell everyone.

Leave it to these Orioles to steal attention from the biggest games of the season and give it to their biggest game of every season: making more money.

In fairness, the new prices are reasonable by current standards, no more outrageous than those at other parks -- less so, in some cases. And the club deserves credit for more faithfully fulfilling its trust with the public in the last year. It put a contender on the field. It spent to sign Cal Ripken, Glenn Davis, Rick Sutcliffe, Jeff Hammonds and probably Craig Lefferts.

The payroll is going to grow significantly, too, with Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson among those scheduled for arbitration. A reasonable estimate is that the payroll could increase from $20 million this year to $29 million next year.

But is it really necessary for the fans to pay for that when the club is projecting an operating profit of perhaps as much as $20 million this season? Does that strike anyone else as the absolute height of greed?

Everyone can see that the price of doing baseball business is going up, and that ticket prices eventually must rise. But there is such a thing as doing it right. After this monster season at the gate, giving the fans at least one gouge-free year was the graceful thing for the Orioles to do. A real thank-yewwww.

But then, these Orioles seem to operate with the idea that an operating profit of $20 million one year is a mandate to match it every year. They think the popularity of the club means they can do whatever they want. They don't get it. The fact is that a lot of people in town see through their act. They cheer despite having no fondness whatsoever for the front office. They just put that dislike aside when the games start.

Of course, it would be years before such dislike bore tangible results here. With the new stadium, a youthful contender and the only team in a sports-mad town, the Orioles can get away with raising prices again and again. With the demand for tickets in town so asphyxiating right now, they could have hit the fans much harder this time. I'm sure they would want that mentioned. Which is precisely the point.

Such avarice is at the root of the nationwide ailment that has seen baseball attendance and TV ratings drop. Fans here still buy tickets, but elsewhere they are tired of being treated like so many cash machines. The soaring price of paying attention, and the sheer lack of respect shown by those in charge, has disenfranchised millions.

No one wants to see that happen here, where baseball has provided such a thrilling summer. Only the worst cynic would not want the next dozen seasons to be just like 1992. But if the Orioles keep hitting up their fans when they don't have to, when they already are turning a profit bordering on embarrassing in its enormity, the fans are going to get mad one of these days.

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