Ticket hike easier to ride in light of Orioles' spending

December 19, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

It was outrageous when the Orioles kept raising their ticket prices in the years that Eli Jacobs owned the team.

We never knew what Jacobs did with the money, but we knew what he didn't do: He didn't use it to buy better players.

It was just as outrageous when the Orioles raised their ticket prices after the 1994 season, which was aborted by the strike that killed the World Series.

Making the fans pay higher prices after that season was the definition of sheer gall.

With that as a backdrop, it's hard to get outraged about the Orioles' latest rise in ticket prices, announced yesterday.

No, raising the price of every seat from between $2 and $5 won't win the club any awards for consumer advocacy.

And no, we shouldn't just blindly accept the front office's rationale that it has to charge more because it lost between $4 million and $5 million last season, according to Joe Foss, the team's vice chairman of finance.

But hey, you can't question their motives when they keep spending as much on free agents and personnel as any team in the game.

Whatever your stance on Peter Angelos as the owner of the Orioles and architect of their future, you can't quibble with his financial commitment to winning.

If he is making the fans pay more, at least he is taking their money and using it to improve the team -- and the entertainment value of a ticket -- through the acquisition of such players as Roberto Alomar, Jimmy Key and Mike Bordick.

It's a lot easier to accept a rise in prices when you know the money is going to such a good cause.

The Orioles had baseball's second-highest payroll last season, and they might spend even more in 1997. To accept that without expecting a rise in ticket prices is, well, just naive.

At least half of the 27 other major-league teams are raising prices for next season, and a lot of those fans won't get nearly as much bang for their buck as fans at Camden Yards.

The Orioles made the playoffs last season and should have a playoff-caliber team next season, unlike a lot of the teams raising prices.

The Mets are raising prices even though they spent only $25 million on players last year, half as much as the Orioles.

You can criticize Angelos for interfering with the general manager or chasing off a radio announcer, but you can't criticize him for spending to win.

"We have taken the revenue stream and plowed it back into players, dollar for dollar and then some," Foss said yesterday. "Since Peter bought the club, no dollars have been taken out by Peter or the investors. No dividends were paid to any of them."

Foss said the club would have lost twice as much last season -- between $8 million and $10 million -- had it not made some $4 million in the playoffs.

If that's true, baseball is in poorer financial shape than anyone imagined.

If a team as revenue-rich as the Orioles is losing that much money, how bad off is everyone else?

Of course, the Orioles have only said they lost that much.

Having now forced the fans to make up for their alleged shortfall, they need to open up their books and show us their tale of woe.

Angelos has said he wants every team to open its books, the better to argue baseball's plea of poverty.

It's time for him to walk the walk.

But even if he doesn't open his books, you can't really criticize him for raising prices.

He is just doing what any prudent CEO would do: maximizing profits.

The main reason prices are going up is that the fans are willing to pay.

Camden Yards will be just as full in 1997 as it was in 1996, regardless of the price of a ticket.

For every fan turned off by the higher prices, there is another waiting in line with a credit card.

The Orioles are fortunate in that regard: Their fans stuck by them even though they went 13 years without making the playoffs.

Jacobs took advantage of that loyalty; knowing the fans would pay to see an inferior product, he cut corners.

Angelos has continued to raise prices, but he also has raised the player payroll at a time when baseball's TV revenues have fallen dramatically in the wake of the sport's noxious labor battle.

The falloff in those revenues, along with a general falloff in attendance, explains the rise in ticket prices elsewhere.

The Orioles' case is different, but, unlike most other teams, they're still willing to spend whatever they think it takes to win.

No, it isn't fair that they're playing in a stadium built by taxpayers, yet they have doubled their average ticket price since their last year in Memorial Stadium.

But they aren't pocketing the money.

They're using it to buy players.

It's the price of remaining in baseball's elite -- a price that few other teams are willing to pay.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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