Jacked-up prices put real fans in their place

On Baseball

October 11, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The sight of it should have sent a shiver through the offices of Major League Baseball.

In the aftermath of one of the most exciting seasons in baseball history, there were large banks of empty seats at Turner Field in Atlanta for Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.

That should be a wake-up call for both the players and owners. There are going to be more and more empty seats if baseball persists in marketing itself as an upper-class sport.

OK, OK, so that's not what they say they're doing. Baseball is the national pastime. Bring us your poor, your middle-class children, yearning to see Mark McGwire hit a home run. That's the message you'll get from the game's television marketing campaign, but it isn't the word on the street.

Baseball boosted ticket prices dramatically for the playoffs and World Series this year, and the overpriced ducks are coming home to roost.

The price of most tickets to the World Series were doubled -- $150 a game for the best box seats and $100 a night for top reserved tickets. The cheapest seat in the house -- bleachers and general admission -- cost $40, and standing room tickets are $25 each.

For teams that have different levels of box and reserved prices, ++ less desirable box seats are $120 and lesser reserves are $85.

Last year, most box seats cost $75, while reserves were $50 and general admission $30.

Box and reserved seats for the League Championship Series increased by $10 to $60 and $45, and general admission and bleachers went up by $5 to $30.

The real message is this: The postseason -- like the Super Bowl -- isn't for the common folk. Stay home and watch on television.

Maybe it has always been that way to a certain extent, but the decision this year to trade so heavily on the game's feel-good regular season just might alienate the same fans who turned away from the game during the labor troubles of the early 1990s. Baseball can't help itself. It just keeps forgetting about the regular guy.

The World Series is not the Super Bowl, which is played at a neutral site and doesn't carry with it the feeling of entitlement that rank-and-file fans carry into the baseball playoffs. The Super Bowl -- with its ridiculous ticket prices and overblown marketing -- is a Roman orgy. The World Series is supposed to be an American tradition.

Major League Baseball may be willing to sacrifice that down-home aspect of the sport in exchange for the upscale fan, but the long-term impact of such a strategy could be disastrous.

The trouble is, once the regular fans see from their living rooms that the stands aren't even full for the postseason, they're going to be less likely to view baseball as a you-gotta-be-there event, and that is going to make it more difficult to sell those expensive regular-season tickets.

Major League Baseball might have overplayed its hand again.

The three-tiered playoff system was instituted to infuse more money into the sport and increase interest in the final months of the regular season -- and it has done that. But the owners, with their decision to push some ticket prices into triple figues, are assuming that there is an unlimited number of people with an unlimited amount of money to watch postseason games.

That was disproved at Turner Field on Wednesday night.

The higher ticket cost and the more serious systemic economic problems that infect the game combined to keep thousands of fans at home.

The Braves, by virtue of their huge economic advantage over most National League clubs, have been in every postseason since 1990. The novelty has worn off.

No doubt, the stands will be full in San Diego, where the fans are not so accustomed to success, but the large market/small market dichotomy assures that many of the same teams will be in the playoffs year after year. That will mean more and more empty bleachers.

The Super Bowl is a simple case of supply and demand. The baseball postseason is a more complicated proposition. It is a time when fan loyalty should be celebrated and rewarded, not just exploited.

Changing places?

Red Sox CEO John Harrington has assured Boston fans that the club will not be left high and dry if potential free agent Mo Vaughn decides to sign with another club. The Sox apparently learned their lesson when Roger Clemens strung along the Red Sox and then signed with the Toronto Blue Jays after most of the big-name free-agent pitchers already were gone.

If the Red Sox can't strike a deal with Vaughn soon after he files for free agency, they are expected to make a run at one of several other free-agent first basemen, possibly the Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro.

It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to see the two of them trading places.

Unaccountable umpires

Give umpiring crew chief Jim Evans credit for meeting the New York media head-on after Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, even if his explanation of the controversial no-call that helped decide that game featured more spin than a Mike Mussina curveball.

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