Soon-to-be Nationals owner Ted Lerner talked about going to Griffith Stadium as a kid and getting in for 25 cents. He remembered seeing Babe Ruth’s Yankees and all the stars of the day play for that price.
The cheap seats at RFK Stadium are a little more expensive these days, but still a deal at $7 per. Unless, that is, the Nationals are playing the Ruth-less Yankees. Upper-deck tickets, the lowest rung on the RFK ticket ladder, will be going for $12. The ticket inflation also kicks in when the Orioles and the Cubs come to town.
The baseball Lerner remembers, when all games were created equal, is long over. So are the days when the only price changes were cutbacks—student discounts and the like. (A generation of O’s fans gets moist remembering Three Buck Nights at Memorial Stadium, when the less costly ticket usually came with several upper-deck brawls among patrons who’d turned over their savings and then some to the beer man.)
This year, the Nationals have inserted “premium” games into the schedule. This weekend, as the Nats host the Baltimore squad that controls its TV rights, the price of every ticket for the entire series will go up. The aforementioned nosebleeds will see the biggest hike percentagewise, at 58 percent. But the rich kids take a hit, too: The best seats, dubbed “Diamond Club,” go from $105 to $115. All told, the increases will be put in place for 10 games.
“If you have something that you’re going to have a higher draw, there’s a premium on it,” says Nationals spokesperson Chartese Berry, when asked why the tiered pricing system was put in place. “It’s done across-the-board in any type of sales structure or sales model. This just makes sense. It’s not uncommon.”
No, it’s not uncommon. With the premium-ticket plan, the Nationals have jumped on a fan-unfriendly horse that only recently left the barn.
Baseball observers give the Boston Red Sox credit for being the first team to pump up the prices for select events. Since 2004, the team has labeled every game either a “blue” or “red” date; red commands a higher price (the cost of a standing-room ticket, for example, jumps from $25 to $30). This year’s Fenway schedule has 20 red games.
By now, all but a handful of Major League Baseball franchises have put such a scheme in place.
Dennis Coates, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who specializes in sports matters, doesn’t buy much of baseball’s economic logic: He testified to the D.C. Council that baseball’s argument that a new stadium in Southeast would bring jobs and economic growth to the city was hogwash. But he says it’s hard to fault the Nats or anybody in baseball for using a tiered-pricing system.
“Management has been accused of being stupid about a lot of things in baseball, but I think they have this about right,” says Coates. “This system of what we call ‘price discrimination’ is not exactly uncommon in other areas of business. Think about electricity: The rates are higher at peak times than they are at off-peak times. It’s new to baseball, and it looks weird because in baseball people think about senior discounts and student days. You don’t typically say, ‘Aww, [nonstudents and nonseniors] are having to pay a higher price!’ But it’s the same thing. Owners will know who they can charge higher prices for and who they can’t. I think every franchise is probably going to move in that direction. The speed will vary in some measure based on how they think it will alienate their fan base. But if owners find that fans are willing to pay $100 a ticket to see a Yankees–Nationals game, then that’s the right price. No matter how high it is, it’s the right price until people aren’t willing to pay it.”
Oddly, among the few holdouts from this trend are the Yankees and Orioles, teams whose owners have the worst reputations in the league. The Reds, Dodgers, and Mariners also have yet to go for the gouge.
But for the rest of baseball, it’s the Wild West as far as ticket pricing is concerned. The Phillies have a bizarre scheduling tick: They put a summer surcharge in place. Games held between May 19 and August 20 cost more than those at the beginning and end of the season. And you’d have as easy a time nailing down the cost of a seat taking off from La Guardia as a seat at nearby Shea Stadium this season: The Mets have five different levels of ticketing, depending on the opponent, day of the week, and game time.
So compared to the Mets, the Nats’ pricing system is as simplistic as a punch line on Joey. For example, the O’s and Yankees series are part of baseball’s relatively fledgling interleague schedule; that concept was put in place in 1997 as an artificial means to pump up the box office and help teams out following the horrendous 1994–1995 strike.
But there are some quirks to the Nats’ choice of Premium opponents. For instance: The Cubs? Tickets for the squad with the longest-running losing act in baseball—and hardly a heated rival of the new D.C. squad—get jacked up, while division foes like the Mets and real attractions such as Barry Bonds’ San Francisco Giants get the chopped-liver treatment?
“There are a lot of Cubs fans here,” says Berry. “They’re one of those groups that pretty much draws across the board in every city, kind of like the Dallas Cowboys.”
Berry says Nats officials don’t think owners of teams not accorded premium status will take offense or feel slighted by being deemed sub-Cub. Raymond Sauer, an economics professor at Clemson University and the founder of the Sports Economist blog, agrees that getting left off the premium list is no biggie.
“This system explicitly recommends that some teams are less valuable than others—that, say, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays aren’t as attractive an opponent as the New York Yankees,” he says. “But everybody knows that already, at least for the time being. That’s just the facts. All opponents aren’t the same. And I know here we’ve seen that this has worked for a long time in college football, where a ticket to Clemson’s game against South Carolina will cost a lot more than a ticket to the opening game against [Florida Atlantic]. If you’re a ball club, you want to think like an airline: Let people pay as much as they can. Baseball was slow to grasp this. We look at what baseball’s doing now and say, ‘What took you so long?’”
Nats fans could send Lerner a message about the creep of premium pricing by staying away from RFK this weekend and boycotting the Yanks and Cubs series.
But don’t expect that to slow what the owners surely see as progress.
“In some sense, maybe sports tickets have historically been a bargain,” says UMBC’s Coates. “But sporting events aren’t a low- or middle-income form of entertainment any more. I remember Three Buck Night at Memorial Stadium. You’d like them to stay $3. You’d also like teams to stay in the city where they were when you grew up.”—Dave McKenna