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ticket to ride
how ticket pricing trends are hurting fans
by michelle von euw

It’s a gorgeous Labor Day weekend, and the weather is pitch perfect. The famous humidity that usually characterizes this time of year has been all but absent from the weather forecast, and there’s a light breeze that makes the low 80s temperatures ideal for soaking up a ballgame.

But there’s practically no one in Camden Yards today, despite a mid-afternoon matchup between the Orioles and the Wild-Card chasing Texas Rangers. Every time the camera pans back, the screen is filled with green empty seats.

Welcome to Baltimore/Washington.

Chances are, it’ll be a different story next week, when the Baltimore Ravens open the football season at home, and the week after, when Washington Redskins start their home season schedule. But the people shelling out hundreds of dollars to watch a football game in this area are likely to share something in common with the ones who are staunchly avoiding the Orioles as well as the lower bowl areas of the D.C. Nationals games, and it won’t just be frustration with the inferior on-field product.

And that is this: whether they’ve chosen to attend the game or not, area fans will most likely be unhappy with the way teams are controlling the gateways to their events. Because there is something inherently wrong with the way sporting event tickets are sold in this area, and it’s not driven by fans or team loyalty or even a realization that the bad economy means that fewer people have the luxury of seeing their teams play in person.

It’s greed.

I’m not saying that greed doesn’t exist elsewhere, or that the Washington and Baltimore corridor has cornered the market on fan-unfriendly policies, it’s just that this area serves as a unique circumstance, with its four major baseball and football teams within 50 miles of each other. None of these teams are particularly good – there’s been one championship won by any of them in the last decade, and there’s an impression that despite their geographical proximity, the two fan bases do not overlap. In practice, however, there are plenty of casual fans who’ll support both Baltimore and Washington.

In theory, therefore, there is plenty of competition for fan dollars, and that’s not even accounting for other sports like the professional hockey, soccer, and basketball franchises, or the thousands of other leisure activities that occupy the corridor. And so, one would believe, that it’s within the teams’ best interests to do what they can to bolster their fan base, correct?

Not exactly.

The Redskins made front page news here this week, not for their on-field actions, but because Washington Post reporters discovered that the team was selling tickets directly to ticket brokers instead of making them available to the hundreds of thousands of fans who’d placed their names on waiting lists back before Miley Cyrus was born.

Redskins ticket prices aren’t cheap to begin with. Two seats in a non-premium lower bowl section will run you $200 a game, with an additional $25 added for parking. Since a season ticket holder is required to pay full-price for two meaningless pre-season games, that means that a fan in those seats will pay, at a minimum, $2250 a season.

Ticket brokers, however, have been known to charge just that much for one game.

The Redskins claim to hold a season ticket list waiting of 160,000 fans (though the number may be somewhat inflated, as there’s no deposit required to add one’s name to it). The team has made a financial decision to bypass those loyal fans entirely, and instead get into bed with the very people whose entire business is built on exploiting fans to make a profit.

The idea that there’s more money to be made off fans is rampant in this area. The Orioles recently introduced an “Exclusively Orioles” package that allows fans to buy a $55 seat for $200. The team will throw in a BBQ sandwich (approximately $12), and if you buy the ticket at least 10 days in advance, free parking (maybe $10). So what you are getting for $123 is basically an assurance that your seat is the best available in that section – a seat you used to be able to walk up to the window and purchase yourself for a significantly lower price.

In this instance, the Orioles are bypassing the messy middle man and becoming the scummy ticket agency themselves.

The Ravens, who moved to Baltimore in the late 1990s, decided to make fans purchase permanent seat licenses (PSLs) in order to obtain the right to buy tickets in the first place. Lower level PSLs from the team are currently sold out, but when available, will cost fans $5,000-8,000 per seat. That money does not include a single ticket – those are an additional $110-$125 per game.

The concept, from a marketing standpoint, is brilliant: fleece the fans twice for the same seat. But what happens when the economy tanks, and Ravens season ticket holders lose their jobs and can no longer afford the tickets associated with their PSLs? It takes an advanced degree in economics to understand all the confusing rules the team has in place for these circumstances, but they’ve created an “open market” for fans to sell PSLs directly to other fans – with the team taking 10% of the cut.

The only area team that can be considered even the slightest bit fan friendly in terms of their ticketing policy is the Nationals, a franchise that has struggled to fill their new stadium, and has therefore thrown pretty much every promotion at the wall ($1 ticket day to celebrate the signing of their first round draft pick; $5 day-of-game ticket sections; $20 for a Friday night ticket-and-beer combo) hoping that some of them stick. The Nationals have botched every opportunity for fan goodwill they’ve been presented in their five years in the nation’s capital, from not actually putting tickets to big games (opening day, first home series ever against the Red Sox) on sale to the public in order to promote overinflated competition to fielding a less-than-minor-league-caliber roster, and they insist on copying a practice that’s become popular among less good teams in recent years. I speak of the despicable act of identifying certain games as “prime” or “premium” and charging fans more to see these games.

This has got to be one of the most ridiculously anti-fan trends that teams have recently embraced. Ticket prices in several ballparks are now staggered to match the competition/level of fan interest, so if you happen to want to see good baseball, you’ll pay more for the same seat.

The Nats designated occasional games as premium against teams with particularly large DC area fan bases – Cubs, Phillies, Mets, and of course, the Red Sox, plus random Saturday night games in August. The Nats policy isn’t too bad: a right field box seat that would cost you $52 against the Marlins would have only increased to $55 against the Sox.

In comparison, the Orioles’ $50 field box seat jumps to $70 for prime games. The team does not define what a prime game is, but they include the 18-20 home games played against AL East rivals Yankees and Red Sox. Furthermore, pretty much every one of the ticket promotions the team is offering this season excludes these games. Crappy baseball can be seen at a bargain; good baseball, however, is going to cost you.

Franchise ownerships in Baltimore/Washington have too long looked at ticket prices as a way to force fans to pay for their own bad decisions. It’s time for all the teams around here to take a good, hard look at their policies, and enact fair and reasonable ways to make gamedays accessible and enjoyable to their bases.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

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sarah ficke
9.10.09 @ 9:15a

I couldn't agree more, Michelle. Whenever I'm watching a ballgame on tv and seeing all of the empty seats (almost everywhere except Fenway), I wonder why the owners insist on maintaining or increasing sky-high prices when it is clear that they aren't selling those tickets. How long can they possibly sustain their business when they aren't selling seats? It seems counterintuitive to me.

russ carr
9.10.09 @ 9:59p

Add in Selig's brilliant idea of increasing the percentage of intradivision games and you're really holding those other non-division games at a premium. Except in STL's case, as I'm sure it is with BAL, NYY and BOS, the games everyone wants to see ARE within the division. So he's got you coming and going.

All but a handful of Cardinals games are now relegated to Fox Sports Midwest. We don't have cable, therefore I don't get to watch any games unless we're out somewhere. I used to be able to listen to the Cards' flagship radio station streaming games when I was near a computer, but they took that away so they could make everyone pay for the broadcasts at MLB.com. Again: hostage to greed.

We've come a long way since the days of the Knothole Gang -- the freebie spots for kids to see the game from behind the outfield fence. Keep this up, pro sports, and you're going to create a generation with little interest in seeing a game in person.

joe redden tigan
9.15.09 @ 3:54p

i'm lucky enough to live near what is considered one of the best farm league ballparks in the country, elfstrom stadium, home to the kane county cougars in geneva, il. for $20 i'll get in, get a couple of beers and a dog, and a free fireworks show. if i go on the right night they have a dog that retreives the bat after each hit. the action is great and i'm 30 ft. away from it. prices, traffic and parking in wrigleyville have been a joke to me for a long time. if you have a farm league near, give 'em a try some time.

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