The classic rock band Grateful Dead’s transcendent line, “What a long strange trip it’s been”, seems to apply to life as a MLB fan. As a child, I can remember field box seats at the Astrodome being in the $12 range. Now granted, that was some thirty years ago, and while I can still hear Deneice Williams in my ears I can still remember what I saw at age seven — the field, because you see, I was close enough to see it.
Even in 1994 as a burgeoning man of leisure, I can remember buying middle of the road seats at old Busch Stadium for about $10. Somewhere along the line things went haywire. Perhaps owing to salaries, or the entertainment metastasizing cancer that is Stubhub, the pricing of baseball is becoming something similar to what you might find on Broadway, only without the snappy dance routines.
For instance, the St. Louis Cardinals‘ cheapest seat for the much hyped New York Yankees set is $70.80, and if you don’t mind sitting across the street at something called the Budweiser Brew House Deck, you can drop a cool $51 or so on that.
Let me repeat that — for about $51 you can sit about 790 feet from home plate, out of the stadium and watch ants toss a bread crumb. Or something. Now capitalists will say, “this is demand, pure and simple.” Uh, no; actually, this is greed, pure and simple. The fact is the Cardinals, 17-16, are not sold out for any of those games. It seems the price set overvalued how much people care to see Derek Jeter.
In other cities the problem is even worse. Now the myopic response is to point out that attendance is doing well and TV contracts are bigger than ever. This is true. But a better question might be not how many people are attending ballgames but how many different people are attending ballgames?
When I was younger the cheap seats had folks you might find around your neighborhood, hard working people like your own folks. Not poor, not rich, but not foolish with their hard earned dollars either. In the bleachers you might find a store clerk, or a truck driver, maybe a bartender or two. The doctors and businessmen were in the dugout seats. And really, that is probably how it had always been.
Recently, however, I found my way into several games where I sit upstairs talking not to clerks or bartenders, but bankers, doctors or even an engineer. In other words, baseball has priced the upper middle class salaried into the rafters. So fewer and fewer different people, and most importantly, fewer different children are being exposed to live baseball. Without that thrilling memory of your first ballgame, the indelible impression of batting practice, the intoxicating smell of “hotdogchobeer“, a child looks at baseball how I might look at Tahiti — I hear it’s nice, but I’ll stick with good old, affordable Branson.
So while the game is successfully extracting the top dollar from its remaining fanbase, it is not expanding its fanbase and faces a future of declining attendance and interest from tomorrow’s parents. Baseball is a family game, and if it becomes exclusively the property of the one percent, it will find out the hard way it needed the other 99 percent to see it every so often. Like the feels good now world of drug use, dynamic pricing threatens to wear down its junky later, leaving it battered, bruised and mortally wounded.
While it is true there are games one can attend mid-week, with the family, for a decent price, that price does not carry with it a decent affordable seat, a reasonable bedtime for schoolchildren or likely a “premier” team. Call them peasant nights — the moneyed Cardinal fans in suite seats do. Baseball has to get regular people in on the weekends, and if it continues to indulge in the high of dynamic pricing greed, its system will deplete, in need of those clerks, bartenders, truck drivers and food service workers.
No the country, nor the game, can survive on the one percent alone. Indeed as a fan, what a long strange trip it’s been. And that trip has led higher into the top of the nosebleeds, and eventually, will lead out of the stadium. What then Mr. Selig? A sixth level to stadiums? Binocular rentals? Selling viewing space in skyscrapers? You better figure this out, commissioner, and quickly come up with a solution. Or something.