By RONALD BLUM, AP Baseball Writer
NEW YORK (AP)—Even Keith Olbermann had sticker shock when he saw the Ruthian prices for Yankee Stadium’s final year.
His family first purchased four season tickets for seats behind the Yankees dugout in 1972 at $4 per seat for each game. This year, the price jumped to $250 from $150—more than double the $112 average for equivalent seats near the Mets’ dugout across town.
“The thought did cross my mind, my investment in this might be better spent at Shea Stadium and Citi Field,” the MSNBC broadcaster said.
Still, he kept the seats. All the offseason talk of the Mitchell Report and steroids hasn’t dented baseball’s boom.
The Chicago Cubs have sold more than 2,775,000 tickets and had just 500,000 remaining at the start of the week. The Red Sox capped full season equivalents at just under 22,000 at Fenway Park, where capacity is 37,400 at night and 36,984 during the day. And Major League Baseball says the sale of season-ticket equivalents is up 4 percent.
“I think we’ll draw between 80 and 81 million this year, which is an amazing number,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “We’re having explosive growth right now. This sport has never been more popular, and the interest is just unbelievable.”
Baseball is coming off a milestone year. The 30 teams drew 79.5 million fans in 2007, a record average of 32,785.
This year, fans who want smokin’ seats for the Bronx Bombers have to be nearly as wealthy as the star players they watch. And still, the Yankees might sell out the season or come close before opening day.
Scrambling for tickets is at its most frenzied in New York, where both teams are entering the final seasons of their ballparks. The Yankees have sold 3.75 million of about 4.4 million available tickets, and the Mets are on track to draw 4 million at home for the first time.
Tickets for the Yankees’ final regular-season game, against Baltimore on Sept. 21, were listed this week at up to $16,199 apiece on StubHub.com. Of the 3,000 seats originally priced by the team at $250, only 111 weren’t renewed as season tickets, and the Yankees said they were resold within 24 hours.
Olbermann remembered back to 1972, when four seats for the season wound up costing $1,056 (there were 15 doubleheaders). Now the seats—so close to the field that his mother got hit by a ball when Chuck Knoblauch overthrew first base eight years ago—cost him $81,000.
“From $1,000 a season, it’s $1,000 a game,” he said. “So literally they’ve now crossed that mark where it’s 81 times more expensive to see the season as it was in 1972.”
According to the Consumer Price Index, $4 in 1972 is about $20 now—meaning even when adjusted for inflation, there’s been a 12-fold increase for the best box seats.
Twenty years ago, many teams had just two prices—box and reserved.
Now, most clubs have dozens of ticket levels, sometimes different ones for season tickets, advance sales and day-of-game purchases. Some teams also charge differing amounts depending on the opponent and the day of the week.
This season, clubs also must contend with StubHub. Twenty-nine clubs—all but the Red Sox—have agreed to make the Web site their official resale outlet. As of Tuesday, 434,000 Yankees home tickets were available on the Web site, including more than 6,000 for some games.
Bob Bowman, chief executive officer of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, said 400,000 tickets already have changed hands on StubHub, where buyers pay a 10 percent fee and sellers are charged a 15 percent commission.
The Washington Nationals, who move into a new ballpark, had 2.7 percent of their seats available on StubHub this week. For the Chicago Cubs, 6.8 percent of Wrigley Field’s tickets are on the Web site. For Dodger Stadium, it’s 3 percent.
Bowman said he thinks StubHub makes fans less reticent to purchase seats from teams because they know there’s an easy resale market: “If the average fan see there’s a vibrant, legal, robust secondary market, the more likely they are to buy tickets.”
Even for the Florida Marlins.
Last in the major leagues with 1.37 million fans at home last year, the Marlins command $179 for tickets in the first row of seats behind home plate and $153 for rows two through four. But their Fish Tank section of bleachers in right goes from $9-15, depending on the opponent and when the tickets are bought.
“A baseball stadium is a microcosm of a civilization, where very often it is the wealthy who support the programs and services that are taken advantage of by the less fortunate,” Marlins president David Samson said.
Although Kansas City has 240 Crown seats behind home plate that sell for $185-240, the Royals’ equivalent of Olbermann’s seats cost $29 as part of a season ticket—up $5 from last year. They’re $37 when purchased individually for most games, going up to $44 when the Yankees, Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals come to town.
With a good airfare, it would be cheaper to fly from New York to Kansas City and buy tickets for a series against the Yankees than to take the subway and watch three Royals-Yankees games in the Bronx.
Then again, premier seats to “Young Frankenstein” on Broadway were priced at $450 in the Wall Street-driven economy of New York, where dinner at Per Se sells out at $275 a head, not including wine, and private-school tuition can top $32,000 per child.
“There are some cities, particularly the ones on the East Coast, that can charge more than they do in middle America or even on the West Coast,” Selig said.
Before setting their prices, the Royals compared what they charged with 10 other small-market teams and found they were significantly below the rest.
“Tickets have been held down for years. It is a very price-sensitive market,” said Kevin Uhlich, the Royals’ senior vice president for business operations.
Kansas City hasn’t been to the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series, and home attendance dropped below 1.4 million in 2002, 2005 and 2006. The total rebounded to 1.6 million last year, still 28th in the majors, and sales for this year are running 18 percent ahead.
“Once we do start moving up on the wins and losses, I think it’s going to make a difference,” Uhlich said. “To this point, it’s been real tough. We’ve had to continually kind of reinvent the packages. We started the buy two, get two free last year to get people reintroduced to coming out to the ballgame, and that was quite successful. We sold about 1,000 full-season equivalents.”
San Francisco has had a tougher time selling tickets this season. Last year, when the Giants sold 26,000 season tickets, they hosted both the All-Star game and Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron’s home run record.
To boost sales, the Giants are building a 20-seat McCovey Suite jutting out of the wall by the right-field foul pole at SBC Park. The suite will cost $5,000 to $8,000, depending on the game.
“It will have a glass view of the field, and you’ll also be able to see, at the back of the suite, McCovey Cove,” Giants owner Peter Magowan said.
The Giants, who hope to draw 3 million to their bayside ballpark for the ninth straight season, also created a 100-seat party suite in the left-field corner of the club level that goes for $12,000 to $17,000 a game.
“I think more and more teams are doing that,” Magowan said. “What we see is an increasing demand for day-of-game suites. People would prefer to spend a lot of money for one game and take a bigger crowd than can fit into a 12-18 seat normal luxury suite.”
Some might argue all Yankees tickets are a luxury, and prices will only increase.
Lonn Trost, the club’s chief operating officer, said the cost of about 50 percent of the team’s tickets will rise again next year, the first in the new Yankee Stadium.
But the price will not go up for many of the sections farthest from home plate. Bleacher seats are $12-14 this season, depending on whether they are bought in advance, and upper reserved in the outfield is $20-23.
“I have to make sure the fan who can afford it subsidizes the fan who otherwise couldn’t afford that price,” Trost said. “It’s a real estate play.”
Olbermann isn’t pleading poverty, but the cost of his Yankees real estate is giving him and the friends he shares the seats with second thoughts.
“If you were going to get Yankees tickets in lieu of Mets tickets at these prices and suddenly switched, said, ‘No, I’m going to get Mets tickets,’ you could afford limo service to each of these games with the difference,” he said. “So even for the guy who lights his cigar with $50 bills, there is some logic to giving up on the Yankees and going to get tickets at Shea and Citi.”