Letters to Rob Manfred, Part 4: Can’t Buy Peanuts and Cracker Jack, Games Too Expensive to Ever Come Back
In previous installments of my Letters to Rob Manfred series, I’ve focused on hyping the game, promoting the stars, and catering more to kids. While the first three areas are mostly messages to the league as a whole, this fourth installment will focus on something each of the individual teams could do to ultimately generate more revenue in the long run: making it cheaper for a family to go to a game.
Although this one might not necessarily be in the commissioner’s purview, the price of hot dogs, beer, parking, and tickets to games that seem conspicuously light on fans.
Dear Mr. Manfred,
Going to a baseball game is really freaking expensive. It’s at least $30 for parking, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to find a safe and secure spot. Then $10 for a Bud Light that’s actually worth a tenth of that. Add in $8 for a flaccid mystery-meat dog you feel like you need to slather with ketchup, mustard, and dill relish to at least try and get your money’s worth. The average ticket cost is now up to $32, a roughly 50% increase since 2006. This isn’t even taking into consideration any souvenirs, merchandise, or extras for the kids.
I know most of these are not Major League Baseball’s to own; they’re individual team issues. However, last time I checked, you might have a little pull with some of the people who run the teams.
If you want people to get excited about your game, you might want to make it accessible for families to come and have a good time. Make it easy for moms and dads everywhere who are just looking for a reasonably inexpensive and exciting place to go during the summer to get their kids out of the house. Going to the ballpark shouldn’t cost families their firstborn, but it may cost MLB that firstborn’s eventual fandom.
My dad is about your age, Rob. He grew up loving baseball and instilling that love in his own kids. I’ve talked to him about this issue for, quite literally, decades. So while it’s a problem you inherited, it’s also a problem you’ve done little to help rectify. In fact, things have gotten worse..
We grew up going to Pawtucket Red Sox games, mostly because it was cheaper than a trip to Boston or New York. We played catch and had batting practice out behind the left field fence. We had a picnic lunch/dinner because hot dogs and sodas were exponentially more expensive than bringing a cooler, even at a minor league game. Tickets were reasonable for a AAA game, but even at a Minor League park, prices for everything else were more than lower or middle class Americans wanted to pay on a regular basis.
Our family would also take road trips out to Chicago during summer vacation (where my dad’s family was from). Along the way, we would often stop in Dayton/Cincinnati where we also had family. We tried to go to a game at some point during our trip, but it wasn’t like we had the ability to go to a game every day we were in each city.
I remember one trip when my late grandfather, who lived in Chicago at that point, got us tickets through his company and we sat a couple rows behind the on deck circle at Wrigley Field. We got to see Jamie Farr, the guy from M.A.S.H., throw out the first pitch. George Bell, Andre Dawson, and Ryne Sandberg warmed up right in front of us. While that game stands out in my memory as a great day and a great game, it was only because my grandfather was able to get tickets through his company that we were able to go (and sit in those seats).
I also remember one particular trip to Cincinnati when I was a teenager where we went to a doubleheader at Riverfront for $7.50. There had been a rainout at some point and the Reds played a traditional doubleheader rarely seen in the modern game due to the financial windfall that owners can gather with a day/night or split doubleheader. They also had a scheduled $1 dog day. Tickets for $3.75 a game and $1 hot dogs? And there were actually people in the stands.
But this kind of day and these prices are unthinkable in 2019, even if you adjust for inflation. The attendance numbers the past few years, specifically last year’s decline, back up the notion that people are not coming to ballgames as much as they used to.
The highest average attendance in any single year across all of baseball was 32,696 in 2007. The only current MLB stadium that seats less than that is Tropicana Field, and it still seats 31,042, pretty darn close to that average attendance number. The average MLB stadium seating capacity is 42,845, which means there have been 10,000 empty seats at every major league game for decades.
The point of all these numbers is this: Teams could put more people in the seats. This has always been the case, but it’s pretty clear that they don’t want to. Unused tickets should be donated to local charities and organizations; underprivileged families who live near the stadium; schools; Little League programs; Girls and Boys Clubs, take your pick. Hand them out to kids who make honor roll or participate in after-school programs, for goodness sake.
I even got an email a couple weeks ago about $5 tickets to certain Mets games. This is 100% the right idea and diiscount ticket promotions like this have become more and more common, but most times they are only for less desirable dates.
You get kids hooked by offering them free or reduced tickets for an entire summer’s worth of home games, you’re going to make a lot of money off them the rest of their lives. It’s an investment in the future that requires a little bit of work and foresight in the present. Unfortunately, the league and individual teams have little incentive in the short-term as teams are making more money than ever despite declining attendance.
Unless your team is regularly selling out, a middle-class family should be able to go to the game for under $100 all the time. For much more than that, it makes no sense for them to even go because the games are on high-def TV — unless you’re blacked out, which is the final bone I have to pick with out — and the beer in the fridge is much cheaper and won’t get warm in the summer sun.
Why not offer $10 tickets, concession vouchers, and/or free parking if you’re not selling out anyhow? Some NFL and college teams are going down the cheaper concession route and it’s actually working.
Have you seen how many empty seats there are at the Marlins games so far this season? Maybe tell your old pal Derek Jeter that each and every one of those seats is an investment waiting to happen. They could have 36,742 fans half-assed Cuban sandwiches and buying merch that gets redesigned every two years. Instead, 6,742 visiting fans are watching hard-hit balls die on the track while Don Mattingly grouses about shoddy umpiring.
Don’t even get me started on umpires; have you even looked into an automated strike zone?
If teams promote themselves to fans of all income levels, the kids and families will come. Whether rich or poor, they’ll spend their money. Doesn’t that sound like a win-win for the league and each team? Certainly more promising than moving the mound back and tearing up labrums.