Julie Jacobson/AP
Yankee Stadium, New York.

Recession Forces Baseball to Become More Fan-Friendly

April 08, 2009 04:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
With ticket sales slow due the recession, many teams are cutting prices and offering large discounts to attract fans.

Baseball Season Opens During Recession

With Major League Baseball opening its season in the midst of the worst recession in decades, many baseball executives fear a significant drop in profits this season. “I used to think we were recession-proof,” MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in March. “I really did. This is different.”

Many teams slashed payroll in the offseason, and—outside of the Yankees—teams were reluctant to sign players to large contracts. According to The Associated Press, player salaries are likely to be down for the third time in 20 years.

Season ticket sales are down for most teams. In Detroit, where the recession has devastated the local economy, the Tigers have seen sales drop from 27,000 last year to 15,000 this year, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Even the Yankees, who are opening their $1.5-billion ballpark this year, have been unable to sell all their luxury seats, as co-owner Hal Steinbrenner has admitted that some seats “might be overpriced.” “I think if anybody in any business had known where this economy was going to go, they would have done things differently,” he said.

Other leagues will be looking at the baseball season as a barometer for the profitability of sports during the recession. The other three major U.S. professional leagues, the NFL, NHL and NBA, all began their seasons in the fall as the economy had its most serious declines. Having already sold season tickets and secured corporate sponsorships, these leagues have not felt the full brunt of the recession this year.

“The baseball season, however, will steer right into the teeth of the worst economy in decades,” writes The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker.

Analysis: How teams are attracting fans

Last October, Selig warned team owners about getting “too cocky” in setting ticket prices for the 2009 season. Though ticket prices are up 5.4 percent this year, the increase is due mostly to significant price increases in the Yankees and Mets’ new stadiums. Twelve teams have cut ticket prices, while many others are offering discount packages for tickets and concessions.

The Brewers and Braves will continue offering $1 tickets for selected games, while the Blue Jays and Astros offer packages that average less than $2 a game. Others have introduced recession-themed deals.

The Blue Jays “Messin’ with Recession” deal offers cheap tickets and food, while the Orioles’ “Birdland Stimulus Package” includes free tickets for kids under 10 years old and one free ticket for fans during their birth month. The Twins “Market Mondays” package will base the price of seats in their Home Run Porch section on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, charging $1 for every 1,000 points of the Dow.

The Diamondbacks, who have the lowest average ticket price this season, spent the offseason trying to convince season ticket holders to keep their seats through hands-on customer service. “‘Nice’ isn’t a word often ascribed to the business side of professional sports,” wrote Fortune magazine. “For the Diamondbacks, however, nice has become a secret weapon—a bulwark against a Phoenix economy that shows no signs of rising from the ashes.”

Earlier this month, MLB launched the “Commissioner’s Fan Initiative” to alert fans to promotions and discount tickets. “Through a variety of ballpark promotions, fans will be able to stretch their entertainment dollar for an experience at the ballpark, as we will offer great value and the most affordable ticket of any major professional sport,” declared Selig.

MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he is “guardedly optimistic” about this season’s attendances. “Baseball has been comfort food in other times, the Depression, World War II, even coming out of 9/11, and we hope that families will realize that this provides affordable family entertainment,” he said.

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