Off to the ballgame - for only $166.84

Springtime in the Rockies is a euphemism. What it really means is there's snow in the forecast.

And so it was just the other night as the Rockies took the baseball field amid flurries. "What are we doing here?" groused an onlooker.

"We have shallow lives," said another, helpfully.

Weather mumbling aside, the question is extremely important to the future of the game. Chicago-based Team Marketing Report says Major League Baseball has increased ticket prices an average of 10 percent each of the last three seasons. The Red Sox are highest, an average ticket costing $24.05. The Yankees are second at $23.33.

But truly stunning is the Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index. It figures what it will cost a family of four to go to a game, adding in modest food and drink and a couple of baseball caps. Take $166 with you to Yankee Stadium and you will be 84 cents short. The Top 10 teams all are over $130 a game, and the Fan Cost Index is up at least 40 percent from just seven years ago for eight of the 10 teams.

Clearly, it's frightfully expensive for many to go watch baseball. The Rockies are the eighth-most-expensive among the 30 teams, plenty for a club with pitching woes and slow feet and snow.

Team Marketing Report editor Sean Brenner says it's his view that increasing ticket prices, along with rising attendant costs, "maybe indicates the fans are starting to come back" and that teams therefore feel they can get away with the dollar leaps. Maybe.

But a hard look at figures shows that overall attendance so far this year is slightly above 50 percent of stadium capacity. Only three teams - the Rockies, Orioles, and Indians - are filling more than 80 percent of their available seats.

Conversely, 27 of the 30 NFL teams filled more than 80 percent of their seats last season. The league average was above 90 percent. And in a contentious year, more than 87 percent of NBA seats were sat in.

Perhaps most instructive, hockey - even hockey - which struggles for acceptance and TV viewers, filled better than 91 percent of its arena capacity this season, says Sports Business Journal. Just four of the 27 clubs were under 80 percent.

Could repeated price increases of 10 percent a year be having an effect on baseball? Has your salary increased 30 percent over the last three years?

Not surprising, the five most expensive teams to watch - the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Braves, and Rangers - are either first or second in their divisions.

Not surprising, either, is that of the five cheapest teams to go boo - the Twins, Reds, Brewers, Athletics, and Expos - all except the A's are last or next to it in their divisions. The Expos are the cheapest to take the family to see ($87.87), have the lowest attendance (22.3 percent of capacity), and are tied for the fewest wins (11). Points to ponder.

Clearly the best buy is the Cleveland Indians. The team has a new stadium, it's got the best win-loss record in either league, and yet ranks 10th in costs to go watch.

Baseball is a glorious game when properly nurtured, played, and administered. Yet it's at risk of becoming an anachronism. Other pro sports ticket prices are even more stratospheric. But baseball historically has been a cheap-ticket paradise.

Baseball often seems unaware that it is locked in a serious battle with football and basketball - and maybe hockey - for the hearts, minds, and wallets of sports fans.

The other evening, a dad bought four hot dogs and four small sodas at a Rockies' concession stand for his family of four. The purchase separated him from $22. Then he went back and sat down in the toe-numbing cold to enjoy them.

How much more than $22 will he be willing to spend?

Will this family be back?

*Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

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