High cost of pro-sports fandom may ease

Attendance at most major events drops - and ticket prices are expected to follow

Sports fans nostalgic for the days when they could go watch a professional game without emptying their wallets often hearken back to a simpler time.

Just 10 years ago, a fan paid $44 for an average-price pro-football ticket, a hot dog, soda, and parking. Today, that same outing runs $75.

The price increase spans each of the major pro-sports leagues. Compared with 1991, basketball boosters now shell out an additional $35 per game, and baseball fans pay an extra $15.

Hockey fans drop $20 more than they did seven years ago, according to Team Marketing Report (TMR), a sports-marketing firm based in Chicago.

As was the case with most entertainment options, professional sports events became much more expensive during the 1990s, with ticket prices going up about 10 percent every year.

The uptick in turnstile fees significantly outpaced inflation. That $44 dollars spent at a football game in 1991, adjusted for inflation, would be worth $58 today - just enough to cover the average football ticket.

The costs of taking in a pro game also surpassed price hikes at other venues, from movie theaters to amusement parks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Until recently, fans have taken the price hikes in stride.

Yet, with recession looming - or already here - and consumers hoarding cash, some observers suggest the high cost of taking a family to the ballpark could prompt thousands of fans to take in the game from an increasingly familiar seat: the living room couch. That means the price peak may have been reached. The leagues will need to placate fans.

"There has definitely been some disaffection among hard-core fans, and fans in general, because of rising ticket prices," says Don Hinchey, director of creative services for the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing firm.

The growing fan backlash stems largely from a decade of gentrification in major league sports, with teams pursuing an increasingly sophisticated and well-heeled breed of fans to help finance posh stadiums and bankroll bulging payrolls.

First built in the early 1990s, stadiums such as Toronto's SkyDome, Baltimore' Camden Yards, and Chicago's United Center sparkled with plexiglass-encased luxury suites and skyboxes. The additions were designed for an elite business class looking to wine and dine clients.

Teams boosted mid-level ticket prices, too, as rising incomes enabled a younger, urban population to pursue season-ticket packages and center-court seats.

"Targeting the high-income fan has driven the economics of these sports teams," says Daniel Rascher, assistant professor of sports economics at the University of San Francisco.

Except in baseball, where average ticket prices have not yet eclipsed $50, the majority of ticket holders at sporting events now have annual household incomes of at least $80,000, according to Dennis Howard, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

That means America's stadiums normally admit a very select group of fans - only about 15 percent of American households, according to US census data.

"We've begun to slice the market pretty thinly in terms of those who have the means to attend," says Professor Howard.

With fewer fans attending a large number of games, teams are casting a wider net through regional and national cable broadcasts. The signals are reaching a broader assortment of people, and diversifying the teams' fan base.

The new pattern of fan traffic ultimately works to teams' economic advantage, some experts say. Fans who take in only one or two games a year are more likely to buy a hot dog, beverages, and an assortment of ballpark bric-a-brac, like Styrofoam headgear.

But there is evidence that the gilding of professional sports is turning off many long-time devotees - and draining team revenues. As of last week, more than half of all NFL teams reported a drop in attendance this season.

Attendance fell at 60 percent of the Major League Baseball stadiums in the 2001 season, including at Bank One Ballpark, home of the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

The statistics are equally dismal in the NBA, where half the teams reported a downturn in ticket sales during the 2000-01 season, according to Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal.

The leagues appear to have taken notice. When the economy began to cool down this summer, most NBA teams quickly reshaped their ticketing schemes.

This year, NBA teams cut ticket prices by an average of 2.3 percent. It's the first overall price reduction in the four major leagues in the past 11 years, according to TMR. The move came in response to the sagging economy. But also in large part from disgruntled fans repelled by high prices, according to Kurt Hunzeker, editor of the Team Marketing Report.

Such nods to the budget fan, some analysts say, could mark the beginning of a general retrenchment in ticket prices in each of the four leagues. Their new emphasis: the average fan.

"I think the teams realize they have to work harder than ever before to sustain interest among their core fan base," says Howard.

Part of their task is keeping the cheap seats cheap. In Salt Lake City, Utah Jazz fans can buy $5 tickets, or $215 for the entire year. The price of a bleacher seat at Yankee Stadium: $8.

Such seats are a refuge for the kind of fans who come back year after year, regardless of the team's performance.

"The dedicated fans really form the soul of the team," says Mr. Hinchey of Bonham Group. "They are essential in terms of generating enthusiasm, talking up the team, and I don't see them being marginalized."

What you pay to see 'em play

A family of four can expect to pay an average of $303.33 to attend a professional football game this year, factoring in the cost of tickets, food, parking, and souvenirs, according to Team Marketing Report in Chicago. The marketing group's Fan Cost Index (FCI) drops by about $25 for a family to see a pro basketball or hockey game. Major League Baseball is cheapest, with an average FCI of $145.83 per family. An NFL game is the most expensive to attend because football teams play far fewer games each season, heightening demand.

League Avg. ticket Pct. change Soda Hot dog Parking Program Cap

NFL $53.64 8.7% $2.85 $3.04 $14.65 $5.19 $15.30

NBA 50.10 -2.3 2.67 2.88 10.88 4.01 13.37

NHL 49.86 4.5 2.50 2.82 10.33 3.77 13.59

MLB 18.86 12.2 2.22 2.57 9.16 4.23 12.57

Source: Team Marketing Report

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