The baseball stat you don't want to see

As owners pay top dollar for players, ticket prices rise, threatening baseball's enduring status as the last affordable professional sport.

Standing in shade beneath Dodger Stadium's center field scoreboard, Juan Gutierrez explains why his family of four will only be in the stands for two games this season.

"Parking costs more, food costs more ... I just can't afford it," says Mr. Gutierrez, holding up four $30 tickets as sounds of organ music and the smell of hot dogs waft into the palm-lined parking lot. "I used to come 10 to 15 times a year, but now, forget it."

As Major League Baseball fans from here to Boston converge on their favorite ballparks for the new season, they are running into sticker shock even as many franchises say they are reaching out with new ideas to attract fans.

On average, a family of four will spend $155.52 for a day at big-league ballparks this year, up nearly 3 percent from 2003, according to a new study by Team Marketing Research in Chicago. Philadelphia Phillies fans will pay $188 (family of four), up more than 25 percent from last year. And even the bargain basement Montreal Expos - the league's least expensive team - will sock families for $100.

At the same time that they shrug and rationalize such figures as "market driven," sports industry analysts say they worry that America's favorite pastime is becoming elitist.

"We are pricing the poorer population of America out of the national game," says Peter Roby, president of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University. He says statistics show participation in baseball reflect a steady decline for 15 straight years.

"Players used to live in the same neighborhoods as their fans," he says. "Now we have the alienation gap with fans increasingly resenting astronomic salaries, performance-enhancing drugs, and socially aberrant behavior by players."

Baseball owners say they are doing all they can to keep their ball parks attractive while offering enough discounts and deals to fill seats. They say they try to buffer the costs of tickets - which cover, on average, only about a third of total costs to run their franchises - by making deals with broadcasters and advertisers. To up the appeal of their teams to brand advertisers and TV networks they have to spend money for the best players.

New Angel owner, Arturo Moreno, for instance recently doled out $146 million for just two players (Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon), almost as much as the $183 million he spent to field the entire team last year.

"By no means are ticket payers shelling out enough to pay for these guys," says Robert Alvarado of the Angels' front office. "At the same time we are signing top-dollar players to attract broadcasters and corporate advertisers, we are trying to send at least some ticket prices in the other direction."

Although overall Angel ticket prices have gone up nearly 4 percent over the past year, the team is trying to cut ancillary costs such as the price of beer, programs, and souvenir caps. They are creating more kinds of family packages that include food, beverage, and tickets and offering more nights for children when general admission prices drop to $3.

But to close their gap of costs, they have had to ink more deals with TV outlets and revamp advertising video boards in the stadium.

"We sell eyeballs and eardrums to advertisers, so the more people we bring to the stadium the more the value of our brand increases and we can command higher revenues," says Mr. Alvarado.

Another reason why ticket price averages are climbing sky-high has to do with the types of fans who are buying seats, say analysts.

"When we talk about the overall inflation of ticket prices that has hit everyone else, we find that it is corporations that are leading the charge," says David Carter, a professor of sports business at USC and principal analyst for The Sports Business Group.

Because corporations and businesses buy huge numbers of season tickets in bulk, and often go for the priciest seats to impress clients - covered boxes, blocks behind home plate - baseball owners are able to charge premium prices for the best location. When the same owners try to recover increasing costs, they often jack the price of higher-priced seats - say $30 up to $40 - as a smaller percentage (30 percent) that reaps more income ($10 per seat) than doubling or tripling a $3 or $5 seat.

"Rising the price of tickets for corporate buyers on higher price tickets causes less eyebrow-raising," says Mr. Carter, chronicling a trend that escalated significantly through the 1990s. "Now we see those prices driving up the costs of other seats as well."

The authors of Team Marketing Report, which crunches the annual ticket prices, say the steadily rising price of baseball tickets over several years has probably hurt family attendance more than individuals. But they say many owners have realized that fact and are beginning to reach out to families.

"Despite our financial situation, we continue to offer 10,000 seats per game at $6 or less," says John Olguin, spokesman for the L.A. Dodgers, which has lost $50 million per year for several seasons. They have also tried to hold onto family buyers by offering a $48 package that includes four upper-deck seats, four Cokes, and four hot dogs. "They may not be the best seats, but they are what people tell us they want most, a clean, safe environment at an affordable price."

While that comment brings praise from some, it brings criticism from others. "We also want a winning team," says iron worker Blaine Bailey, sitting with only one daughter from his family of six. The Dodgers have not made the playoffs since 1996.

Even a winning team is no solace to others who say they just want their popcorn and Cracker Jacks in a seat where they can make out the players faces' and jersey numbers.

But Alexander Gonzales says pro baseball is still a great deal if you don't need to be close to the action. "I still think this is the best value in American sports, today," says Mr. Gonzales. "Compare this to $100 seats for Lakers basketball."

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