Maple Leafs ticket prices aren’t part of a grand conspiracy, except for the usual ones

A headline like “Why are NHL tickets expensive in Toronto? Because they’re cheap in Phoenix” has got to be pretty much irresistable if you’re an editor at the Globe and Mail. But does columnist Tony Keller actually make that case? Let’s follow the bouncing argument:

  • The Toronto Maple Leafs can charge through the nose for tickets because demand for hockey in Ontario exceeds the supply.
  • The Arizona Coyotes can’t charge squat for tickets because demand for hockey in Arizona is a sad joke.
  • If the Coyotes moved to Toronto or even Hamilton, it would cut into the Leafs’ market, and they’d be forced to lower ticket prices.
  • Since the Coyotes don’t make money, they have to be subsidized by revenue sharing from teams like the Leafs.
  • “The MLSE golden goose helps subsidize a squad of American lame duck franchises; those lame ducks, stuck in dry ponds, make necessary a golden goose in Toronto.”

All of this is technically true, but there are some leaps of logic here: There’s no reason to think that the NHL would allow the Coyotes to move to within spitting distance of Toronto if they left Arizona, and that Toronto “golden goose” is something the league presumably would want to keep around (and the Leafs owners would absolutely want to keep around) with or without the Coyotes’ revenue issues. There’s a difference between “the Maple Leafs owners are willing to send some money to the Coyotes’ owners to maintain their monopoly” and “this is all part of a grand conspiracy to screw hockey fans both coming and going.” (Except inasmuch as trying to use your monopoly power as the only major pro league to jack up ticket prices is the plan for pretty much every sports league that doesn’t have open promotion and relegation.)

That said, it is undeniably true that if territorial rights were eliminated and teams could move wherever they wanted, it would be arguably good for hockey fans (except those in lousy hockey markets like Phoenix) and maybe even good for the league as a whole — just the same as it would be for MLB if the Steinbrenners and Wilpons didn’t have monopoly rights to New York City. But then, sports leagues aren’t really monolithic corporations, but rather cartels of individual business owners, each in it for themselves. The only conspiracy at work here is the profit motive combined with the failure to enforce antitrust laws, which is a bigger problem than just for hockey.

John Oliver’s “dress like you don’t belong there” Yankees stunt ends sadly hobo-free

John Oliver’s stunt to put fans in premium New York Yankees seats who promise to dress like they’ve never been there before — a dig at team COO Lonn Trost, who defended the team’s ticket resale restrictions because sitting next to non-rich folks would be a “frustration to our existing fan base” — ended up more of a costume party, with fans dressed as Ninja Turtles, sharks, unicorns, and dinosaurs ending up seated behind home plate.

john-oliver-ninja-turtlesAP_16098111550650bronx-unicornsoliverfansAll things considered, I’ve got to say that this is kind of disappointing. The ostensible goal of this gimmick was to point out the classism behind Trost’s statement: He was implying that if fans could buy good seats for below face value, the ones who’d paid full price would be offended by having to sit next to the hoi polloi. (It’s probable that Trost doesn’t actually believe this, of course; he’s more concerned that if fans can buy seats for below face value, he’ll have a harder time selling them for thousands of dollars a pop.) Instead, it turned into two frat brothers from Villanova putting on cheap dinosaur outfits and sitting behind home plate, which is pretty much like every day at Yankee Stadium, only the dinosaurs the fans are dressing as aren’t wearing number 13.

If Oliver’s staff really wanted to drive home the point, they’d have given the tickets to somebody dressed like this: Emmett_Kelly_1953If nothing else, I’d have loved to have seen what happened when they went to sign up for the fingerprint scanning to get a fast pass through security.

John Oliver offers premium Yankees tickets for 25 cents to anyone who’ll annoy the rich folk

If you’ve been following the sad story of the New York Yankees banning the use of print-at-home tickets in part on the grounds that, as team COO Lonn Trost put it, it’s “a frustration to our existing fan base” that the people sitting next to them “may be someone who has never sat in a premium location,” you will enjoy John Oliver’s latest excursion into sports, in which he offers to sell two seats behind the plate at the first three Yankees home games for 25 cents apiece to anyone who promises to dress as if they’re never sat in a premium location before:

Yesterday’s Yankees home opener was rained out and rescheduled for today at 1pm. I can’t wait to tune in and see who’s sitting behind the plate, and how long it takes before team security forces whisk them off to a black site, or at least the bleachers.

Postseason ticket rejection saddens Mets fans, new stadium in part to blame

The New York Mets held their ticket lottery for the National League Division Series yesterday, and me and pretty much everyone I know were among those getting the “Sorry, try again next round” letter. Which put us in good company, according to Mets fan Twitter:

Now, part of this is just the calculus of a team just returning to popularity in a big market: There are only so many tickets to go around, and no baseball fan in the city is willing to bet on Mets playoff appearances becoming an annual occurrence, stocked young pitching staff or no.

There’s another big difference between now and the last time the Mets made it to October in 2006, though, and it has nothing to do with jettisoning Paul Lukas’s least favorite uniforms. Rather, this will be (assuming the Mets don’t suffer an even more catastrophic collapse than their last couple) the first postseason played at the Mets’ new stadium, and as I noted last night for Vice Sports, Citi Field is way smaller capacity than its predecessor:

In 2006, the Mets still played at Shea Stadium, which—as was the custom in the 1960s, when it was built—could hold a hefty 57,333 fans. Citi Field, born 2009, falls more than 15,000 fans shy of that mark, though it does offer an additional 3,000 standing-room-only slots. The organization settled on this design decision for a couple of reasons:

  1. With all the luxury seating and clubs taking up more space on the lower levels, an additional 15,000 seats would have sent the new upper deck into a stratosphere far worse even than Shea’s famed nosebleeds.
  2. A smaller capacity meant it would be easier to sell out games without offering steep discounts on tickets.

That’s worked out pretty well for regular season games—Citi feels, if not exactly intimate, at least not cavernous, and the Mets have mostly been bad enough for there still to be plenty of discounts. Now that it’s the postseason, however, that’s an extra 20 to 30,000 fans per round who’ll be stuck watching at home.

There are other reasons why non-season-ticket-holder Mets fans might be getting the cold shoulder more than expected about now — for one thing, the team is apparently holding back some postseason seats to try to entice fans into plunking down deposits on season plans for 2016, despite not having indicated yet what prices will be for 2016. Plus, StubHub and its ilk have utterly changed how ticket markets operate — while it’s not completely linear, it has mostly meant that tickets to unpopular games are easy to get for dirt cheap, while the sky’s the limit on popular ones.

All of which means that the trend that rich fans are increasingly buying a larger and larger share of sports tickets should be expected to be even more true for playoff games, in all sports. Too bad New York City couldn’t have left Shea Stadium standing in the parking lot for big postseason series, like in olden times.

Crain’s Cleveland editors dis ticket taxes, reveal they don’t understand how ticket taxes work

This Cleveland Scene article about the stadium sin tax debate is a week old, but I just noticed something in it that really needs to be commented on:

Crain’s Cleveland Business published an editorial this week officially endorsing the sin tax as well. They insisted their stance had nothing to do with their connections to the business community; nor was the endorsement a snap decision. “It came after thorough consideration of the legal, practical and economic ramifications.”

Crain’s thinks an admissions tax is “not a smart” option because it would “dampen demand, which would defeat the purpose of using the buildings as magnets to attract people downtown.”

Let’s think this one through for a second. The argument that Crain’s is making (here’s the original editorial) is that tacking on an admission tax would raise ticket prices, making it less likely for people to go to games. And because going to games is the raison d’être of sports facilities — and publications like Crain’s pretend that people who don’t go to games just sit on their money and don’t spend it, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment — that would be a bad thing for the city.

Except that’s not how ticket prices work. Because the marginal cost of selling an extra ticket is pretty close to nil (you might have to hire a couple of additional ushers or hot dog vendors if more people are showing up to the game, but that’s a trivial cost per ticket), team owners are pretty much just setting prices based on what the market will bear — in other words, what people are willing to pay to go to a game instead of doing something else that night. So if Cuyahoga County were to apply a $2 per ticket surcharge, say, then the most likely scenario is that the Indians and Browns and Cavs would all cut ticket prices by around $2 to keep maximizing the amount of revenue they get from ticket sales. (Or, more likely, since teams hate to actually cut prices, they’d just hold off on ticket price hikes they otherwise would have implemented.)

It’s this pricing dynamic that is why virtually all economists count ticket taxes as part of a team owner’s contribution to a stadium project, even though it’s technically public tax money: It ultimately comes out of the owner’s pocket. If admission taxes are a legal possibility (some sports leases prohibit them), they’d actually be a great way for Cuyahoga County to live up to its lease commitment to fund upgrades to Cleveland’s sports facilities without hitting up local taxpayers too badly. Yet another important topic we didn’t have time for during the Octoboxathon.

Football fans oddly upset at being asked for more money

Time magazine has an overview of the trend toward personal seat licenses at NFL stadiums, and while there’s not a whole lot new there — fans resent paying them! but many do anyway! — it does include the greatest paragraph in the history of paragraphs:

During a public comment period after the agreement was reached, critics bashed the project as a raw deal for fans and taxpayers. “This is fricking ridiculous, man,” said Jeff Wagner, one of 35 candidates reportedly running for mayor in Minneapolis. Wagner removed his shoes and tossed them on the table before announcing, “You can keep my shoes because basically you are just stealing from the people.”

Just sit and enjoy that one. I think my favorite part is “reportedly.”

Ticket bubble watch: Slate today, Orlando ESPN tomorrow

I haven’t written much about the sports ticket bubble lately (though there’s plenty to comment on, including the Pittsburgh Piratesno-fee week and some impressively low StubHub prices for the New York Liberty). If you’ve been wanting an overview of the lay of the deflating-ticket-price land and what it could mean for the sports industry, check out my new article on the same in Slate.

On a related note, I’ll be on ESPN 1080 in Orlando at 10:05 am tomorrow (Friday), talking about my Nation article and the Slate article. If you’re in Orlando, tune in on your radio; if not, use the streaming doohickey.

Sports bubble watch: Yanks draw another record low

And it’s another record low attendance at the New York Yankees‘ new stadium:

An announced crowd of 40,081 came to the Bronx on Thursday night to watch Yankees-White Sox, setting a new low for attendance at the new Yankee Stadium.

The previous low was an announced crowd of 40,267 on April 5. Capacity at the new Stadium is a little over 52,000.

In case you’re wondering how overall MLB attendance is doing so far this year, it’s down about 2.3% at the moment, in line with the last time I checked, as well as with the per-season average over the last three years. It’s not a crisis just yet, but it is definitely a trend — and a further sign that the sports ticket price bubble is still deflating.

Rays hike some ticket prices 65%

Next time you hear the Tampa Bay Rays complaining about lousy attendance — and you know they will — keep in mind that the Rays just raised prices on 38% of their seats, including one section by a whopping 65%. Complains one original season ticket holder:

“They complain that nobody comes. Then they take an entire section and tick us off,” [Sharon] Greene said. “I understand prices going up (but) I don’t really understand prices going up when the economy is so bad.”

Now, it’s only one season ticket holder complaining, which makes for a pretty weak trend piece, and I’m sure Rays execs have been perusing StubHub for a sense of what the market will bear like other teams have. (And, it’s worth noting, some Tampa Bay tickets will go down in price this year.) Still, Greene has a point: The Florida economy in particular remains dismal, we’re rapidly heading toward deflation, and the Rays’ “successful” 2010 season notwithstanding, they’re going to need to sell tickets next year for a team with no Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena. With that in mind, they might want to pay attention to Greene’s closing comment when asked if she’d consider cheaper seats elsewhere:

“My other seats are right here on the couch.”

Sports bubble watch: NFL fans would rather watch on TV

It’s not just the New York Giants and Jets: Attendance is down across the NFL, with average game attendance projected to fall to its lowest level since 1998.

While the media have been quick to blame easy access to big-screen TVs, there’s another factor that just might be at work here: The average price of an NFL ticket is now $252. With prices like that — and economic figures like these — you might expect increasing numbers of fans to stay home even if the alternative were listening to the game broadcast on their crystal radio sets.

With sellouts diminishing, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has asked the NFL to reconsider its rules blacking out games with unsold tickets, but so far his plea has fallen on deaf ears. Instead, the NFL has focused on making going to a game more like watching on TV. Only with an extra $252 price tag. Sign me up!