Corporate pumping

November 23, 2007 |

Ticket prices and attendance continue to rise.

Yesterday, I jokingly wrote about how to make NBA games worth the average $52.01 ticket price. The truth is I used to be a big NBA fan. What got me to this line of thinking was an old column by ESPN’s David Aldridge. He wrote glowingly of his childhood days going to see Elvin Hayes at the Capital Centre when his dad “could scrape up a few bucks” to buy tickets.

It reminded me of my time as a Bullets fan. They were still in Baltimore then, and Elvin Hayes was with the Houston Rockets. A Friday night doubleheader was scheduled one night. The first game was Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and the rest of the Harlem Globetrotters whom I rooted for on their Saturday morning cartoon show. The second game featured the Bullets against the Big E and his Rockets.

My father hated going downtown, even though our apartment near Fort Holabird was only about 15 minutes away from the Civic Center. Besides, he was on the 3 to 11 shift at the steel mill that night.

Being the resourceful 11-year-old, I talked my neighbor, an army corporal stationed at Holabird to take me to the game.

It was an unusually big crowd that night for Baltimore, but tickets were still available in the most expensive and the cheapest price levels. My neighbor weighed his options at the ticket window. The cheap seats were on the stage with an obstructed view. The expensive seats were about a dozen rows off the court.

“How much for the good seats?” the corporal asked. “Six dollars,” came the reply.

“Six bucks!,” he responded incredulously. “No way am I paying six bucks to see a basketball game. Give me the stage seats.”

I still had a good time even though the American flag obscured part of the court and the Bullets lost to the Rockets. (The Globetrotters beat the Washington Generals by the way.)

My, how things have changed. Ticket prices in all four pro sports have far outpaced the rate of inflation. Yet, teams and cities are setting attendance records every year. So, maybe tickets have been underpriced all these years. People are still lining up to pay these hyper-inflated prices aren’t they?

The obvious answer would be yes. But I don’t think it’s that simple. The average fan has been the victim of corporate pumping. Since the 1980s corporations have been willing snatch up thousands of tickets at soaring prices.

I saw this transformation first hand working as an usher at Memorial Stadium from 1979-87. I worked mainly in lower Section 38. It was one of the best sections in the stadium, between the dugout and the home plate screen. Box seat holders had an up-close, unobstructed view of the infield, and particularly the bang-bang plays at first base.

It felt good to hear the satisfaction in the fans’ voice as I ushered them to their seats. In my first years, the typical comment was “Wow, I can’t believe I could get these seats this close to game time.” In most occasions, these prime tickets were purchased by the walk-up crowd.

By 1984, that had all changed. Now, the typical comment was “Pretty good seats. I’ve got to thank my wife’s boss.” The tickets, which were only $6.50 in ‘79, had nearly doubled in price. Now, they were mostly freebies, given by executives to clients, friends, neighbors or employees.

I’ll wager if you sneak into the lower or club levels at the Verizon Center tonight, and take a survey — the vast majority of spectators will say they didn’t have to pay for the seats.

So, where does that leave people like the Aldridge’s of the ’70s and the Letras, people that don’t have connections? We stay home, unless we’re lucky enough to get the last two rows in the arena. These seats are relatively inexpensive, but there are so few of them, they sell out months before a game.

Tonight, I actually considered going into D.C. to see the Wizards-Warriors. I was also thinking of going to Philly and watching the Flyers-Caps. But then, common sense took over. I’ll spend the money instead paying my electric bill.

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