I received an email from the guys over at Elephants in Oakland, and they don't agree with my resolution on ticket prices. Here's what they had to say:
We think you caved too early in your argument about baseball ticket prices, et al.
If you compare MLB to the NFL, NHL and NBA it really isn't close as to who gets the most bang for their entertainment buck. If you take the price of a baseball ticket in the bleecher seats and compare it to the other sports' cheap seats (not the nose bleed/obstructed view seats) MLB is still 10-15% above other sports. If you simply take the average seat, it's not even close, baseball is more expensive on the whole.
Here's how we make our ultimate decision on the numbers. The bank account. You always want to get the most for your dollar. We'll lie and say the four major sports are equal. Even though we all know the NBA is pointless (how exciting is it if you can hear their shoes squeak)?
NBA/NHL are partied to 41 home games
NFL offers 8 home games
MLB has 81
Seating matters as about half as many people can see a NHL or NBA game as can see a football or baseball game. You're a lot closer to the action, if you call it that.
A $20 ticket to one of 81 baseball games translates into a $5 ticket if there were 80 football games. About $15 for one of 80 NHL games. About $18 for an NBA game if there were 80 home dates.
MLB is ripping us off. But it can get away with it. Baseball does its best in some places to keep fans away in droves. MLB owners can cry about empty seats to get new stadiums and great tax returns. Not to mention sweetheart deals with local governments to buy unused tickets. In reality, if Blockbuster Video started renting two 90 minute movies for $20, we don't think there would be enough Napster, WinMX and Morpheus clones available to handle the demand for downloads.
Other entertainment does not compare to sports.
The $8 movie plays at 12 different times in two different movie houses and will be on DVD or VHS in six months. In a year it will be on cable ad nauseam.
Broadway is Broadway. Seeing the touring company of The Producers is comparable to watching a high school production of the Outsiders. If it's not in Mid-Town New York City, it might as well not be. Unless Gilbert & Sullivan suddenly wrote a new piece, we're not going to think that Broadway isn't really just Hollywood and TV without cameras.
Live concerts also don't compare as there really are no decent performers left in the music scene. KISS is a homage of a homage to itself. The Who doesn't tour and Billy Joel hasn't been any good since 1983. Harry Connick, Jr. was okay in the early 90's, but that's because it was too expensive to see Frank. And really costly to see Dean Martin. The Rolling Stones are at about $100 a ticket. The same Rolling Stones that have come through your town 25-30 different times. We're convinced they're holograms.
Elvis Costello recently played in the area. He doesn't tour much, but $50 a head for Elvis is a little much. We'd rather risk getting beaten up and go watch the Strokes. Better, yet, just go to a club that already has a band playing and pay a $5 cover charge.
Stand up comedy is a little better value. If you do your research and go when a solid stand up performs, you can get $15 worth or entertainment in 2 hours. But if you go when any number of hacks perform, you're going to feel ripped off.
The collective need to buy things at a ballpark is only compounded by the fact that you need a souvenir of the significant blowing of a significant amount of money in one place at one time not affiliated with Las Vegas.
There's really no simple formula. Every one decides on their own terms. What scratches one back gives another the heebie-jeebies (technical medical related terminology) or worse, hives.
At the Oakland Coliseum (the NET, whatever) you are allowed to bring in bottled water and food as long as it fits inside a standard bag. As long as it's not in glass or can the A's don't care. This is one of the reasons we're still happy to go to a game. We can stop at Subway grab some sandwiches and stop at the grocery store across the street and grab a few big bottles of water for about $10. Or, we're at the mercy of the food court and looking at $25-$30 in comparison.
We also only sit in the bleecher seats for $7. Plopping down $20 a ticket for a regular seat would mean forgoing other things, like DSL and cable service. The difference between 20-30 games a year in the bleechers versus going to 20-30 games in the box seats is a new DVD burner.
We get to the gates before they open. We watch batting practice and study who is warming up and who is not. We watch the 40 year old adolescents with their baseball mitts fight actual 8 year old adolescents for baseballs. We also get some sun. Try that at an NBA or NHL game.
But that's because we're on a budget and conscious consumers. If we were dolts and just dropped coin on the average seat at a sporting event, baseball would take us for our pants and then try to sell us pants with "PROPERTY OF MLB" on the crotch and a logo on the ass.
ELEPHANTS IN OAKLAND
And here's my response:
I don't know if I really gave in or just qualified my statement. I don't think that the price of admission is that high. But $5 for a program, $4 for a hot dog, $4 for a coke, $10 for parking, scads for crappy souvenirs, etc., that adds up for the average family. That's my real problem: the entire experience is too expensive.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that there's no simple formula for comparing prices across sports or across time. If you take a look at Andrew Zimablist's research in Baseball and Billions, he compares the Yankees against the Knicks, Rangers, and Broadway over the years:
He also lists the average ticket prices for all of baseball by decade (in 1990 dollars) starting in 1950. The high was $10.79 in 1970. In 1990, the average is $7.95, the lowest since 1985. Actually, only 1980-85 is lower. Zimbalist does say that the attendant costs (parking and concessions) have gone up considerably over the span though he doesn't provide numbers.
There are a number of things that make these calculations difficult: A) They don't count skybox prices as an admission fee. They have a ticket price and a service charge, which is the bulk of the costs and are not included in the average ticket price. This lowers the average (maybe purposely). B) The average ticket is based on all seats including ones (as you mention) that are almost always empty esp. in multi-purpose stadiums. This makes calculating ticket price increases difficult as many baseball-only stadiums were built in the 1990s, eliminating those unused seats and automatically driving up the average costs.
Zimbalist's data end at 1990. Prices have gone up with all the new stadiums in the last decade, but as I mentioned it's only hard to estimate how much. I have not seen any research picking up what Zimbalist did with 1990-2002 data. It has gone up, maybe considerably. However, I have not seen anything that indicates that baseball costs more than the other sports or other forms of entertainment. If you can remember a source for this, I would be interested but a bit skeptical. I don't know if comparing bleacher seats is fair to baseball because they have a flatter pricing schema than the other sports. There is no concept of paying a grand (or maybe it's more by now) to sit behind the Knicks' bench in baseball.
I'm afraid I lost you in the translation between the various sports-"A $20 ticket to one of 81 baseball games translates..." If you are saying that we should prorate the ticket prices based on one game per sport per season and are penalizing, or at least assessing higher rates to, baseball because there are more games, I think that method is problematic. By that rationale, baseball players should be paid 10 times as much as football players and double NBA and NHL players because they play more games. Also, movies are shown a thousand times a week across the country. Should we pay pennies to see a film? In each there are attendant costs that must be defrayed. Each sets its pricing according to what the market will bear. One event in each is basically the same length and provides the same entertainment value to the viewer. The cost to view an event in one form of entertainment should be comparable to the cost in another. (One aside: people always talk about escalating salaries driving up ticket prices. There is absolutely no relationship between the two. Ticket prices are set by the market value, optimizing the mix of fannies in seats times ticket price. New stadiums, however, do raise ticket prices because the teams think that the stadium itself is enough of a draw (Miller Park?). And who is demanding those new stadiums again? Is it the players?)
As far as movies are concerned, I've always heard that baseball for years based its ticket pricing on what the movies were charging. They probably still keep an eye on movie pricing.
As far as live concerts, I wouldn't go see the Stones since the word "live" seems contradictory in their case. Try some young bands like the White Stripes, the Strokes (which you mention), Weezer, Wilco, Beck, or the Hives. They're good, but with all of the boy bands and Britney Spears wannabes, you rarely hear about them. Also, they don't cost as much and you won't feel like you've gone to Disney afterwards like with the Stones. Or if you must go the geriatric route, go see a real legend like B.B. King or Jimmy Smith.