The credit market is shut tight. The foreclosure numbers will make you cry. The economy is tanking and getting worse. And amidst all this bad news--hell, because of it--we have a prediction to make: 2009 will be the Year of the Sports Fan. Finally.
For far too long, blue-collar fans have had a hard time getting noticed. The Astrodome in Houston might have installed the country’s first luxury box in 1965, but it was around the early ’90s when teams started assiduously catering to business executives. That’s when you began to see candy apple martinis and Caesar salads at the ballpark. In the last 15 years--factoring in for inflation--the average Major League Baseball ticket has risen roughly 70 percent, the NFL ticket is up about 70 percent, and the NBA ticket is up 27 percent. (The number you don’t see there is the number of seats that became premium seats.)
And who could really blame the teams? Corporate America's checkbook was bigger, and therefore, better than yours in the owners’ eyes. The only real negative was that the suits didn't show up as often, and, when they did, they certainly didn't cheer like the jersey-wearing maniacs.
But the economic climate is changing the hierarchy. Thanks to company budgets collapsing (like any car company can afford a suite anymore) and greater corner office line item crunching (even the Yankees haven’t sold out their spanking new stadium suites), teams are finding that they have to focus on their core fans again. Actually, focus is too weak a word. Many teams are begging you to come back and sample their product.
Just look at what NBA teams are offering today. In the past you could buy ticket packages consisting of a group of usually three, five, or 10 games. It would be a pretty good deal for the owners because they’d package together the tickets they couldn’t sell easily--the ones for games against the Clippers, for instance.
But the package system has been upended. This year, the Milwaukee Bucks are giving you a chance to watch the league's top three teams--the Celtics, Cavs, and Lakers--for $69 total. (They’re even throwing in a Kareem Abdul Jabbar bobblehead.) The Atlanta Hawks are letting you pick any four games for $80, and they’ll even include a ticket to the aquarium, the zoo, and a $20 concession voucher. Other teams like the Denver Nuggets and the Orlando Magic are folding in playoff priority with these packages. Playoff priority used to be the exclusive domain of VIPS and season ticket holders, but teams are so eager for fans that if you purchase a small package of games, you’ll get a chance to nab seats to the postseason before the public does. It’s not like these teams are horrible either. Orlando and Denver both lead their divisions in the standings.
Some ticket prices are just downright stupid. The Colorado Rockies, one season removed from a World Series appearance, are selling centerfield bleacher seats to kids and seniors for $1, while the Pittsburgh Pirates will allow you to pick any ten games you want to go to (except Opening Day and the series against the Cleveland Indians) for as low as $7.20 a game. Even the NFL playoffs will be a steal. In November the league decided to discount the face value of playoff ticket prices by ten percent in the face of the economic challenges ahead.
And there’s another thing going for us: technology. Although online ticket brokers have been around for years, more tickets are on their sites than ever before, and that means that tickets will, for the most part, go for what the market commands. That wasn't the case ten years ago when on-site scalpers had lack of time on their side as you walked up to the stadium to see if you could score a bargain. Secondary ticket broker StubHub.com says that tickets to this year's BCS National Championship game are averaging $704 per game, almost half the price of last year's championship game ($1,362). But guess what? StubHub reports they've outsold last year's game by dollar volume and tickets sold. You’ve never been to the Orange Bowl? Try it out. StubHub says the average ticket for the BCS game between Cincinnati and Virginia has sold for $66. Last year's game between Louisville and Wake Forest averaged $137. By game time, it will be way below face. And how about the Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Texas? The average price for that game is $204, a substantial bargain considering the last two times these teams played in 2005 and 2006 ticket prices on Stubhub were $547 and $596.
We’re too far away from events like the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 and March Madness to know how they’ll price out, but trust me, you’ll be shocked. And just wait until Fan Appreciation Night at the ballpark this fall. You might get a hug and kiss for showing up.
Darren Rovell is the sports business reporter for CNBC. His blog can be found at http://sportsbiz.cnbc.com.
By Darren Rovell