Between 1991 and 2014 the cost of bringing a family of four to the ballpark for a major league baseball game increased 168%. That is based on a statistic called the Fan Cost Index which includes four average price tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two game programs and two of the least expensive caps. In 1991 that amounted to an average of $79. In 2014 it was $212.
The average salary of a major leaguer during that time period increased 270% from $891,000 to $3.3 million. At the same time the inflation adjusted median U.S. household income increased 28% from $40,800 to $51,900.
That’s going to change baseball and it’s going to change the experience of attending baseball games. Just as income inequality has ballooned in America, income inequality among major league baseball teams has likewise expanded. In Boston, the most expensive place to attend a baseball game, the fan price index went up 290% to $350. By comparison, in Pittsburgh the increase was 120% to $161.
Fortunately for baseball fans, the disparity in wealth has not completely been reflected in team results. Of the five teams with the highest payrolls in 2014, only two, the Dodgers and the Tigers, made the postseason playoffs. The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies all failed to quality with the latter two finishing dead last in their division. Two of the teams that did qualify, the A’s and the Pirates, were 25th and 27th, respectively, in the payroll standings.
However, the wealth disparity has clearly impacted the movement of players. The wealthier teams dominate the free agent market which in turn gives them the ability to attract more fans and command higher local TV fees and ad rates. This leads to a lot of player movement, the result of which is that in many smaller markets the fans routinely see the best players leave as soon as they mature. Some teams actively trade their best players before their contract expires because they know they won’t be able to compete in the free agent market. The Tampa Bay Rays this year traded their popular ace pitcher David Price for that reason.
One of the most glaring examples of how money changed baseball occurred in 1998 in Florida. After winning the World Series in 1997, the Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga sold off most of the players who were responsible for winning that title. In 1998, the Marlins finished with the worst record in baseball. The owner sold the team and landed on his feet. The players landed on their feet. It’s only the fans that took it on the chin. (Huizenga was the CEO of Blockbuster and we all know how that worked out.)
Another example is the opening of the new Yankee Stadium in 2009. The Yankees opened the season with their usual star-studded cast. Their attendance was among the best in the league, but if you watched a game from the new stadium on TV, it looked half empty. That’s because no one was sitting in the prime seats behind home plate. The Yankees had the audacity to charge $2,500 a seat (that’s for one game not the season). Even in New York, very few people were stupid enough to pay that. Within two weeks of the season opener, the Yankees were slashing some of their ticket prices in half.
The stadiums where the costs were highest were now experiencing the Madison Square Garden syndrome. All the real fans were in the upper deck.
In baseball’s high rent districts (and I live in the New York area) the days when individual fans purchase season tickets year after year and sit with other fans who have been their longtime ballpark neighbors are gone. The so-called premium seats are for the most part filled with folks who were given those tickets because of a business relationship. The lower level is for expense accounts not family budgets.
Many of these “fans” arrive fashionably in the third inning or so and head out by the sixth. They may be more interested in being seen than seeing the game. Not the people I want to sit with when I go to a game.
The decades of the 90’s and “ought’s” were probably the time in my life when I was best able to afford the inflated cost of MLB. I certainly forked over silly sums of money for some other stuff during those years. But the idea of spending hundreds of dollars to go to a baseball game just rubbed me the wrong way. I also was less then enamored with watching millionaire players who signed long term contracts and responded with increasingly diminished performance. (This was fairly typical of my hometown Mets until the owners decided to invest in a Ponzi scheme instead of ballplayers.)
But that hardly meant I was done going to baseball games. While the majors were awash in high finance, the minor leagues were having a renaissance in the New York/New Jersey area.
The period from 1961 to 1994 was the dark ages for New York/New Jersey minor league baseball. There was one short-lived venture in 1977-78 in Jersey City. The Jersey City Indians, a poor team affiliated with a major league franchise that had little following in this area and playing in a dilapidated stadium that was soon to be torn down, lasted two years. I made a couple of those games and was sorry to see them go.
Things changed in 1994. In that year the Trenton Thunder began playing in the brand new Waterfront Stadium as a AA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, and the New Jersey Cardinals, a single A St. Louis affiliate, opened play at Skylands Park in Sussex County. Both played to full houses. The Cardinals have since moved on, but the Thunder are still going strong and are one of the best organizations in baseball.
Independent league ball moved in four years later with teams in Atlantic City, Little Falls, Bridgewater and Newark. Camden came onboard in 2001 and a single-A Phillies affiliate was born that year in Lakewood. Also during this time the Yankees and Mets finally decided to stop blocking minor league baseball in their territory and the Staten Island Yankees and Brooklyn Cyclones were born.
That’s ten teams created in an 8-year period. Newark and Atlantic City have fallen by the wayside but most of the others are pretty successful.
While it would cost $337 to take a family of four to a New York Yankees game, for a few bucks more ($350) I could buy a season’s ticket for the New Jersey Jackals. And the Jackals will toss in the playoff tickets for free. Who knows what the Yankees would charge now for playoff tickets if they made it. The Jackals have a once a week dollar beer night, a dollar dog night, an all you can eat night and even a weekly game when I can bring my dog. That’s pretty typical of minor league promotions.
Sometimes you get an early glimpse of players who are destined for stardom. Watching the New Jersey Cardinals I saw the parent club’s number one draft choices Matt Morris and Adam Kennedy with their first professional team. Neither lasted too long in Sussex County before moving up the chain. I watched Robinson Cano as a Staten Island Yankee and Melky Cabrera in the Trenton Thunder outfield.
The majority of players in Class A and AA ball aren’t going to the majors. What you are seeing is guys chasing a dream. In independent ball, the chances are even more remote. These guys aren’t ready to give up because they love the game. A stark contrast from the over-the-hill millionaire playing out a long-term contract.
No one’s getting rich and fat in the minors. And no one’s blowing a paycheck to watch them. I like it like that.
In next week’s post I’ll offer some retirement advice for baseball fans.