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During the lockout, if you looked in the Twitter mentions of any major MLB reporter pushing out updates on the negotiations between the league and the union, you would find fans complaining about how the players were greedy and it was going to cost families more to go to a baseball game because of them. This is simply not true: ticket prices and player salaries aren’t connected, even if they have both grown next to each other for some time now. And our most recent reminder of this fact is the way the Oakland A’s are currently operating: by selling off much of what isn’t nailed down to other teams, and then raising ticket prices for the 2022 season, anyway.
SF Gate’s Alex Espinoza wrote a story on this earlier in the week:
I recently sent out a tweet to A’s season-ticket holders, to see exactly how much their prices have increased since the last “normal” season in 2019. One fan said his ticket package increased nearly 71 percent from its 2019 price, jumping from $2,400 to $4,100. For a half-season down the left-field line, another fan’s price more than doubled from $2,400 in 2019 to $4,900 in 2022. Twitter user @LimaTime1020 said his second-deck seats went from $2,950 in 2019 to $6,500 in 2022. Another fan’s partial season ticket package on the first deck near home plate more than doubled from $711 to $1,587 over the past three years, and she didn’t renew. A second-deck season ticket holder opted out in 2022 after her price jumped from $1,400 in 2019 to $2,600 this year.
We’re talking about a rise in prices for the very same concrete-slabbed Coliseum the franchise is trying desperately to escape. The same Coliseum that’s been the bane of the franchise’s existence this millennium. The same Coliseum that’s not undergoing any major renovations. Attendance is bound to be putrid and become a major storyline.
The A’s traded Matt Olson to the Braves, allowing them to avoid giving Freddie Freeman the sixth year he was asking for (which in turn gave the Dodgers room to add Freeman to an already loaded roster). They also sent Matt Chapman to the Blue Jays, and could still end up shipping out both starting pitchers Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas, as well. All of this is happening while ticket prices jump, again and again. The A’s, by the way, finished the 2021 season with an 86-76 record, just one win below their expected record given their run differential, and the postseason just expanded by two teams. They should have been buying in order to give the 2022 season a serious run, but why buy when you can simply trade your best players away, again, for prospects that will be traded away the next time the A’s are in a position to choose between advancing or retreating? Again.
The A’s deserve negative attention for this, of course, but it’s not like it’s an A’s-specific issue. The Red Sox, before the 2020 season, announced their plans to cut payroll — an announcement that would eventually mean trading 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts and David Price in a salary dump to the same Dodgers team that was happy to scoop up Freeman earlier this month — and did so in conjunction with the news that they would be raising ticket prices for the 2020 season. We should criticize the Sox for this, but we should also recognize it as one of the most honest instances out there regarding the relationship between payroll and ticket prices.
We already know that MLB’s attendance was shrinking even before the pandemic, and that their solutions to this problem had more to do with ensuring that they were maximizing their per ticket profits more than attempting to actually sell more of the things. But it’s kind of wild that we even still have to hear about the relationship between ticket prices and player salaries, considering it’s been nearly two full decades since Nate Silver explained why they aren’t actually related for Baseball Prospectus. And Rob Mains followed that piece up 15 years later with an explanation of why ticket prices don’t go down, by way of spelling out that, “The idea that player salaries underpin ticket prices is not supported by economic theory, by the real world, or by how tickets trade.” You should read the whole thing, but especially this part:
Baseball teams have the best of both worlds. They don’t face competition. That’s partly because they have an antitrust exemption, but mostly because it’s not practical for investors to start a new baseball league that plays in MLB cities. Yes, they compete with concerts and movies and other spectator sports. But if you want to go see live baseball, each team is literally the only game in town. (OK, one of two in the three largest cities in the country.) Nobody’s going to undercut them on price.
But while they’re an effective monopoly, they’re not a regulated monopoly. There is not municipal or regional rate commission that approves ticket prices. They charge whatever they want.
And when you can charge what you want, the watchword is what the market will bear. Given the choice of charging $30 or $20 for a seat, teams realize that they’ll probably sell more seats at the lower price. But they might not maximize profits.
The desire to maximize profits is why teams focus so much on retaining season ticket buyers and those fans who would shell out for luxury boxes and the like. Those are a long-term investment: the people who can’t afford those kinds of packages or seats can simply stay at home and pay for cable or MLB.tv or whatever streaming apps MLB has partnered with in order to get their fix. The people in the best seats feel special because they have something that belongs to them, that not everyone can just go out and get, and the people who can’t afford those kinds of seats don’t quit on MLB so much as consume it a different way. MLB doesn’t operate on creating access to their league and sport, but are motivated solely by profit: if it were otherwise, they wouldn’t have shrunk Minor League Baseball and removed pro ball from dozens of mid-sized cities, would they have?
The A’s are going a step too far, given their increases are causing even season ticket holders of old to say no thanks to the new pricing, but they’re also something of a special case, between their general A’s-ness and the fact they’d probably love an empty stadium so they can use the imagery and fallout from that in their discussions for the need for a new ballpark or a new city to play in. Plus, they’ve already signed up for some insurance against people canceling their plans, and that’s trading away anyone who makes money on the roster: the A’s might end up with a slightly lower gate in 2022, due to fans canceling ticket packages or not buying one-off seats, but they’ll make up for that with a lower overall payroll and the increased per ticket profits. Never mind that the A’s will now receive revenue-sharing dollars again, in addition to their cut of the national broadcasting money and their deal with NBC Sports California to broadcast locally.
No, ticket prices and player salaries aren’t related, and the most obvious proof of that, without any digging necessary, is to realize that it’s because they don’t need to be. Not when teams have the kind of sweetheart deals they do that allow them to behave like the A’s do.