Baseball enters 2009 with an eye on the economy

When the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies opened their title defence against the Atlanta Braves Sunday night, it marked the opening of a season fraught with uncertainty for the sport.

Phillies one of the few clubs to see a rise in season tickets

When the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies opened their title defence against the Atlanta Braves Sunday night, it marked the opening of a season fraught with uncertainty for the sport.

While the New York Yankees have been acting as though there is no economic downturn by spending $423.5 million US on free-agent signings while also opening a new $1-billion ballpark, the rest of baseball is simply hoping to get through the 2009 season relatively unscathed.

Teams have started to realize their financial situations need to be consistently monitored as the season progresses.

"The decisions that I would have made — or that we as an organization would have made — in October were different from the ones we would have made in November, and those were clearly different from the ones we would have made in January," Paul Beeston, the interim president of the Toronto Blue Jays, told the National Post on the weekend.

"It [the economy] just kept getting worse and worse. And not only didn't we hit the bottom, we didn't see the bottom," he said.

With the San Diego Padres leading the way by slashing about $40 million US from last year's payroll, 13 teams are coming into this year spending less, including Toronto.

Team Marketing Report — a leading on-line marketing service — released its annual survey of baseball on Thursday and listed the average price of a Yankees home ticket at a major league-high $72.97 US, a 76.3 per cent increase from last year's $41.40.

The major-league average is listed as $26.64, with Arizona possessing the league-low of $14.31.

Yankee Stadium not sold out

That great jump in cost is due to New York opening the brand new Yankee Stadium this season. With an approximate price tag of over $1 billion to construct the replacement for The House that Ruth Built, the Yanks need to recoup their expense by driving up ticket sales.

But baseball's most successful franchise has reportedly not been able to sell all of its premium seating, leading Hal Steinbrenner, co-owner of the Yankees, to admit that a "small amount" of tickets may have been overpriced.

Steinbrenner knows the current economy magnifies New York's high asking price for tickets, but he is confident his team will make it over the hump.

Across town, the New York Mets are also opening an expensive new park and the National League club has not been immune to the effects the economy has had on how much fans are willing to pay.

Ken Belson of The New York Times reports the Mets are planning to auction some of the last remaining seats to the home opener at Citi Field on April 13.

With the team unable to sell about 100 of the most expensive season tickets, the Mets are for the first time letting buyers bid on how much they want to pay for tickets.

Deals abound

On Thursday, Major League Baseball offered fans a lifeline by announcing the "Commissioner's Fan Initiative," the league's effort to make the game more affordable in the midst of a recession.

Attached to the media release was a list of discounts and other promotions offered by the 30 clubs, including:

  • Pittsburgh Pirates fans can purchase $1 seats, $1 hot dogs, $1 soft drink and $1 popcorn for select games.
  • The Baltimore Orioles are developing a kids' night where children 10 and under can enter free for Thursday games  when accompanied by an adult.
  • Toronto Blue Jays are offering "Messin' with Recession" value priced ticket offers on select Tuesdays, including $1 Cdn hot dogs and a $4 souvenir.
  • Arizona is following a trend of creating an All-You-Can-Eat section, starting at $25 a game, that includes a game ticket for diamond level seating and unlimited hot dogs, chips, popcorn, peanuts and soda.

"Throughout its long and distinguished history, baseball has always served as a diversion for its fans in difficult times," commissioner Bud Selig said in the media release.

"As the country faces new challenges, Major League Baseball is stepping up its efforts to make the game more affordable and to demonstrate to its fans how important they are to us."

Tigers take big dip

Detroit Tigers officials are dealing with a drop of about 15,000 season ticket sales from 27,000 last year says the Detroit Free Press. And while that kind of precipitous fall isn't the norm across the 30 clubs, many have been hit at the box office. 

Back to the Phillies, who take to the field on Sunday as one of the few teams to experience a jump in season ticket sales thanks to their championship last fall. The club has sold more than 24,200 season tickets, a 17 per cent increase over last year.

However, you can't count on winning a World Series every time.

With files from the Associated Press