For Nats and Fans, There's a Price

In the time since officials formally broke ground on the Washington Nationals' new stadium, the ballpark has risen steadily along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington.
By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Few cities have had as much reason to analyze the ticket prices of a baseball team as Washington does right now. The success of the Nationals affects the entire development of the Southeast waterfront. More fans and more enthusiasm can create a powerful force for urban revival. So the Nats have a responsibility to keep prices sane, not only to build their own fragile fan base but also out of gratitude to the city that built them a $611 million park and, this month, will hand them the keys on time.

In 2005, the Nats averaged 33,728 fans with 22,500 season tickets sold at ancient RFK Stadium. By last season, crowds fell to 24,217, season tickets dropped to 15,000 and even the collapsing Orioles outdrew the Nats by 11.7 percent. This year, Nats season tickets are up 20 percent, a modest gain for a team with a new ballpark. "Sales are going fine," team president Stan Kasten said. "There are going to be an awful lot of sellouts."

There better be. New parks should produce full or nearly full houses for most games, except for cold April nights against weak foes. By May, you should be rolling. And ticket prices for the 41,222-seat park should be aligned to help it happen.

So how are the Nationals doing? First, we need a frame of reference. Few subjects are less known than the vast gap in prices for identical seats in different parks. At extremes between the richest major markets and the poorest, the ratio can be 10 to 1. Even between similar markets, the disparity can be 3 to 1. For prime games, the Dodgers' left field bleachers cost $13, the famous Fenway Park bleachers $26, yet all the Nats' comparable bleachers cost $39. Is that how you sell out?

Let's start with the classic baseball seat that you see in every movie, the box seat directly above the dugout. At Yankee Stadium, to see Derek Jeter up close, it'll cost $400 on game day. At Fenway Park, if you want to peek into Manny Ramirez's world, the tab is $325. In Arizona, the price is $130. The Dodgers charge $130 and the Giants $95.

The Nats charge $80 for such premium games (up from $65 last year), the same as the Cubs and Orioles. A bargain? Don't answer too fast. PNC Park in Pittsburgh is spectacular. From a dugout box, you see the downtown skyline and bridges spanning the Allegheny River. That seat costs $35, about 1/11 th the Yankees' price and less than half of the Nats'. In Kansas City, the bill is $44. In the Phillies' lovely new park, the same perch is $50. In Oakland and Minnesota, a dugout box is $55.

See, not so simple. All in all, 11 teams charge more than the Nats for a dugout box, but 18 teams charge the same or less. Also, Nats boxes don't taper off in price as fast as the Orioles, who undercut the Nats in some sections by as much as $18.

Confused? You should be. Nobody understands baseball ticket prices. Not fans or the owners and executives who actually set the prices. "You try to be fair, but, in the end, you make your best guess," Nats principal owner Mark Lerner said.

"Each team sets its own prices. We have nothing to do with it," a major league spokesman said. "It's supply and demand."

Not really. More likely, tickets are an inefficient market. Much of baseball is still hidebound. It took the game a century to figure out you could charge more to see the Yankees or Red Sox come through town ("premium games"). Why would the game have mastered the perfect pricing of 40,000 seats? So savvy fans have an edge, especially this year in Washington.

The Nats have 13,842 seats -- including every seat in the upper deck, plus seats in the left and right field corner boxes -- that cost distinctly less than comparable tickets in similar markets. Every seat on the Gallery Level and half the seats in the Terrace are about one-third less. Bargains, indeed.

Unfortunately, every seat in the outfield -- all 6,290 of them, whether in the bleachers, scoreboard pavilion or right field mezzanine -- costs considerably more than in similar parks and markets. In addition, the 1,830 box seats behind home plate are priced as high as any field-level seats in the sport ($150 to $335, including parking and restaurant perks).

Let the rich folks behind the screen fend for themselves. But the Nats' bleachers are an issue.

If the Nats had priced every outfield seat at $10 less, a sacrifice of perhaps $3 million a year, it would've been a better way to go. On the other hand, 10 percent of every ticket goes to D.C. So if seats sell at these prices, it's more dough for the city.

As for the other 19,260 Nats seats, after analyzing every section in every stadium -- charting prices and comparing "sightline photos" on the Internet -- I think they're priced about right. (Hold the applause. Hardship pay accepted.) The Nats' prices, overall, are reasonable. However, this park is not scaled strictly to maximize attendance. The Nats have adopted the price structure of a confident franchise that thinks it's building a winner and demands enough revenue now to pay the freight for a champion later. It's a hard plan to fault -- unless it fails. Then, we'd wonder if it might have been better to price Nationals Park in its early years to create the most possible new baseball fans that would follow the team come thick or thin.

Now that the general public, not just season ticket holders, can buy seats, let's take a quick shopping trip. The best Nats value is the Gallery Level; there, for the best seats in the upper deck, the top price is $26. At Fenway, the equivalent Pavilion Box is $90. The Mets, Yanks, and Cubs charge $74, $65 and $52. In all, 20 teams offer equivalents of the Nats' high-but-panoramic Gallery. Average: $40.38. Only the Royals beat the Nats' price at $22.

Next, go to the bleachers. Or rather don't go to the bleachers, where the Nats charge $35-$39 and $27-$29 in the upper-deck pavilion. Several teams charge more. But few, outside the Nats, offer no bargain options. Even in new parks, the Phillies' bleachers are $24-$29, Cleveland $16-$26, Atlanta $12-$22, Arizona $15-$20 and Detroit $12-$15.

"Our bleachers are spectacular seats. They're near the center field restaurant and entertainment areas for kids," said Kasten. "That said, see me in a year. We'll take a fresh look at everything."

If the Nats fix their outfield problem, they'll have plenty of bragging rights. Washington has 27 sections in the upper deck where no ticket is more than $20, including the equivalent of nine full sections where every ticket is always $10. And the Nats have two sections of $5 grandstand seats with views of the Capitol. Sixteen teams have the same seats: average price $20.44.

"In the late '70s [Los Angeles Lakers owner] Jerry Buss figured out that you could charge far more for your best seats," said Kasten, who ran the Atlanta Hawks then and charged $7 for his courtside seats. "But Buss also cut the price of the upstairs seats in half. You have to continue to find seats for your whole fan base."

Using that theory, the Nats charge plenty for the box seats behind home plate as well as their private suites, of which two-thirds are sold. Who cares? They're rich. Let 'em subsidize us.

What matters this year, both for the growth of the Nats' core base and as a boost for Southeast development, is that fans enjoy the pleasures of the 10,889 panoramic seats in the affordable upper deck. For those who prefer the box seats or club level, just clench your jaw. When you upgrade from miserable RFK, prices go up. For reference, you're paying Mariners, Reds or Cubs prices and a little less than in St. Louis or San Francisco. And nowhere close to teams in New York, Los Angeles or Boston.

As for those in the outfield seats, let's beat the drum for the Nats to have a change of heart next year. Until then, if you're an especially civic-minded bleacherite, try to ignore getting drilled in the hip pocket. Just say you're taking one for the team.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company