Pricey New Sports Venues Help Make Washington No. 1 for High-Cost Tickets
By Stephen C. Fehr
The Washington area is the most expensive in the country for sports fans, according to new figures that show how Jack Kent Cooke Stadium and the soon-to-open MCI Center are driving up the cost of tickets to local games.
The average ticket prices for the Washington area's football, basketball, hockey and baseball teams make this the highest-priced sports venue overall in the nation, according to surveys by Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based sports industry newsletter.
That dubious distinction crystallized yesterday when the newsletter reported that the Washington Wizards will charge the second-highest ticket prices in the National Basketball Association for the season that begins tonight.
The Wizards' average ticket price jumped to $51.63, a 42 percent increase from last season and the biggest gain in the league. Among NBA teams, only the Portland Trail Blazers, at $51.89, charge more for tickets, according to the survey. The league average is $36.32.
The newsletter previously found that the Washington Redskins top the National Football League in ticket prices this season, based on prices listed by teams. The Washington Capitals charge the fifth-highest ticket prices in the National Hockey League, and the Baltimore Orioles' ticket prices are fourth-highest in major league baseball, the newsletter said. The survey was done by taking the number of seats at each price level and averaging their cost.
The Wizards' ticket prices, combined with prices for the three other big league sports franchises, pushed Washington to the top among cities that have a full slate of professional sports teams.
The Wizards, who move into the MCI Center in downtown Washington on Dec. 2, will charge up to $75 for general seats, the most-expensive entertainment ticket in town after the opera.
The Wizards charge more than NBA glamour teams in Chicago and New York. New York's pro teams charge higher ticket prices than most cities, but fans there have cheaper options than Washington fans do; the Jets' tickets cost less than those of any other NFL team, for example. Tickets to see Boston's sports teams also are expensive but were cheaper overall than tickets in Washington.
The upwardly spiraling costs astound many would-be spectators.
Driving near the MCI Center, taxi driver Howard Daniel, 62, said: "If I came home and said I was going to spend $100 or more on a basketball game, my wife would say I'm out of my mind. I have just as good a chance going there as I have going to the White House."
Percell Spinner, 33, of Alexandria, is a carpenter and one of hundreds of workers building the MCI Center. He said he doubts that he'll be able to many games housed in his handiwork.
"At those prices," Spinner said, "only the rich people can afford that."
Higher ticket prices are changing the face of sports. Professionals, executives and others with means increasingly are filling seats once held by middle-class families and other average fans. Cooke Stadium holds 23,600 more people than Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the Redskins' old venue, but many of those additional seats were bought by businesses whose fans probably aren't the type to dress up as hogs.
"When a team has a new arena or stadium, there's usually a big price increase in what I call the `snob zone' department, the best seats," said Stephen A. Greyser, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School. "What you basically see in those seats is Corporate America. That doesn't mean Corporate America can't be as enthusiastic as other fans, but more of them are people who want to be `seen' as at something."
Sports team owner Abe Pollin always has offered some seats at relatively affordable prices; the least-expensive Capitals or Bullets seat will be $19 at MCI.
In addition, Pollin's teams are generous in dishing out free and discounted tickets to groups that otherwise couldn't afford to attend.
Matt Williams, spokesman for the organization that runs the Wizards and Capitals, said the price increases "reflect the cost of doing business in professional sports, with salaries increasing the way they are."
The Wizards have the fifth-highest payroll in the league. But the Wizards and Capitals don't disclose their profits, which also could affect ticket prices.
The Orioles' payroll went from $28 million in 1993 to $60 million this past season, and the team will turn a profit at least $9 million this year for the first time since Oriole Park opened in 1992.
"Someday this spiral has to stop. The little guy is getting left behind," said John W. Breen, 57, of Reston, who made one trip to an Orioles game this year.
The salary inflation will continue, analysts said, in part because the revenue teams receive from broadcast rights and national licensing of merchandise keeps going up. Some analysts predict that the next round of NFL television contracts could be worth as much as $8 billion a year twice the amount of the current contracts.
The TV exposure is "good for the league, and it creates revenue for owners. But it also allows players to charge more for their services," said Rick Burton, of the sports marketing center at the University of Oregon.
Team owners have discovered that a new stadium or arena can help meet expenses through the higher prices they can charge for luxury suites, club seats, gourmet concessions, fancy merchandise, advertising, restaurants and theme activities.
A new stadium can add as much as $30 million a year to a team's revenue, said Roger G. Noll, a Stanford University economics professor who studies sports facilities.
To illustrate: At RFK Stadium, the Redskins had 10,519 seats available at top prices of $45 to $50. At Cooke Stadium, however, there are 38,586 general seats in the top $55 to $60 price range, a gain of about $1.7 million in revenue per game from ticket sales alone.
Many fans appear willing to pay the higher prices: The Orioles and Redskins are the envy of their peers for sold-out games. About half of the Wizards and Capitals games last season were sold out, and moving to a new arena usually guarantees higher attendance in the first few years as fans check out the new location.
Still, there are signs that some teams may have overestimated demand.
The hundreds of empty club-level seats at Cooke Stadium are a reminder that even some of the NFL's most rabid fans won't pay as much as $250 a seat. Up the road in Baltimore, Ravens attendance has fallen 5 percent from last year, and thousands of fans who bought season tickets for the new Ravens stadium under construction next to Oriole Park have requested refunds.
Redskins officials said about 90 percent, or 13,000, of the club seats at Cooke Stadium have been sold, the highest number in the NFL. The Ravens attribute the drop in fan interest to the team's mediocre performance to date and on having to play at antiquated Memorial Stadium until their new stadium opens next year at Camden Yards.
"Have we outpriced ourselves? I don't think so," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' spokesman. "In the end, your product is what's going to sell for you."
The Wizards and Capitals have not sold about 25 percent of their 3,000 club seats, which are $7,500 apiece with a two-seat minimum purchase. But Williams said those seats are geared mostly to corporations, not individuals, so slow sales don't reflect a backlash by the average fan.
But Greyser, the Harvard marketing professor, is not alone in saying average fans are getting rarer in sporting venues.
During the baseball playoffs, Baltimore pundits poked fun at Orioles fans, urging them to hang up their cell phones and cheer louder. Even the bleachers at Camden Yards where budget-minded fans usually sit were packed with people who paid $30 for a seat that went for $7 during the regular season.
"I'm probably in for $35 already, and it's the top of the third," Ken Wiley, 37, of Sterling, said about his afternoon's investment as he sat in the upper deck at a regular season Orioles game in September. "They're raising prices to where it's all corporation-bought tickets. The only way to get in is if you know someone. Otherwise, you'll only see a few games a year. How will baseball have future generations of fans if the kids can't afford to go?"
Joe Foss, the Orioles' vice chairman of business and finance, said that the team tries hard to make tickets and concessions affordable and that it even permits fans to carry in their own food.
"Professional sports relies very heavily on ticket revenue," he said. "It's important to have pricing that not only generates a revenue stream but is broad enough to appeal to all ends of the spectrum."
Fans attending Orioles, Redskins, Wizards and Capitals games make more money on average than other area residents.
"This area is so affluent. When people bow out because they can't afford it, someone else will pick up the slack," said Tracey Schofer, 51, of Upper Marlboro, who now limits his live sports watching to one Capitals game a year. "These teams will always get their price in this town."
The average household income of Washington area fans who attend Orioles games is $87,500 a year, compared with $70,200 for all residents, according to Scarborough Research Corp., a consumer and media research firm. Wizards fans who attend games have an average household income of $74,800, the lowest of fans for the four area teams but still above the regional household average.
"Slowly we're squeezing the lower class out of the stadium," said Burton, of the University of Oregon.
Chris Naughten, 38, of Silver Spring, may be typical of many of today's fans. A real estate lawyer, Naughten was given four tickets by his law firm to take clients to a recent Redskins-Dallas Monday night game. The tickets were for exclusive club seats that go for as much as $250 a game. As long as the firm is buying, he'll also invite clients to sit with him in the $60 seats for Capitals games and $65 seats for Wizards games.
But Naughten said he can't spend that kind of money on tickets for himself and his family -- his wife, Melissa, and their daughter, Martha, 12, and son, Pat, 11. Naughten and his wife both work, and their household income is more than the area's average of $70,200, but usually they can afford only a few Orioles games a year.
"We can't do that too often or it kind of blows the entertainment budget for the month," Naughten said.
The higher prices for sports tickets are part of a general rise in the cost of entertainment that is affecting how people spend their leisure time. Families, in particular, but also other groups, such as singles and retired people, say they are cutting back on games, concerts, plays, movies and dinners out because their entertainment budgets are strained.
Paul Peterson's Redskins season tickets are so precious that he keeps them hidden in an underwear drawer. He and his wife have been going to games for about 30 years, but this year's price increase to $55 a ticket is giving him second thoughts.
"If they keep going up, I'd seriously consider saying, `Hey, we're not going to do it,' " said Peterson, 66, who is retired and living in Mount Vernon. "I know things are expensive here. The Kennedy Center isn't cheap. MCI is going to be a lot more. Quite honestly, if you're talking about a family going to a game, it's almost cost-prohibitive."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company