Jerry Buss could see no exit. Even a man as rich as he was going to need public assistance.
His Los Angeles Lakers had just won the National Basketball Association championship. Glory for the City of Angels. Fame and fortune for the players. And woe to the owner, even if he is a millionaire 50 times over.
Like most of his colleagues, Buss had a problem. Naturally, the players would want more money. Obviously, the bucks would come from Buss' pocket, which is as deep as the Marianas Trench but not quite limitless. Who would pay for these new economics?
The answer is easy if you take it logically: put the burden on those who made it all possible. Just plain folks. If the sons always suffer for the sins of the fathers, then the fans always suffer for the excesses of their heroes. And what better way to raise revenue than to raise ticket prices? Since the first penny was shelled out for the first ticket, the method has proven infallible.
Everyone does it. If the basketball team doesn't get you, the hockey team will. A survey of the 97 pro sports teams, shown in the accompanying charts, indicates the cost of tickets has increased about 30 percent during the past five years.
In the National Football league, the average ticket price in 1975 was $8.60. This season, it's $10.05. An average baseball seat has risen from $3.45 in 1976, the earliest year for which figures are available, to $4.53 last season -- still the cheapest game in town. To watch a hockey game cost $6.61 five years ago. Now it's $8.61. For a basketball game, based on the National Basketball Association's standard of number of tickets sold, as opposed to average price, fans paid $5.38 in 1975 and $7.10 today.
And it's sure to get worse before -- or if -- it gets better.
"I don't see any alternative," said Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Bullets and Capitals. Pollin raised prices $1 for both teams this season. "With inflation, rising energy and travel costs and huge increases in player salaries, they have to go up. We realize it's difficult to bring a family out here, but it's difficult to go to the grocery and clothing stores.
"In a down economy, the first thing people can eliminate is entertainment. On the positive side, they can come out here without spending large amounts of money, have fun and forget their troubles."
They can drown their sorrows at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., too. But not without spending big bucks.
"With all the players I signed to long-term contracts," Buss explained from his Palm Springs, Calif., office, "I knew I was going to have to increase the admissions take by 40 percent just to stay even. Then I'd try to make a profit on the playoffs.
"That's typically an across-the-board increase. But to do that discriminates against the people who can least afford it, and you hurt the people who supported you in the lean years. We determined that the demand for premium seats was extremely high and the demand for the others was low. I multiplied the house out on a market basis and decided to sell the premium seats for what they were worth, then scale the rest accordingly."
When the calculator stopped whirling, the 110 seats close enough for a fan to count the beads of sweat on Magic Johnson's eyelids were going for $60 a game. That's $2,460 per season.
"The only reason he stopped at $60," kidded Bob Steiner, Laker publicity director, "is that he didn't have the courage to raise it to $100."
"If you go to a premier event in New York or L.A.," Buss said, "and you want the best seats, it's usually around $60. It was basic seat-of-the-pants research. I assumed that I'd get some cancellations."
So much for a career as a prophet. Buss got no cancellations and was unable to fill the demand for seats. The waiting list isn't as long as that for Redskin tickets (now about 10,000), but it's a prize that could spark some heavy words in probate court. A few people complained when Buss raised the $10 seats to $20 and the $8.50 seats to $12, but their cries went unheard in the stampede to buy tickets. Buss kept the remaining 10,000 seats at the same price.
Then it was time to face the music.
"I raised prices and felt people would want to vent their frustration," he said, "so I felt it only fair that I stand there and make a statement."
He did. Eight times, to 10 people per session.
"I think when they first got there, they were anxious to show me up," Buss said. "But when they walked out, some of them told me, 'I hate what you're doing, but I understand why. As a businessman, I respect your decision.' We're all caught in the same inflation."
The trick then becomes to squeeze blood, or at least a few pennies, from a stone. So, as any good entrepreneur would do, the owner seeks alternative sources of revenue.
And you thought television served no useful purpose. Before a ball was kicked last July, each NFL club received $5.5 million from ABC, CBS and NBC. What, Pete Rozelle's boys worry?
"The real pressure on the owners is to make sure they have a full stadium because it's a better television show," said Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "So they try to keep their prices within range."
"TV revenue has definitely affected prices," admitted Russ Thomas, Detroit Lion general manager, whose club hasn't raised prices in five years. "We're still making a profit, so there's no reason to change. But without television I don't know who would be in the black. Not many teams could survive just on gate receipts."
That's easy for Thomas and his 27 colleagues to say. But most exist on the other side of the tube, where life is nasty, brutish and expensive. Baseball clubs make a comparitive pittance from ABC and NBC, and the clubs' local contracts don't make much of a dent on the debit side of the ledger. The NBA makes even less on CBS, and those local contracts are pennies compared with baseball's. Poor boy on the block is hockey, which has been without a network contract since 1975 and depends entirely on local contracts for its additional revenue.
"We're hurt by low radio and TV income," said Joe Burke, Kansas City Royal general manager. "We're in the smallest market, and we really need the support of our fans. With low radio and TV income, you can't compete for free agents because the dollars just aren't there."
Sometimes when the dollars aren't there, they appear by the grace of the tube god. When Pete Rose was debating what city he'd like to play in, a Philadelphia television station kicked in $600,000 to help convince him that four years in Philly wouldn't be bad, despite what W.C. Fields thought.
"Of course the TV revenue helps," said Fred Claire, Los Angeles Dodger vice president for publicity and promotions, whose club has the lowest ticket prices in sports, averages almost 40,000 per game, and is the envy of every franchise in the country.
"But I think team performance is the most important aspect. You can do a lot of things right from a promotions standpoint, but if the team doesn't win there's nothing you can do about it. You've got to keep people coming even when you're losing. Fortunately, we've been able to do that. We're in very tough competition for the entertainment dollar here, so we have to offer people something at a good price. We're constantly looking at what other clubs are doing, because there's always something we can learn; 40,000 certainly isn't the end. There's no reason we can't average 45-50,000."
It's a breeze to be magnanimous when you average what your competitors would drool to pull in for three games. But even losers have hearts. The Atlanta Braves, laughing stock of the National League before they became respectable last season, haven't raised prices in five years.
"The secret is two words: (owner) Ted Turner," said Charles Sanders, the team's vice president and general manager. "We've lost money every year, but Ted insists on keeping prices down (although he hasn't done the same for his Nba hAwks). Maybe he got it in his mind that you can't raise prices for a last-place club. The fans are his paramount consideration. We'll turn them off if we jack up prices for what is not a good-enough product. We want to keep it a good family value.
"If we raised prices and nobody else did, we'd be crucified by the media. But if we don't and nine others do, we get nothing more than a pat on the back."
Which may translate into some more occupied seats.