Baseball for peanuts: ballpark deals

To keep attendance up during hard times, teams from New York to Minnesota are offering discounts. Even the world-champion Phillies are in on the game.

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By David A. Kaplan

empty_stadium.ce.03.jpg

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Glory to those $2,625-per-game seats at the new Yankee Stadium! Huzzahs to the spiffy bathrooms and Shake Shack in the food court at Citi Field, new home of the New York Mets! (In the old days at the predecessor ballpark, Shea Stadium, overbeered patrons in overcrowded men's rooms just used the sink.) Both Taj Mahals, opening next week, are the toast of the major leagues and what the fiscal overlords of the game hope you'll be noticing.

Yet elsewhere in baseball, there are fears the recession will produce a rare down year in a sport that's used to growth. Baseball brought in a record $6.5 billion last season, up more than 6% from 2007; attendance was 78.6 million, close to a record.

Nobody in baseball management expects those kinds of numbers this summer. Companies like GM (GM, Fortune 500) have ended sponsorships. According to the Team Marketing Report, an industry newsletter, 10 of baseball's 30 teams have cut ticket prices. Six more have raised prices by less than 1% or left them unchanged. Season-ticket sales in besieged Detroit are down 44%. In Pittsburgh, the Pirates are selling some season tickets at a 25% percent discount from 2007. Even some of those Ruthian-priced seats at Yankee Stadium have gone unsold.

Clubs are also experimenting more with both variable pricing -- games with less desirable opponents go cheaper -- and bargain promotions. On April 15, "Buck Night," Pirates fans can buy a ticket, a hot dog and a soda for $1 apiece. The Minnesota Twins will sell a block of bleacher seats based on the Dow Jones: if the index closes in the 7000s on a Friday, seats the following Monday will go for $7. In Arizona, the Diamondbacks are offering 675 "All You Can Eat Seats" every game. For $30 to $35, you get all the dogs, peanuts, popcorn, Pepsi and Frito Lays your GI tract can handle -- Zantac isn't included.

Given how other businesses are doing, baseball is hardly in crisis. Some teams, like the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies, have experienced a surge at the box office. The average player salary, though likely to be flat, remains at about $3.25 million, which is pretty good when you're merely average. Though there is speculation again about possible contraction -- eliminating a couple of financially woeful teams -- it's only chatter for now.

Still, at different stadiums this week, there were worrisome indicators. In Toronto, for example, the Blue Jays played to a nearly packed house on Opening Day, which usually happens. But the next day, nearly three-quarters of the seats at Rogers Centre were empty -- low even for an April game. Part of the reason was a one-game ban on the sale of alcohol, which was punishment for unruly fan behavior on Opening Day.

The Budweiser was flowing again for Game 3 of the series against the Detroit Tigers -- and attendance fell even more, to barely 12,000, the lowest gate ever at Rogers Centre. If beer doesn't put bellies in the seat, you know you have a problem.

With reporting by Lawrence Delevingne  To top of page

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