20 January 2008

2008 Diamondback Prices (Part I) : Season Tickets

Ordinarily, deconstructing a baseball club's ticket prices is of limited interest, but due to inventive press releases oozing from Derrick Hall's Office of Misinformation, this mundane exercise rises to something of a public service in Arizona. Rather than allow Mr Hall's elaborate craftsmanship to speak for his organization's strategic pricing model - we'll let prices speak for themselves, serving to illustrate some overdue lessons learned.

First, here are 2008 season ticket rates. The very best and worst seats at Chase Field held steady with 2007: lower level clubhouse seats behind the plate remain $110 each, as do the theoretically attractive $8 and $5 options comprising most of the upper deck. In every other seating area, however, the price of season tickets changed:

Lower Deck (per seat)

1st/3rd Base Box $75........up 15%

Dugout Box $65.........up 18%

Infield Box $35.........up 13%

Baseline Reserve $21..........up 5%

New buffer sections $15........down 25%

Bullpen Reserve $10...........down 38%

Bleachers $10.......................down 16%

Middle Deck

Box $36..........down 10%

Reserve $21...down 25%

Bullpen $15.....down 46%

Upper Deck

MVP Box $17........down 11%

The best lower level seats increased in price, but why all these dramatic discounts after a surprisingly successful, even watershed season? When you already offer "the lowest prices in baseball"? Derrick Hall desperately wants fans to believe these changes represent a "reward" to loyal fans, but it turns out he's increased prices where most of the "loyal" base resides, and reduced prices in relatively empty sections - in hopes of driving new sales. This strategy better reflects (and exploits) actual demand across the venue and is, indeed, a welcome (and overdue) change - however, it has nothing to do with rewarding the currrent ST fan base.

The fans "rewarded" today are the constituency of holdouts who declined to buy season tickets at previous prices, who may have an interest in doing so now. And they're not being rewarded in any altrusitic sense - rather, their collective self discipline has forced the somnambulant, Paradise Valley-based "Dream Team" to face the bracing truth that much of Chase Field has been overpriced for this particular market - now placing Hall in the extraordinary position of slashing many pricepoints on the heels of a shocking playoff appearance, in order to drive revenue.

This, and some of the club's more documented miscalculations - throwing a veritable army of popular team fixtures (Colangelo, Gonzo, team colors, dollar seats, etc.) under the proverbial Sedona Red bus - shouldnt blind fans to the fact that there are attractive season ticket deals to be had here, relative to the rest of MLB. For example, does any other team offer lower level seats inside the foul pole for just $10? Starting in 2008, the Diamondbacks do. Kudos. Outfield sections of the Zirconia club level, which gathered dust at $28, now sell for between $15 and $21. And, just as last year, one can still buy a respectable upper level seat for $8.

Well, 83 seats minimum, or if you're like most people, 166 and up. Bear in mind, we're talking season tickets, but if you're price conscious and interested in that kind of commitment, these are significant changes. If the ST base expands, it will do so almost exclusively from these targeted areas, largely unoccupied since 2005 (when new ownership curiously hiked ST prices 8% after the worst on field performance by any National League team in forty years).

To the extent price reductions fail to increase the base much, one shouldnt assume Phoenix has innately uninterested fans. Current TV ratings and earlier attendance at the ballpark (1998-2004) strongly suggest otherwise. Has there been a drop of utility at the ballpark transcending simple won lost record? We're talking about a 2007 team that grabbed first place in July, with "the lowest prices in baseball", yet still got outdrawn by a 2004 death squad that lost 111 games with, presumably, higher prices - contradicting the enormously popular notion that Phoenix is some unusually shallow, frontrunning fan base that only supports a winner. Something else, clearly, is suppressing recent ticket sales.

First, the brazen and disingenuous zeal with which new ownership discarded aspects of franchise identity has turned off many locals, particularly older fans. To them, so-called Sedona Red almost seems like a different franchise, one worthy of a separate moniker, a la "Chameleons". Second, the Dream Team suppresses walk up sales by charging the largest % single-game differentials in all of MLB. Third, the team pimps this singularly regressive shell game in MLB's lowest per capita income market. And fourth, variable or sectional pricing around the stadium can only be described as peculiar, at least in terms of driving actual sales - to wit, slashing ST rates in the massive upper level Infield Reserve, despite structurally tepid demand for 83+ seats that far from the earth's crust.

The Diamondbacks may not have earned many tangible customers from that lofty exercise, but Derrick Hall has derived plenty of mileage from it nonetheless. It turns out that Chase season tickets now rank as MLB's most affordable overall, largely due to these upper deck "deals" that hardly anyone wants. Hall has had a field day embellishing this rather empty acheivement, (more on that later), but the larger point is that a weighted average of ST prices doesnt necessarily reflect actual values at the park, as defined by those who know best: fans. Nor do these "averages" reflect single-game or comprehensive prices in any way. In both cases, this is especially true of the D-Backs.

Unfortunately, no reliable study exists regarding single game pricing, because MLB's dizzying jumble of differentials, premiums and premier game schedules, overlayed on top of 30 distinct seating configurations each with unique ST penetration and seat amenities, renders such a comparison more exhausting than exhaustive. So, instead, everyone uses TMR's season ticket figures - not because they're definitive or comprehensive, but because they're far easier for TMR to capture. And that's a shame, because fans of certain teams, who rely exclusively on the TMR, receive a distorted view of their team's relative standing on overall pricing. Comparing apples to apples can be instructive, less so when evaluating entire produce departments.

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