Plenty of Cup-holders & Bathrooms

Plenty of Cup-holders & Bathrooms

Given the amount of coverage the economy has been getting in the past few months, it seems a moot point to bring up the question of how this might affect the sports world. It may even seem irrelevant and irresponsible to speak of what is going on in our economy right now in terms of sports. Sports after all, often serve as a sanctuary for the masses during times of struggle. I completely support this sentiment.

Unfortunately, ticket prices, along with concessions, souvenirs, and parking continue to rise to all-time highs. The average cost for a family of four to attend an NFL game in 2007 was $367.31 when taking into account all of the aforementioned items. The average cost a ticket to a Major League Baseball game is now twice the average hourly wage. In 1991, this figure was reversed. Attendance at Major League Baseball games actually declined 1% this past season. Of course, there are several other factors that may have contributed, but it is not at all premature to assume that a lot of people chose to forgo some, or all, of the games they may have attended under different circumstances.

Plenty of Cup-holders & Bathrooms

This whole argument admittedly may not be that important in the grand scheme of things. But when you consider that several teams are building new stadiums, each costing over $1 billion, much of which is being financed by tax-exempt loans, the rest of which is being funded by personal seat licenses, which are essentially the rights to purchase season tickets, it raises a lot of red flags to me; and it also offers an interesting commentary on the way our nation’s economic structure seems to work.

I had thought of writing this article about the questions raised by billionaire owners using tax-exempt bonds to finance large portions of their stadiums. Tax-exempt bonds are typically used for civic projects such as infrastructure, schools, parks, etc. When a private enterprise, such as a sports franchise, accepts a huge amount of these subsidies (the new Yankee stadium is being financed in part by $941 million in tax-exempt bonds), this often means money is diverted away from other projects. All the details get quite complicated, and I read so many contradicting arguments from so many “experts”, that I don’t even know who to believe. However, no matter the specifics, it seems ridiculous to me that governments are helping private enterprises, owned by billionaires, carry out their projects. But then again, the government also just gave a $700 billion loan to the financial and housing industries, and there have been murmurs that now the automobile industry is looking for assistance as well and that the administration is actually considering it. So in this light, it is not at all remarkable to me that governments would help subsidize sports arenas.

Given this, I began to consider what some of these new stadiums said about the direction our country is heading as we approach Election Day. It is no secret that professional, and even some college, sporting venues are becoming less geared to the “common fan”, and geared more towards the corporate partners who can fill expensive luxury suites. The new stadium being built for the NFL’s Jets and Giants is a perfect example. Featuring amenities such as four (yes, four!) 40’ x 100’ high definition scoreboards, state-of the-art sound systems, and yes, that all-important facet of everything American – be it car, truck or sports arena – the cup holder; of which there will be better, larger ones on every seat. On top of that, there are 9,500 club seats and 4 club lounges, which essentially amount to fancy night clubs at the stadium. Since when did sports fans stop going to a simple sports bar to watch a game?

Two thirds of the seats in the stadium will be available only to those who purchase a Personal Seat License, which is literally, according to the site, “…the right to buy tickets for certain seats in the stadium”. These will run anywhere upwards of $4,000 per seat, in addition to the cost of the tickets. The idea behind these is actually a noble one: The PSL money will go to pay off the stadium’s financing, thus allowing the wealthier fans to pay for the new stadium, and keeping the remaining seats for the “normal folk” affordable. The problem is that the pricing for the remaining one third of the seats, which require no PSL, starts at $95 a ticket! $95 to sit in the top row! And the website actually includes this list of “benefits” to these “bargain” seats:

– Clear view of high-def scoreboard (what about a clear view of the actual players? I can watch HDTV at home for free)
– Cup holders at every seat (Did you know the new Honda fit has 5 seats and 10 cup holders? I swear it’s true.)
– More concession stands (So you don’t have to wait as long. And so you’re more apt to spend even more money on food and beer)
– More restrooms (for $95, you shouldn’t have to stand in line)

Clearly, this is an exaggeration. Anyone who has been to a football game can tell you, you don’t go expecting a better view of the game, standing in line can be frustrating, and without a cup holder there would be a lot of spilled drinks. But the point is the excess that is exhibited. No longer is a sporting event just about the game. No longer is a stadium just a place where competitors meet. The sports industry has morphed over the past decade and a half into a humongous industry, and it is subject to the same rules as any other business. Prices go up as demand goes up. If teams lowered prices, lots of fans still wouldn’t be able to go to games because they would sell out much quicker due to even greater demand for the more-cheaply priced tickets. This is the same phenomenon that finds grown men and women pushing, shoving, biting, and kicking every year on Black Friday to get to the sale-priced limited supply of this year’s “it” toy. (A quick note for parents: This year’s “it” toys include Elmo Live and a doll that pees.)

But given the plight of Wall Street, should sports worry? The two are very much connected, and not just because you aren’t really a major corporation unless you have a stadium named after you. Who were the Jets, Giants, Yankees, and Nets counting on having to fill their luxury suites, club-level seats, and night clubs? Who were they expecting to pay $400,000 for the personal seat licenses for the two best seats in the house, as the winning bidder in the Jets Coaches Club Auction did? It certainly isn’t the teachers, firefighters, construction workers, students, and office staff workers. With all that’s happening on Wall Street, should teams worry about filling their luxurious new stadiums?

Probably not; at least next season, according to Neil Best, a columnist for Sports Watch. The novelty of the stadiums will attract people, especially for the inaugural seasons. But in a year or two, if the economy is still on a down-slope, it may be cause for a little more concern for franchises. But in general, it is highly unlikely that teams will see a huge effect at the turnstile, especially if many teams drop ticket prices next year, as is expected of several teams who didn’t just build a billion-dollar stadium.

Consider that the Detroit Lions were blacked out on their local television stations for the first time since 2002 this past weekend. In case you aren’t a football fan, the Lions are 29-67 since 2002, and they haven’t won a game yet this season. For a team that bad, in a part of the country that has been feeling economic hurt since long before a lot of us to have drawn near sellouts for 6 ½ straight losing seasons, fans must still be drawn to the game, regardless of external circumstances. Of course some teams already drew small crowds even before anyone knew who Henry Paulson was, or before the federal government tried to convince us that its having ownership in private economic institutions isn’t leaning dangerously towards socialism. These teams will continue to draw crowds relative to the success of their teams, and I suspect that it will be similar for most teams.

Coming back to the idea of how this all relates to our country, can you see the connection? Franchises continue to operate relatively as usual. While there have been cuts made in some franchises (The Charlotte Bobcats recently laid off 35 members of their staff), that is typical of any business in cost-saving mode. Fans continue to buy tickets, or at the least, they decide to trade in the tickets for a HDTV and NFL Sunday Ticket. The bottom line is, the games still go on, fans are still entertained, and within a few years, the stadiums will be packed again no matter how expensive the tickets are. Not much different than it was a year or so ago. My argument is that the same is true of the economy. If the nation as a whole doesn’t panic, and takes rational, small steps to conserve for the time being, and to plan for the future, we will pull out of this much the same, or maybe even better off than we were going in.

Stadiums and the economic situation might be a bit of a stretch, but just think about it… And then stop thinking about it, and just sit down and watch a game. If you have minor league teams in your area, try going to one of their games. Chances are the tickets are cheap, and the product is plenty good enough to keep you and yours entertained for an afternoon. Or go watch your kid’s games, or even if you don’t have kids go and watch a high school game. Just be around other people who are going through the same things as you, and you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make. That’s the advantage of watching a game in person: Being surrounded by thousands of people who share in the same excitement, and the same heartbreak that you do.

Dan Mason profile picDan Mason is an accountant who day-dreams about being in the wilderness, and has a perfectly healthy male-affection for Aaron Rodgers. He was just married in August to his girlfriend of 3 1/2 years. Visit his blog for more of his writing.

Article Image by: uncle buck, Flickr

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