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Baseball thinks outside the box to sell seats

Complex pricing helps the Dodgers, Angels and others increase revenue.

March 27, 2007|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

It used to be so simple. Walk up to the ticket window at the ballpark, buy a box seat.

Ask for a box seat these days, and you get more options than voice mail. As seating charts evolve into color-coded mazes and teams charge an assortment of prices for the same seat, some box seats are more equal than others.

The Dodgers sell 24 categories of seats, 11 with "box" in the name, with box prices ranging from $20 to $100 a ticket.

"It is a bit confusing," said Joe Sciuto, a Dodgers fan and the principal at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks. "The box seats used to be the field level. Now you've got seats in the second deck being called box seats."

And you might pay more for your seat than the fan seated next to you. The Dodgers sell tickets in the field box section for $20, $30, $35, $37, $40 and $45, depending on whether you buy on game day, before game day or as part of a full-season, partial-season or group ticket package.

What's the ticket price? The Dodgers offer you 104 answers in all.

From Dodger Stadium to Angel Stadium and all across the major leagues, teams have scrapped traditional pricing structures and borrowed from airlines, hotels, theaters and college sports, dividing the ballpark into an ever-increasing number of sections and charging more, much more or a lot more for the seats in greatest demand.

"It's not all about making it easier for the consumer," said Dennis Howard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "It's largely revenue-driven.

"If they can slice and dice their inventory and they can create rational price differentiation, you'll pay more. Teams are trying to create compelling reasons to justify charging more for tickets and driving the revenue engine."

In 1987, the Angels sold tickets for $8, $7, $5 and $3 and the Dodgers for $7, $6 and $4, with every seat on the same level at the same price.

"Whether you sat behind the backstop or you sat beyond the bases, it was one size fits all," said Robert Alvarado, the Angels' director of marketing and ticket sales. "There has been more pressure to increase revenues in creative ways."

It is no longer enough to charge more for a seat behind home plate than for one next to the foul pole. The latest round of slicing and dicing comes into full view this week, as baseball returns to Southern California with the annual Freeway Series exhibition games, at Dodger Stadium on Thursday and Friday and at Angel Stadium on Saturday.

In 2007, the Angels sell 23 categories of seats, with premium areas divided so finely that the first row sells for one price, the second row for another and the seventh row for yet another.

And, two decades after selling tickets for three prices, the Dodgers sell tickets for 83 prices, depending not only on where you sit but on when you buy your seat and whether you buy it for one game, some games or every game. If you want to take your group to the ballpark, the Dodgers offer another 21 prices, charging more for better seats and more popular games.

"You almost feel like someone is going to open up their jacket pocket and say, 'I've got a price for you,' " said Rich Sperber, a Dodgers fan and a vice president at an Anaheim home design company.

That's exactly right, teams say, so long as you substitute an authorized ticket seller for a shady-looking guy on the corner.

The best seats in the house seldom turn over, no matter how steep the annual price increase. With the unintended help of such websites as StubHub and EBay, teams have learned that the market will support prices for premium seats that previously might have been considered unimaginably high.

"It's like real estate," Alvarado said. "They're in the high-rent district."

By dividing seats into so many categories, teams can define the ones in highest demand and attach stiff price hikes. But teams also can define the seats that do not sell so well and offer discounts or package deals to fans.

"If they're looking for value, I've got value," Alvarado said. "If they're looking for seat locations, I've got seat locations."

Said Marty Greenspun, the Dodgers' chief operating officer: "We're trying to offer multiple options for our fans."

No longer do you have to decide between buying the whole season or one game at a time. The Angels, for instance, sell a 27-game package in which you pick the games you want to see and a nine-game package with a more limited selection. The Dodgers sell packages for as few as four games and as many as 62.

Although the Angels and Dodgers each sold a record number of tickets last season, Howard said 40% of major league tickets go unsold every year.

Every unsold ticket also represents a lost opportunity to sell hot dogs, peanuts, beer and T-shirts.

By dividing the seating area into so many categories and analyzing demand for each one, teams can adjust prices to drive ticket sales.

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