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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Recession brought baseball back where it should be

The economic downturn has led several teams, including the Dodgers, to lower the prices for tickets and concessions this season.

April 12, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

This is what baseball should be.

Take the family out to the ballgame, without financial guilt. The Arizona Diamondbacks sell tickets for $5, hot dogs for $1.50, sodas for $1.50. That's $32 for a family of four.

"They're not big hot dogs," Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall said.

Hey, they're not great seats, either. But you're in the ballpark, where memories are made and lifelong allegiances are nurtured.

Baseball lost sight of the common fan amid the gold rush of the past decade, the rush to build palaces that spit out gold from luxury suites and dugout seats and baseline clubs. It is too bad baseball needed a recession to realize the pendulum had swung too far toward the rich, too far from the kids.

But baseball woke up to its greed this spring, frightened into action by the prospect of plummeting attendance. Commissioner Bud Selig welcomed the new season by instituting a fan value program in which every team will offer discounts and promotions, with a special emphasis on families and children.

"I'm really proud of the clubs," Selig said.

The Dodgers now offer a small bottle of water for $3.75, not just a large bottle for $5.75. The Angels sell kids' tickets for $3 for some games, $5 for others, with $7 caps for every fan, every day.

The Houston Astros sell kids' tickets for $1. The Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers sell $1 tickets for all. The Colorado Rockies sell tickets for $4; the Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals for $5.

A tip of the cap, for these programs and many others. Yet baseball ought not go back to its overpriced ways when the economy rebounds.

This should not be a recession-based initiative. This should be a fan-based initiative.

"I think we can make a lot of this permanent," Selig said. "I'm fairly optimistic."

Selig paused for a breath, shed his caution and added an air of determination to his voice.

"We will make a lot of this permanent," he said.

He said the right thing, and now he was rolling.

"It's something we should do anyway," he said. "We've got to mean what we say. We really have to be the cheapest form of entertainment."

Baseball lost that commitment, losing its way while celebrating each billion in record revenues. We spend far too much time fretting over whether the late starting times for the World Series keep kids from watching baseball on television, far too little time figuring out how to get kids into the ballpark, embrace the game in person, get hooked for life.

It's too expensive for too many. A family of four should not have to pay $200 for a day at the ballpark.

And yet, according to Team Marketing Report, the cost of four tickets at the average price, four hot dogs, four sodas, two beers, two caps and parking comes to $196.79 at the average major league park this season.

That bill runs $221.64 at Dodger Stadium, where the average ticket price has risen 97% since the McCourt family bought the team in 2004, according to TMR data.

The Dodgers did not raise prices for tickets, parking and concessions this season.

"This is a season we have to be smarter and more engaged," Chief Executive Jamie McCourt said.

McCourt said baseball has a special obligation to respond to the recession.

"I look at baseball as a place you can go to be together with people you care about," she said. "I feel like America needs help. I think baseball helps. It is really that oasis."

The Dodgers offer tickets at $7 for kids and $9 for adults, with a 12-game package available for $48. But McCourt said she does not measure affordability solely by the cost of a ticket, citing value in all-inclusive packages that cover tickets, food and drink as well as fan experiences such as the opportunity to shag fly balls during batting practice, at no charge.

McCourt declined to commit to maintaining the new, lower-priced water, soda and beer options beyond this season.

"We're sure going to try," she said.

In Arizona, Hall said the Diamondbacks' food and drink vendors initially expressed horror at the concept of selling hot dogs and sodas for $1.50. But the vendors make up the revenue in volume, he said, because fans feel better about spending money when they don't feel ripped off.

The Diamondbacks raised their payroll this season, even with the low prices for tickets and concessions. They expect to turn a profit, Hall said, as long as the team remains in contention.

Baseball's owners meet four times a year. Until this year, Hall said, affordability did not appear on the agenda.

"These are the types of initiatives that should come up regularly," Hall said.

We couldn't agree more. Sell the luxury boxes for a luxury price, but get the kids into the cheap seats, cheaply.

I got hooked on baseball three decades ago as a member of the Dodger-Pepsi Fan Club -- six tickets in the top deck for $2. If Selig and the owners fail to use the recession as a springboard to renewed affordability, they had better not start blaming video games when the next generation of fans fails to materialize.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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