A tale of two major league cities—and then some

Over the last 55 years I’ve attended countless major league baseball games at 46 different ballparks—I’m hoping for 47 before this season is over. In that span, only twice have I paid more than face value for tickets.

The first time was in May, 1997 when I was trying to get into an Indians game. That was when the Tribe was in the midst of a sellout streak of 455 games, then a major league record. The ballpark was still new and the team was good. That the Memorial Day weekend games were sold out was understandable, but when I arrived in Cleveland, I learned that the entire season had been sold out! No ticket windows were open for day-of-game or advance sales. I don’t know what the team did with the ticket sellers. They could have laid them off, but if they wanted to keep them around, they certainly could afford it.

Obviously, tried and true Tribe fans engaged in a feeding frenzy when 1997 individual game tickets went on sale. But even if you allow for Cleveland’s pent-up baseball fever after the previous dismal decades, you have to wonder how it got to that point. Imagine an Indians fan looking at a pocket schedule on a dreary, late-winter day in Cleveland and thinking, gee, there’s a Tuesday night game against the Tigers coming up on Aug. 12… that’s only five months away! Gotta be there! Think I’ll buy my tickets right now!

Well, I had never been to Cleveland other than to drive through or around it, so I didn’t know how dire the situation was, and I had no local connections. If I wanted to attend an Indians game, I would have to deal with a scalper, a particularly appropriate term given the nickname of the local franchise.

As veterans of such transactions are aware, the price goes down as the opening pitch draws closer. I usually like to enter the park when the gates open— particularly when visiting a park I’ve never been to before—but that was not going to happen today. So I made up my mind I would wait till about 10 minutes before the game started and just pay what I had to.

As it turned out, I paid $25 for a $15 ticket in the temporary center field bleachers. I didn’t get a chance to explore the ballpark, but I figured I’d take a tour the next day before I flew home. Unbelievably, all the tours were sold out in advance. So I got to add Jacobs Field, as Progressive Field was then called, to my list of stadiums visited, but the experience was less than ideal.

I couldn’t help but think of cavernous (some might say cadaverous) old Municipal Stadium, the much-derided Mistake by the Lake. No problem getting tickets to see the Tribe there, and you didn’t need to plan in advance. Any time you felt a craving for baseball, you could quench it, so long as the Indians were at home. When your hometown ballpark has a seating capacity of 74,438, you can afford to be spontaneous. Believe it or not, I regret that I never got to see a game there. Bad ballparks, like bad movies, sometimes have to be seen to be believed.

The second time I paid more than face value for a ticket was at a more storied venue, Fenway Park, in June 2002. I was meeting some friends from New Jersey and we’d agreed that the trip to Boston would not be complete without a Red Sox game. I’d already been there for a couple of games in the mid-1980s, but it was unthinkable to visit Boston in the summer and not see a Red Sox game. So we made airline arrangements in late March, and I immediately started exploring ticket possibilities.

Or should I say impossibilities. Unfortunately, all tickets for the Red Sox-Diamondbacks series more than two months hence had been sold. I explained the situation to my friends, and we agreed that a ticket agent had to be consulted. I found a Boston broker who was offering center field bleacher tickets for the games with the Diamondbacks. The $18 face value was the lowest price point of any Red Sox ticket. The ticket agent’s asking price, however, was $69, almost four times the face value. I conveyed this info to my friends, and we agreed to make the purchase. Yeah, maybe someone could cut us a good deal once we got to Boston, but better to have the tickets in hand to avoid disappointment.

On game day, we discovered that the seats were one row from the top of the center field bleachers, at least 500 feet from home plate. I was even further away than I had been in Cleveland five years earlier. That $25 ticket was starting to look like a pretty good deal

You can’t help but wonder what a family guy does in such a situation. When Biff and Buffy want to go see the local Mudville Nine, there is no way to do it on the cheap. Kids, do you want to see the Red Sox this season or do you want to go to college? Either way, it’ll cost a fortune with no guarantee that either you or the Red Sox will succeed.

Actually, in Cleveland I had been hanging out with a guy with three kids who was holding out on buying his tickets till after the first pitch. I don’t blame him. The savings on four tickets could be considerable. He had driven in from Buffalo (at that time, the Bisons were the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate) so he already had time and money invested in the trip. I have no idea what he ended up paying, but if he got in for less than $100, he would have done all right for himself. Of course, if it made him a hero to his kids, it might have been worth every penny.

Less than a year after my 2002 Boston adventure, I was swapping baseball stories with a former Bostonian in Florida for spring training. He was a long-time season ticket holder even though he had moved to Denver. Every year he would take a vacation during a Red Sox home stand and take in as many games a possible. The rest of the tickets he sold over the Internet. You can imagine how much he could get for the Yankee games alone.

I didn’t want to pry, but I figured he was probably making a profit from it all. Can’t blame the guy for gaming the system, but I couldn’t help but think there was something horribly wrong with this picture. One of the advantages of baseball, as opposed to pro football (and in some markets hockey and basketball), is that tickets are generally plentiful and include low-cost options. I’d hate to see baseball become like football, i.e., the typical fan watches the game from his living room or a sports bar but rarely if ever sees the team in person.

In Boston, I suspect most of the advance tickets are snapped up by ticket brokers and not by individual fans. It’s not hard to imagine the ticket brokers scouring the Red Sox schedule as soon as it comes out, deciding which games will have the best potential for resale markup, and then scarfing them up as soon as single game ticket sales start. I’m pretty sure the Red Sox have limitations on the number of tickets any buyer can purchase for a single game, but I’m also sure that speed bump can be flattened out by the savvy entrepreneur. Remember the homeless people who were hired by ticket agents to wait in line when tickets for rock concerts went on sale?

At any rate, I am expounding on these scenarios in Cleveland and Boston to set the stage for a treatise on my home team, the Texas Rangers. Slowly, but I hope not surely, the ticketing situation is getting closer and closer to a scalper’s paradise. A one-time ticketing problem while traveling is a headache; a season-long ticketing problem at your home park is a migraine that refuses to quit.

Now I’m certainly not complaining about the team on the field. Eight Rangers on the All-Star squad! What’s not to like about that? To have top-notch talent (and national attention) out there three years in a row is a delight. I don’t expect a World Series appearance every year, but I certainly don’t want to see a return to the bad old days before Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan. Still, it wasn’t that long ago when I could walk up to the ticket window and get a game-day ticket, knowing that there was no chance I would be turned away.

In 1997 and 2003, after I returned home from my Cleveland and Boston sojourns, I counted myself lucky because my hometown team had a ballpark with almost 50,000 seats. Oh, you might want to get there early on Saturday night because they might sell out, depending on what team was the opponent or what the promotion was, but you didn’t have to plan way ahead and you didn’t have to pay more than face value unless you insisted on the best seat in the house. Attendance was healthy from 1994 to 1999, thanks to the new ballpark and three division titles, but by and large, you could still count on getting a ticket any time you ambled up to the ticket window. For the first decade of the 21st century it was even easier.

Then along came 2010 and the Rangers’ first American League pennant. That was a long time coming and I sure enjoyed it, even though I made it out to only five games.

Then came 2011 and the Rangers’ second American League pennant. Yeah, the World Series was disappointing, but it was obvious to all that 2010 was no fluke, and the team set an attendance record (2,946,949). Yet because of the large crowds and a lengthy heat wave, I made it to just four games. While on vacation in Toronto, I actually saw more games there in one week than I did in Arlington all season.

Now in 2012, the Rangers are again the class of their division and arguably the American League. Another trip to the postseason appears likely, and while no one can guarantee a third straight World Series appearance, the fans are turning out as though it is assured. By the All-Star break, the Rangers had enjoyed 27 sellout crowds (at roughly the halfway point of the season, that is a record by a wide margin). The Rangers have played eight weekend series before the All-Star game, so obviously they are selling out some weeknight games also.

There is no doubt the Rangers will surpass their 2011 attendance record. The only question is how far past 3 million they will go. Might make a good subject for an office pool. Closest guess to the actual attendance gets the pot!

On Rangers radio broadcasts, it’s become all too common to hear the announcers warn that only obstructed view or standing room tickets are available for an upcoming series. It’s disheartening to hear that when you’re thinking of attending, but I do appreciate the fact that Eric Nadel, Steve Busby and Byron Dolgin are keeping listeners informed so we can plan our weekends accordingly.

I don’t know if the Rangers are an incipient evil empire team, ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Phillies, the Red Sox and the Yankees, but I suppose that possibility exists. Of course, it helps when an EET has a blustery boss like George Steinbrenner. As long as Ryan presides over the Rangers, it’s hard to see them as an EET. I’m not saying Ryan is a better businessman than Steinbrenner, but I suspect his people skills are a tad better. Plus, he had a better fastball.

In fact, I don’t even know if I could define an EET but I think it would have to win at least one title to qualify. In that case, the Rangers aren’t there yet.

Attendance-wise, however, they qualify. The Phillies sit on top with an average of 44,746 per game, more than 100 percent capacity (but one wonders if that will hold up if the team continues to underachieve in the second half). The Rangers are right behind with an average of 43,607, which translates to 88.7 percent of capacity. The Yankees are third at 42,234 per game and 84 percent capacity. Fenway Park’s small capacity prevents the Red Sox from climbing higher than seventh place, but, like the Phillies, their attendance figures show ticket sales running at more than 100 percent capacity.

Perhaps the Rangers’ EET-like attendance figures were inevitable, as they started to make EET noises a couple of years ago, even though they were in bankruptcy at the time. Being a big-time spender is part of being an EET, and the Rangers have not been reluctant to bring in big-name talent (Cliff Lee, Yu Darvish, Roy Oswalt) to bolster their chances for success. This was not the case in years past. Of course, such people have to be paid regularly and richly, which makes a big revenue stream mandatory.

The bulge in attendance takes care of a lot of that, and Ranger ticket prices really aren’t out of line. The parking fee of $12 is more irksome than outrageous because, as near as I can tell, the Rangers’ ballpark is the only major league venue without access via public transportation. The best you can do is have a pre-game repast and a brew or two at one of several restaurants at a nearby shopping center and ride a free shuttle bus to the ballpark.

Arlington, a city of around 300,000, is the largest city in the country without any public transit, and I’m not aware of any attempts to establish same. When sellouts and near-sellouts are the norm, that means all fans are assured of heavy traffic before and after games.

If Arlington wanted to start its own transit system, it could do that, or could link up with the Fort Worth or Dallas systems. Either way, higher sales taxes would be inevitable, and that is never politically popular. So despite the fact that the city is home to such people magnets as the Texas Rangers, the Dallas Cowboys, Six Flags Over Texas, and the University of Texas at Arlington (33,500 students with a preponderance of commuters), your only options, if you don’t have a car, are a bicycle or walking. And if you don’t live anywhere near the ballpark (and the adjacent residential areas aren’t that big), those aren’t realistic options.

So far this season I’ve been to just two Rangers games. We do have have three minor league teams (the Fort Worth Cats, the Frisco Roughriders and the Grand Prairie Air Hogs) in the metro area, so weekend baseball is still on the agenda. I don’t have to plan ahead when I go to those games, and that counts for a lot with me. Ticket prices are negligible, often less than the cost of a movie. Parking is either free or cheap. But it ain’t big-time baseball, you say. And you’re right.

Of course, for most of their existence, the Rangers were not big-time baseball, but in retrospect, I think their success was inevitable. True, that notion would have been laughable in 1972 when the Rangers lost 100 games in their inaugural season—a strike-shortened at that.

This season, as the Rangers celebrate their 40th anniversary in Arlington, they are no longer a small market team—if indeed they ever were. The monster DFW Airport came on line in January, 1974, and they wouldn’t have built that behemoth (bigger than Manhattan Island, the boosters used to crow) if they thought the population had stagnated.

Pundits talk a lot about big-market teams and small-market teams without ever defining the terms. Medium-market teams tend to get overlooked, but we all know they’re out there. We can rank the metro areas, but the unanswered question is what is the dividing line between big, medium, and small?

Certainly, any market that has two major league baseball teams is a large market. By any criteria you choose, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, qualify. After that, the rankings are a bit hazier, depending upon where you draw the boundaries of a market area. You can go by the Metropolitan Statistical Area ranking or the Combined Statistical Area ranking, which encompasses more territory and hence more people.

For example, you could consider Baltimore as one market and Washington as another, but if you combine the Baltimore-Washington metro areas (the two cities are only 40 miles apart), you would have a population of close to 8½ million, plenty of potential fans for both the Orioles and the Nationals.

The San Francisco Bay area has traditionally included San Francisco, Oakland, and their suburbs, but if you include Napa Valley, the South Bay, and other outlying areas, you have more than 7-1/2 million people. Plenty of people for the Giants and the A’s, assuming the latter team picks a good location for a new stadium.

The Boston metro area is elastic, depending upon how much of New England one includes. If one uses the larger number, the Red Sox have a market of more than seven million. The Red Sox are lucky because they no longer have to share the market with a National League team. The Braves are long gone but the Red Sox should be eternally grateful for their departure.

The Red Sox really do need a bigger ballpark, but my guess is 100 years from now they’ll be celebrating the bicentennial of Fenway Park and they’ll have figured out a way to shoehorn a few more seats into the place. Not that they have to. If you simply let ticket prices rise to suit the demand, and there are enough affluent people willing to pay the price, you can still get enough revenue to keep the Red Sox competitive.

Dallas-Fort Worth has only one major league team, but with more than 6½ million people, it is no small market. In fact, it is the fourth largest market area in the country, according to the aforementioned Metropolitan Statistical Areas table. The Combined Statistical Area, which extends to Oklahoma, and also includes parts of East, West, and Central Texas, brings it close to 7 million and a No 7 ranking. According to the former ranking, Dallas-Fort Worth is the largest metro area in the country with just one major league baseball team; according to the second, it is the largest metro area in the country that has never had more than one baseball team.

Perhaps more importantly, Dallas-Fort Worth is still growing. The sprawl is not yet a match for Southern California, but it’ll get there. The population has more than doubled, since I arrived in 1976, just a few years after the Rangers set up shop.

With a current annual growth rate of 2.43 percent, the Dallas-Fort Worth area may one day be a serious candidate for a second big league team. I don’t know what the magic number is for sustaining two teams, but I know we’re rapidly getting there. Certainly, the addition of another team isn’t on the table now, but if you’re young enough, you might live to see it. Remember, Los Angeles had no major league ball until 1958. Three years later it had two teams. Likewise, the Giants hit San Francisco in 1958, and the A’s came along just 10 years later. I doubt anyone in Los Angeles or San Francisco was thinking of adding another team in 1958.

Of course, even in two-team markets, there is sometimes occasional talk of one team vacating. Remember when the Giants and the White Sox were seriously talking about moving to Tampa Bay? When attendance for both teams is robust, all is well, and if not, well, this town ain’t big enough for the both of us. But you can’t use that excuse in a one-team town like Cleveland.

The situation in Cleveland is a curious one; the attendance has done an about-face. The Indians are at the bottom of the league attendance-wise (below hapless Seattle and perennial attendance slackers Tampa Bay and Oakland), even though they are in the running for the American League Central crown . Though they are only three games behind the White Sox at the All-Star break, they are averaging 19,256 per game and playing to just 44.3 percent of capacity. If I were there now, I wouldn’t be sitting in any temporary center field bleachers!

The American Indian was once characterized as the vanishing American; perhaps Indians fans should also be put in that category. The economy is likely a big factor, as Cleveland has been particularly hard hit by Depression II and the metro area population has gone down. On the other hand, things are just as bad in Detroit, if not worse, and the Tigers are averaging 36,866 and playing to a capacity of 89.4 percent. Yet at the All-Star break, the Indians had a better record.

Boston, of course, is still a tough ticket, probably tougher than ever, thanks to the Fenway Park Centennial. That sellout streak the Indians used to have is now owned by the Red Sox. The last time I looked, they were at 750-something, though there has been some quibbling about the definition of a sellout. If I were going to put a second team in any area other than Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston would be the first place I would consider.

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Comments

  1. David said...

    Great article, coming from a Rangers Season Ticket holder! Love seeing those sellouts, but unfortunately I’m contributing to scalping sales as I sell many of my season tickets I can’t use to try to make enough to buy my tickets next year.

    While I was glad to see the mention of all the baseball options in DFW, a quick correction for you: neither the Fort Worth Cats nor the Grand Prairie Airhogs are minor league teams. They are both professional teams, but neither is affiliated with MLB.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Worth_Cats
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Prairie_AirHogs

  2. scott said...

    Good article.  As a lifelong Clevelander and Indians fan, I say the 1990s were the exception, attendance-wise, for the team.  This city is a football town and has a love-hate relationship with their baseball team.  With few exceptions we have ALWAYS ranked near the bottom in attendance.  People will talk about them but they will not go.  They hold the front office responsible for every blunder, and use it as an excuse for why they don’t go.

    As far as Municipal Stadium, imagine Tiger Stadium on steroids and without the charm, and you have it.  You really didn’t miss anything.  Great football stadium, terrible baseball stadium.

    Archer – you never know…. 20 years ago right now, who would have thought that Cleveland of all places would have that streak?

  3. scott said...

    PS – I doubt the Rangers will become an “EET” simply because they are not on the east coast, which means they won’t get all the media coverage and they won’t have all those obnoxious front-runner fans.  No matter how many series they win.

  4. bucdaddy said...

    19 years of ticket utopia coming to a crashing halt:

    Marlins at Pirates this weekend, standing room only for tonight and tomorrow, limited availability for Sunday. *sigh* I used to work with a guy whose dad had four season tickets and was very generous about distributing them. Now … not so much. Pirates on target for their second-best attendance season at PNC Park.

    If the Pirates bandwagon goes off a cliff, it’ll be like those Third World Country accidents where a bus drops off a mountain and 200 people die.

  5. Brandon said...

    A lot of similarities between Detroit and Cleveland for sure. The difference has been Tigers owner Mike Illitch’s willingness to re-sign all of his stars to long term deals. While this has lead to miserable contracts in the past (Damion Easley, Bobby Higginson, etc) it has paid off with deals to Verlander, Cabrera, etc.
    Sure the Indians locked up Sizemore and Hafner but traded away CC and Clff Lee which has to be disheartening to Indian fans.  Hindsight being 20/20 had they kept CC and Lee and dealt the other where would the Tribe be?

  6. Chris said...

    Cleveland in 1997 was a perfect storm, The Browns were not playing (they moved to Baltimore), the town was (still is) desperate for a championship, the Cavs were not good, the Tribe was , there was a new ballpark, and the downtown was on a comeback.  You’ll not see that again.  The way things are now demographically and financially, this town can only support two teams at a time.  The Browns will always be number one.  The Cavs have the impression (rightly or wrongly) that they will do what it takes to put together a championship team while the Indians try to do what it takes to win more games than they lose on a shoestring budget.  As an Indians fan I wish more people went to the ballpark, but as a Clevelander I fully understand saving my money for other things more important and watching the games on TV.

  7. Bill C said...

    The Red Sox ticket bubble has busted.  Take a look at prices at Ace and Stub Hub.  You can get a pretty good deal

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