South Side seat syndromeby Chris Jaffe
June 04, 2012
—There are certain things you can count on happening every spring. The temperatures heating up. People mowing their green lawns. Birds returning from their southern migration.
And the Chicago White Sox urging fans to show up in greater numbers to U. S. Cellular Field.
That’s what happened last week. With the Sox playing to half-filled stands for the first two months of the year, team GM Kenny Williams noted, “Every day that you don’t fill the seats, at least to a greater degree than we are, is a day it hurts." Williams still sounded optimistic, saying he can get creative, but it does bring up a familiar problem for the South Siders—they have trouble getting butts in seats.
In some ways it’s an especially notable problem in early 2012. At the time Williams made that comment, the White Sox were in the midst of a nine-game winning streak that vaulted the club into first place. Yet the club entered the weekend ranked 11th among the 14 AL teams in tickets sold per game.
Now, in and of itself, this isn’t a big deal. Attendance lags behind performance, so it will pick up if the team keeps winning. Expectations for 2012 were rather low for the White Sox's fans this year, so there weren’t too many preseason tickets told, and some early victories could be shrugged off as just a nice start.
Yeah, if Sox attendance issues for April and May 2012 were isolated incidents, no one would care. But, of course, they aren’t exactly isolated incidents.
As everyone out there in readerland knows, the Sox share the city with the Cubs. Barring the wildly unexpected, 2012 will be the 20th consecutive year and 27th time in the last 29 seasons that the Cubs outdraw the White Sox. The only times the Sox overcame the Cubs occurred in 1990 and 1991, which were the last season at old Comiskey Park and the first year in their current abode.
That’s rather interesting because, as is also common knowledge, the Cubs aren’t normally very good at that whole winning thing. Oh, they’ve had their years, but in nearly two-thirds of this 29-year stretch of Cub turnstile domination, the Sox have been the better team. Overall, they’ve won 140 more games than the Cubs.
And the Sox reward for all of this? From 1984 onward, they’ve drawn 18,000,000 fewer fans. Yeah, that’s not very close. That averages 8,000 fans a game for three decades. Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?
In 2000, the Sox ran away with the AL Central, winning 95 games on the season, 30 more than the crosstown Cubs did. Yet the Cubs still outdrew them by 840,000. In 2005, the Sox won the first World Series title either side of Chicago has claimed since 1918, and yet the 79-83 Cubs outdrew them by over three-quarters of a million. In 2006, the Sox won 90 games, enjoyed the afterglow of their world title the year before, only to see the crosstown 66-96 Cubs draw over 2,000 more fans per game.
None of this is news. But it does put Williams’ comments in context.
Various reasons explain this problem. The best known and important we’ll briefly summarize here. Prior to the mid-1980s, the battle for Chicago was an evenly fought affair between the two clubs, but then a series of disastrous off-field moves by the Sox badly damaged their popularity.
New owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn had a visionary idea in the early 1980s—put their team’s games on a team-owned pay-cable station (not even regular cable) called OnTV. That was visionary in the worst possible meaning of the term. It’s like founding an airline in 1892. Many Sox games went out of the public eye entirely as a result. Meanwhile, the Cubs were on WGN, freely available in the area. (And when cable took over, WGN became a national superstation).
I can look at my own family for signs of how the TV debacle hurt the Sox fanbase. My grandfather was a lifelong Sox fan who in the early 1980s switched to the Cubs because they were always on a station his TV picked up.
It got even better. Partially as a result of the move to this non-watched station, broadcaster Harry Caray wanted out of the South Side. And wouldn’t you know it? At this exact moment legendary Cub broadcaster Jack Brickhouse retired. The Cubs saw their golden opportunity and grabbed the ultra-popular Caray.
Both teams took turns winning their divisions, the Sox in 1983 and the Cubs in 1984, but even this timing hurt the Sox. There was no city-wide afterglow for the Sox because by ’84 everyone was caught up in Cub fever. In ’85, there was nothing to get in the way of the Cub afterglow.
Besides, by this time the Wrigleyville neighborhood was experiencing gentrification, becoming a popular place to just hang out, adding to the allure of a game at Wrigley. Comisky Park remained in a working-class neighborhood that was less obviously inviting for someone looking to hang out after the game. Also, 35th and Shields wasn’t too far from the Robert Taylor Homes, maybe the worst neighborhood in Chicago.
More problems continued in the 1990s and onward. The Sox built their new stadium at the same intersection as the old one. Right after New Comiskey (as it was originally called) went up, Baltimore came out with Camden Yards, and criticism of the new Sox Park became more common.
In 1994, the Sox looked like they had a possible world champion, only to see the strike wipe out the year. Not only that, but club owner Jerry Reinsdorf (Einhorn disappeared somewhere along the way) was a prominent hardliner in the negotiations, angering fans that much more. Then the team flopped in 1995, furthering all the strike’s problems.
Like all teams, the Sox eventually recovered from the strike, but by the end of the 1990s,the Cubs had an enormous edge in fan base. In the seven years prior to the Sox 2005 championship run, the Cubs averaged nearly 14,000 more fans per game. That’s been too big a hole for the Sox to dig all the way out of, world championship or not.
Seat pricing policies
All the above is true. But there is something else I’ve noticed in recent years from research I’ve done here at THT. Every year around midseason I do a special column looking at ticket add-on costs, the convenience fees and order processing surcharges all clubs stick their fans with on top of the normal ticket price. I research these fees for all 30 teams. Last year I took it a step further and began looking at other costs as well.
One rather unexpected quirk has really come to my attention from this: the prices the White Sox charge their fans are really out of line with their popularity. This is especially true of their cheap seats in the upper deck, which frequently have entire sections utterly abandoned and many others sparsely settled.
Ticket prices, like the price of virtually everything else, are subject to the laws of supply and demand. Teams that have the happy fortune of the biggest fan demand for seats can thus set higher prices. In the best seats, supply and demand gives the team the advantage, as everyone wants to sit in those spots. The worse the seats get, the more it shifts. Thus, teams with the highest price cheap seats are, naturally enough, the teams with the most overall demand for their tickets. Alternately, if teams have trouble filling their parks, the biggest batches of empty seats are in the cheaper ones, which is also why those clubs normally can't sell their cheaper seats for as much money as other franchises do.
And here’s where things get a little weird for the Sox. When I do my checking every year for add-on costs, I always look at the cheap seats, and the price for Sox cheap seats seems out of line with their demand.
Having just recently checked the prices for the cheap seats for all 30 teams, here are the 10 teams with the most expensive cheap seats in major league baseball:
Team Price PHI $27.00 NYY $20.70 BOX $20.00 LAD $20.00 CHC $19.00 LAA $16.50 CWS $16.45 MIN $13.00 SFG $12.75 NYM $12.00
(Quick note: Due to variable pricing based on opponent, there is no one single cheapest seat prices. Check the references and resources section at the bottom to see where I came up with these numbers).
There’s a common thread among teams atop this list; the law of supply and demand is their friend. So many people want tickets to the games that even if the cheap seats aren’t really that cheap, they can still assure plenty of sales.
Look at the Phillies. Want to know why they can charge so much for their cheap seats? Well, in a stadium that has 43,000-some seats, the Phillies last year averaged over 45,000 fans per game. Their most lowly attended game of 2011 had 44,111 ticket-buyers. So they can price seats wherever they want.
The Red Sox have a stadium with a capacity under 38,000, but every single game in 2011 had over 37,000 fans. That’s why they can charge $20 for their lowest ticket—a ticket that isn’t even a seat. That’s standing room only.
The Cubs, Yankees, and Angels aren’t quite as extreme, but they aren’t off by much. Those teams sold 90 percent of their tickets for half of their games.
Ranked just behind the White Sox, the Twins, with their new-stadium sheen, averaged 39,113 fans per game in a place that holds 39,504. The Giants also sold tremendously.
What about the White Sox? In a place that seats 40,615, the White Sox topped 38,000 once and 30,000 exactly ten times last year. The only club in the upper tier like them is the Dodgers, and that’s a weird case. Normally the Dodgers draw tremendously, but last year their attendance cratered by a 500,000 due to scandals surrounding team ownership and a vicious beating of a Giants fan at Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers already are rebounding at the gate this year.
Going by the law of supply and demand, the White Sox are the big outlier. The average cheapest seat at a major league ballpark is around $10. Eighteen franchises offer seats at least that cheap, but the Sox are well above it. Even their cheapest seat on the lowest tier of their variable pricing is well over that.
Let’s take a step back and thing about this for a second. In the battle for the hearts and minds of Chicago fans, the Cubs have built up a big advantage over the last few decades, and the Sox need to counter that. One option available to them is lower-priced seats. And their cheap seats are lower, but only by a hair. It’s like they saw what the Cubs were doing and decided to make their pricing just a touch less.
Yeah, so they can claim to have cheaper seats, but who is going to switch allegiance over three bucks? If it’s a $10 difference, well, that means a Sox ticket costs half as much as a Cubs ticket. Then you might get some more casual fans and win points as the far more fan-friendly franchise.
Please note the overwhelming majority of those cheap seats are going unused as is.
At the other end of the spectrum, many teams charge far higher prices at the top end of the spectrum than the White Sox do, but it's the upper deck's cheap seats that are the most likely to be left unfilled.
Broadening the scope
And it’s not just cheap seats, either. The Sox do a good job pricing people out across the board. I noted earlier that for the last several years I’ve looked into ticket add-on surcharges. I haven’t looked at 2012 surcharges yet, but I doubt it will be different for the White Sox than in years past.
They’ve consistently been around the same place. Sox add-on costs aren’t as high as they are for the Red Sox or the Cub or other similar franchises, but they’re just a little below. Once again, you get the kings of supply and demand, followed up by the oddly out of place White Sox.
There’s also parking fees to consider. I looked that up last year for the first time, and the White Sox have one of the most expensive parking fees in baseball. That’s especially lucrative for them because a lot of people coming in from the suburbs and points elsewhere are afraid to park on side streets around U. S. Cellular Field.
Upshot: Let’s take it from the point of view of a family of four that wants to see a ballgame and is looking at the cheaper seats to save money. We’ll say they live in the western suburbs, halfway between Wrigley and U.S. Cellular.
Well, a Cub four-pack will cost a bit more, $78 to $65.80, based on the prices above. Factor in add-on costs, and based on last year’s convenience fees (one per ticket) and order processing (one per order), the Cub price lead increases to $107.40 to $90.02.
Now add in parking, where the Sox are actually more expensive. It’s $23 on weekends and $25 on weekdays on the South Side. There’s little official parking at the stadium, but you can find various spots around the park for $10-$15.
(Note: a family can also take Chicago’s “El” system to the game and avoid the parking fandango. But if you’re taking four people —or more—you have to pay for them to all get there and back. You might have to pay for parking at a garage by an “El” stop depending on where you’re coming from. It might be more expensive than parking at Wrigley and not much more than U. S. Cellular. Besides, some people just prefer to drive.)
When you plug it all it, the Sox come out a bit cheaper. A family of four can get to the Sox game and save about $10, but that’s it. A Sox game is about eight percent cheaper. Yeah, that’s nice, but it ain’t much. If the cheapest seats in their park cost as much as the average cheapest seats do, the Sox would have a $35 edge for a night out for a family of four. That’s quite a bit more noticeable.
Ultimately, it means the Sox aren’t losing fans over stadium pricing. But they’re also not really gaining any. That’s good news for the Cubs, who already have the big advantage in fan support. In short, Sox pricing is self-defeating. That helps ensure they play before half-filled ballparks.
Sympathy for the Reinsdorf
This can all be flipped around. It’s easy to say they should cut the price of their cheap seats down significantly. That doesn’t come out of my pocketbook. Ultimately, the only immediate impact of cutting prices would be to cut revenue. If the Sox cut prices on their cheap seats tomorrow, it isn't like 15,000 extra walk-ups will come up to buy tickets for the next game. Nothing works that quickly. And even as sparsely settled as the park often is, they do sell some of those seats.
In the short term, it makes sense to keep prices up. That’s always the case.
But riddle me this: what if in 1997 the Sox decided to keep their cheap seat prices well below the level the Cubs have and then kept to that strategy over the years? Don’t you think they would’ve gradually grown their fanbase? Maybe made some further inroads? I don’t see how they couldn’t have done so.
Instead, it looks like the Sox decided to peg themselves just a hair under Cub prices and stay just under Cub prices. That works well for the Sox in the short run but even better for the Cubs in the long run.
References and Resources
As noted in the article, there isn't one single cheapest seat price for the Sox as they vary pricing based on opponent and time of the year. I checked the cheapest prices for five or six Sox games and found some games when the cheap seats were a little more expensive than the $16.45 listed above, others a little cheaper. It was always under $20 and over $13 so. No matter what, the Sox are high enough to make the top ten, but always below the Cubs.
I went with one in between to be more representative, a median cheap seat. The game is Sept. 27 against Tampa, if you’re curious. I had neither the time nor intent to look up a half-dozen games for all 30 teams, so for the other 29 franchises I looked up games like the Sept. 27 CWS-TBR game, a late-season contest against a team that was not likely to bring in lots of extra fans just to see that opposing club.
Aside from the teams listed in the chart above, here are the cheap seat prices I found for other squads: Toronto, $11.65 Canadian; Baltimore and Cleveland, $10.75; Washington, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Miami, $10; Milwaukee and Tampa, $9; Arizona, $8.75; San Diego and Atlanta, $7.50; Texas, $7; Seattle, $6.10; Cincinnati, $6.03; Colorado, $5.25; Detroit and St. Louis, $5; Oakland, $2; and Houston, $1.55.
Some of the cheapest seat prices covered very small portions of the park. Detroit's $5 cheap seat covers about one section, for example. But then again, on Sept. 27, the Sox game against Tampa has $16.45 only for the corner coffins of the upper deck. And a lot of those places still have second-cheapest prices lower than the White Sox. (Detroit has many other places where you can buy a seat for $14.) No matter how you slice it, the Sox deserve to be in the top ten list in the article.
Seat pricing info comes from all 30 team websites.
The attendance info comes from Baseball-Reference.com.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.