The cost of gouging

In the grand scheme of things, it’s one of life’s more trivial indignities. Then again, it’s always those minor things that can drive you the battiest.

The “it” in this case refers to those pesky little add-on costs that come with every ticket purchase. Odds are, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You order seats in advance only to find out the face value of the ticket covers only a portion of what you are paying for. There is a mysterious order processing charge as well as an Orwellian-ly named “convenience fee” that no fan ever considers to be convenient.

All teams have some sort of additional fee, though not all teams charge the same amount. Two years ago, I wrote a column here for THT that compared these extra costs across all MLB, and the response (measured in reader e-mails) might still be the greatest I’ve ever had for a single column. Thus I looked back at the subject last year, and here again now for 2009.

Before getting into it, I should note that these fees can be avoided—technically. Depending which team you’re a fan of. Teams normally charge these fees when people pre-order them over the phone or via internet. You could walk up and get tickets that way without the extra charge, but that’s the rub.

Some teams sell out in advance. Sometimes you can’t get to the park in time to buy early. Besides, you might want to buy a block of tickets to take your family or friends or a group of hostages—but the later you buy, the less likely the block you need will be available. Thus the convenience fess and processing charges become necessary expenditures. The more popular the team, the truer this is.

Ultimately, these fees are just another way to gouge fans out of a little more money. Looking at it from a purely capitalistic point of view, it makes sense: if money is there to be made for the teams, they may as well make it.

From a fan’s point of view, however, it can be one of life’s flies buzzing around in your car: a minor but galling nuisance. The add-on costs are too expensive to justify the things they nominally cover. It’s clearly a way to have your ticket price raised while trying to pretend it’s something else. No one likes feeling that they’re being conned.

The cost of gouging in 2009

Well, so much for the prologue. Now for the main event: which teams charge the most for these fees? There are three categories: “convenience” fee, order processing charges, and other. The last category can include things like tax charges (which some teams list separately) or the price of picking up the ticket. Most teams give you at least one option to pick up your ticket for free (usually either via postal mail or by leaving at will call) but not all of them.

For the prices below, I picked the cheapest seats I could for the teams, using the least impressive looking September home game for all of them. I went with the cheap seats because I figure if you’re buying there, you are most concerned with price and hence most annoyed by these gouging fees. I pick September games because I figure those are the ones most likely to have seats available. (That doesn’t make a difference for most teams, but for some it certainly does.)

Here is how it all shakes up:

Team	Con	O.P.	Other	All
BOS	$4.25 	$7.00 		$11.25 
NYM	$6.00 	$5.00 		$11.00 
TOR	$3.75 	$4.00 	$2.50 	$10.25 
CHC	$4.90 	$3.75 		$8.65 
CWS	$4.75 	$3.50 	$0.43 	$8.68 
LAD	$3.75 	$4.35 		$8.10 
BAL	$4.25 	$3.75 		$8.00 
STL	$4.00 	$4.00 		$8.00 
SEA	$3.75 	$3.82 	$0.36 	$7.93 
HOU	$3.50 	$4.17 		$7.67 
ANA	$3.50 	$4.10 		$7.60 
PHI	$3.50 	$4.00 		$7.50 
NYY	$4.00 	$3.25 		$7.25 
DCN	$3.50 	$3.50 		$7.00 
FLO	$4.00 	$2.60 		$6.60 
CLE	$3.25 	$3.35 		$6.60 
PIT	$2.50 	$4.00 		$6.50 
MIN	$3.25 	$3.25 		$6.50 
TBD	$3.00 	$3.25 		$6.25 
SDP	$2.25 	$3.50 		$5.75 
ARI	$2.00 	$3.50 		$5.50 
COL	$2.00 	$3.50 		$5.50 
KCR	$2.25 	$3.25 		$5.50 
OAK	$1.50 	$4.00 		$5.50 
ATL	$3.25 	$2.05 		$5.30 
SFG	$1.75 	$3.50 		$5.25 
DET	$1.00 	$4.10 		$5.10 
CIN	$1.51 	$3.25 		$4.76 
TEX	$2.75 	$1.75 		$4.50 
MIL	$2.00 	none		$2.00 

The Blue Jays were the only team I couldn’t find a way to pick up the ticket for free. I found costs for them for home printing, leaving at will call, and mail delivery. I did not see any other options. To be fair, I may have missed something. For whatever reason, Toronto has always been a problem for me in previous editions.

Toronto’s $2.50 home print charge was the cheapest way to get its ticket that I could find. (As ridiculous as it might sound to charge you to print tickets at home, that’s very common in MLB. According to my notes, only the Padres, Rockies, and D-backs have no fee there—and for all I know I just missed it with them.) If there is a way to get Blue Jay tickets delivered at no cost Toronto’s overall gouge fee is $7.75, still higher than most clubs.

Overall, the AL East has the biggest extra fees. Two years ago, the Red Sox blew away the field with an overall gouge fee of $11. They still have the lead, but the pack is catching up to them. They’ve had the $7 processing fee for every season, and each year I find myself trying to imagine a processing system so convoluted it actually would justify charging you $7 per order. It would have to involve carrier pigeons. And abacuses. And lots of really stupid employees.

While the Red Sox have the most insane processing fee, please keep in mind the entire concept of the order-processing fee is something of a scam in the modern age. They keep all the records on computers, and I can only assume that’s already a sunk cost. I’m sure there are some overhead fees for equipment and employees, but enough to justify $2 per order over 81 games for stadiums that hold over 40,000? C’mon.

The Brewers really come off as the good guys here. Sure, they still hit you with a convenience fee, but at least they’re not insulting your intelligence with a processing charge.

Comparing to last year

Well, the above is nice, but since I have last year’s data, how about I check to see which teams went up or down the most? Among other things, this can show us a bit about how teams are adapting to the economic downturn.

Are they lowering these extra costs to help lure fans in? Alternately, are they operating under the theory that since these costs aren’t on the official face value of the ticket, they may as well leave them the same—perhaps even raise them to make up for either fewer ticket sales or (in the case of some teams) reduced prices?

I’m cynical, so I’m assuming it’s the latter, but more importantly let’s check the data. As a point of reference, in the 2007-08 offseason only two teams (the Brewers and Rockies) lowered their add-on costs. Ten kept their prices the same of the 28 I could check.

(I researched this too late last year and all cheaper seats for the Yanks and Red Sox were gone. For reasons I’ll explain in a bit, teams usually vary their add-on costs based on seat price. Below will list the 2007 prices for the Yanks. The Red Sox have always used a flat rate, so I’ll list the charge they had from last year’s expensive seats and compare it to this year’s cheap seat rate.)

So, how do teams gouge compared to the good ol’ days when the economy appeared sound?

Team	2009	2008	Dif
NYM	$11.00 	$6.50 	$4.50 
TOR	$10.25 	$7.75 	$2.50 
COL	$5.50 	$3.50 	$2.00 
TBD	$6.25 	$4.75 	$1.50 
PIT	$6.50 	$5.50 	$1.00 
CHC	$8.65 	$8.09 	$0.56 
LAD	$8.10 	$7.60 	$0.50 
STL	$8.00 	$7.50 	$0.50 
NYY	$7.25 	$6.95 	$0.30 
ATL	$5.30 	$5.05 	$0.25 
BAL	$8.00 	$7.75 	$0.25 
FLO	$6.60 	$6.35 	$0.25 
KCR	$5.50 	$5.25 	$0.25 
CWS	$8.68 	$8.63 	$0.05 
ARI	$5.50 	$5.50 	$0.00 
BOX	$11.25 	$11.25 	$0.00 
DCN	$7.00 	$7.00 	$0.00 
MIL	$2.00 	$2.00 	$0.00 
MIN	$6.50 	$6.50 	$0.00 
PHI	$7.50 	$7.50 	$0.00 
TEX	$4.50 	$4.50 	$0.00 
HOU	$7.67 	$7.90 	($0.23)
ANA	$7.60 	$8.05 	($0.45)
SEA	$7.93 	$8.45 	($0.52)
CLE	$6.60 	$7.60 	($1.00)
SDP	$5.75 	$7.00 	($1.25)
SFG	$5.25 	$6.50 	($1.25)
OAK	$5.50 	$7.25 	($1.75)
CIN	$4.76 	$7.34 	($2.58)
DET	$5.10 	$7.85 	($2.75)

Nine teams actually lowered their prices, compared with only a pair in the preceding offseason. Of the nine teams in the two western divisions, only one (the Dodgers) saw any hikes at all.

In all baseball, only the Mets—who have a new stadium—and the Blue Jays witnessed a substantial jump. Please note Toronto’s difference is entirely because I couldn’t find a free way to receive tickets. It’s possible the Mets are the only club to really gun up their gouging fees.

Apparently, the recession is keeping these gouging prices down, at least a little bit.

Charging by the section

The above is only part of the story, however. One thing I learned two years ago is that teams sometimes charge different fees based on the face value of the ticket. The pricier the seat, the pricier the add-on charges.

While I previously argued the add-on fees should be most objectionable to the cheap seat shoppers, nothing really hammers home what a crock these extra charges are like the fact the teams have a sliding scale for them based on seat price.

The words “convenience fee” and “processing charge” make it sound like you’re getting a service. Well, it’s the same service regardless of seat price. Adjusting based on seat price demonstrates it’s really about teams wrangling an extra buck from their fans.

There is nothing wrong with a business making a buck. Heck, that’s the point of business. I personally would find it considerably less objectionable if they were upfront about it, rather than trying to con it past you as some pseudo-service. Frankly, it’s less the price that’s an issue as it is the principle of the thing: you want to get what you’re paying for, and you sure as hell aren’t paying for any convenience or order processing with these fees.

Here are the variations in gouging prices for all teams based on ticket price. I tried to get the most expensive seats available for the same games I got the cheapest seats, but that doesn’t mean it was always the most expensive in the stadium (nor did I always get the cheapest for that matter). Some teams sell out too fast for me. I’ll use full results (which combine all three categories in the above chart) for both cheap and hoity-toity seats:

Team	Cheap	Pricey	Dif				
NYY	$7.25 	$26.70 	$19.45 				
SFG	$5.25 	$17.75 	$12.50 				
LAD	$8.10 	$17.60 	$9.50 				
NYM	$11.00 	$17.00 	$6.00 				
TOR	$10.25 	$15.50 	$5.25 				
OAK	$5.50 	$10.25 	$4.75 				
DET	$5.10 	$9.35 	$4.25 				
DCN	$7.00 	$10.25 	$3.25 				
ANA	$7.60 	$10.60 	$3.00 				
ARI	$5.50 	$8.50 	$3.00 				
COL	$5.50 	$8.50 	$3.00 				
CIN	$4.76 	$7.34 	$2.58 				
SDP	$5.75 	$8.25 	$2.50 				
FLO	$6.60 	$8.85 	$2.25 				
TEX	$4.50 	$6.75 	$2.25 				
PIT	$6.50 	$8.50 	$2.00 
TBD	$6.25 	$8.25 	$2.00 
MIL	$2.00 	$4.00 	$2.00 
ATL	$5.30 	$7.05 	$1.75 
HOU	$7.67 	$9.32 	$1.65 
SEA	$7.93 	$9.57 	$1.64 
BAL	$8.00 	$9.50 	$1.50 
KCR	$5.50 	$7.00 	$1.50 
CLE	$6.60 	$8.00 	$1.40 
PHI	$7.50 	$8.25 	$0.75 
MIN	$6.50 	$7.25 	$0.75 
CWS	$8.68 	$8.68 	$0.00 
BOS	$11.25 	$11.25 	$0.00 
CHC	$8.65 	$8.65 	$0.00 
STL	$8.00 	$8.00 	$0.00 

How ’bout them Yanks! No wonder they offer such a reasonable, middle-of-the-pack gouge charge to their peasant fans: they get it back from the Bourbons. The New Yankee Stadium has already come in for its share of critics for everything ranging from its park factor to its prices. It would be very easy to do the same with them here.

I’m tempted to do that, but strangely I think it’s a bit off the mark. Care to guess the official face value for a ticket that comes with a $26.70 surcharge? It’s $900. Nine hundred [bleeping] dollars!! If you are willing and able to pay that much for a seat, you lose the right to complain about a $26.70 surcharge. You’ve clearly demonstrated that money is not an object to you. That’s a $1 surcharge for every $33 in ticket price; not a bad deal, really. If you want to mock and scorn their ticket prices, feel free, but their add-on costs are just a drop in the bucket.

On the bottom are a bunch of teams known for their loyal fan bases: the Cards, Cubs and Red Sox. The White Sox stick out a bit, but then again they have to compete for customers with the Cubs. I guess these teams think they can charge the same for all sections, knowing they’ll all get gobbled up eventually.

In all, there is a definite difference with 2008. Last year, only two teams had greater than a $3.50 split between priciest and cheap seat gouging fees. Now there are seven franchises at $4.25 or higher.

A theory

There are two possible explanations for the last paragraph: the splits have increased as teams have lowered their cheap seat gouging prices while leaving their expensive ones the same. Alternately, teams could be raising their add-on costs for the expensive seats while leaving their cheap seat con fees the same or lower. The national economy could justify both responses.

Let’s see which it is. Here are the comparable prices for upscale seats’ extra costs in 2008 and 2009:

Team	2009	2008	Dif
NYY	$26.70 	$10.35 	$16.35 
NYM	$17.00 	$10.00 	$7.00 
TOR	$15.50 	$9.25 	$6.25 
LAD	$17.60 	$15.60 	$2.00 
SEA	$9.57 	$8.25 	$1.32 
PIT	$8.50 	$7.50 	$1.00 
ANA	$10.60 	$10.05 	$0.55 
PHI	$8.25 	$7.75 	$0.50 
STL	$8.00 	$7.50 	$0.50 
CWS	$8.68 	$8.25 	$0.43 
ATL	$7.05 	$6.80 	$0.25 
BAL	$9.50 	$9.25 	$0.25 
FLO	$8.85 	$8.60 	$0.25 
KCR	$7.00 	$6.75 	$0.25 
CHC	$8.65 	$8.47 	$0.18 
HOU	$9.32 	$9.15 	$0.17 
CLE	$8.00 	$7.85 	$0.15 
MIL	$4.00 	$4.00 	$0.00 
ARI	$8.50 	$8.50 	$0.00 
BOS	$11.25 	$11.25 	$0.00 
CIN	$7.34 	$7.34 	$0.00 
COL	$8.50 	$8.50 	$0.00 
DCN	$10.25 	$10.25 	$0.00 
DET	$9.35 	$9.35 	$0.00 
MIN	$7.25 	$7.25 	$0.00 
OAK	$10.25 	$10.25 	$0.00 
SDP	$8.25 	$8.25 	$0.00 
TBD	$8.25 	$8.25 	$0.00 
TEX	$6.75 	$6.75 	$0.00 
SFG	$17.75 	$18.75 	($1.00)

If you’re curious, San Fran used to be able to charge huge extra fees when Barry Bonds was around. Between their current lack of Bonds-ness, and their overall huge extra costs for ritzy seats, San Fran became the only team to lower fees to these seats.

By and large, teams aren’t changing this by much. The huge exceptions are the New York teams with their swank new stadiums. Still, only the Giants have lowered this cost (and they were one of only two teams with a sizable gap between fees for cheap and pricey seats last year). If teams are lowering the fees for their cheaper seats and maintaining the old fees for the expensive seats, or if they maintain fees for the cheap seats and increase theses gougings on the pricier places, that would cause the overall gap to expand.

That appears to be what is happening in the brave new economic world.

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