MLB Coming Around To The Idea That People Will Pay Nothing To Watch Baseball

Are free tickets the best way to save the business of pro baseball?
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On April 17, the A’s played a pretty forgettable game against the Rangers at Oakland Coliseum, a 7-0 contest in which Texas had the lead after three batters and never looked back as a crowd of 10,406 peppered the stands – and remember that attendance in Major League Baseball is calculated by tickets sold, not actual butts in seats.

MLB.Time

Next April 17, the A’s can expect a much larger gathering at the stadium they’ve been trying to leave for the better part of two decades. It’s not that the rebuilding White Sox figure to be a hot draw in the Bay Area, but to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their first game as the Oakland A’s after moving from Kansas City, tickets will be free.

According to Susan Slusser’s story in The San Francisco Chronicle, “Major League Baseball told the A’s that this will be the first known instance of a team providing free admission to all fans,” which stands to reason since the basis of professional sports always has been getting the public to pay for the product.

The team that gave the world Moneyball might be on to something here, though. By not charging admission, the A’s are sure to fill up the ballpark for their anniversary celebration, and that means a few things.

The most obvious effect of filling the ballpark is that the A’s, whose top home crowd this year was 40,019 on July 3 against the White Sox (there were fireworks – honestly, the White Sox are not a huge draw in Oakland), can expect a quadrupling of concession sales for April 17 games, year over year. They may even do better than that, because fans with free tickets could reasonably feel more inclined to spend money once in the stadium.

The idea also should be good for future business. Baseball isn’t Costco, but the thinking may be along the same lines: give the customers a taste and bank on the idea that many will then happily pay for more. The A’s have advance ticket windows, so those who are excited by what they see have an easy outlet to buy their way back for more.

Those fans chowing down on hot dogs, throwing back beers, and buying future tickets also provide value even if they do none of those things. Nobody watching television or looking at pictures in the newspaper or online can tell what anyone is paying, but it sure does look a lot cooler when potential customers who aren’t in the ballpark get a look at a full house of people enjoying themselves. One night of free baseball isn’t going to make the A’s suddenly cool again, but it will get back into people’s minds the idea that a night out at the Coliseum can be a raucous good time.

Contrast this with, say, Cleveland, where on Tuesday night the local racially-named baseballing outfit tied the A’s American League record with their 20th straight win (they set a new record the next day) and the reaction from ESPN press release rewriter Darren Rovell was as follows:

“24,654: Attendance tonight to see the Indians win their 20th straight. Come on Cleveland, you gotta do better than that.”

To be clear here, Rovell was criticizing the fans of Cleveland, not the team that charges more money for regular-season tickets than fans are willing to pay. While it’s been accurately pointed out that this kind of customer-blaming by the media is unique to sports, it’s still generally a bad look for the organization, because this kind of press attention is pretty lousy – “even when enjoying historic success, we’re unpopular!”

This is where the principle of free tickets can become more than just a one-night-only thing in Oakland. While it doesn’t make sense to let everyone in for free every night, there is no reason that baseball teams shouldn’t be juicing their attendance by making tickets free, or at least deeply discounted, according to market conditions.

Certainly, it would not be difficult for teams to release unsold tickets after the first inning to anyone who shows up willing to take them – at that point, it’s cutting losses and reaping the benefits of having people at the game even if they’re not all paying.

Last Sunday, I went with my family to see the Mets play the Reds in a matchup of two teams going absolutely nowhere, simply because we wanted to go to a game and four tickets could be had for a total of $28, after fees, on the secondary market. I never even bothered checking the Mets’ own website, because I knew I’d pay at least twice as much.

The Mets have had crowds as low as 19,617 this season, which is embarrassing in a metropolitan area that’s home to a thousand times that many people, not to mention the tourists in town at any given time. It’s because there is no interaction between baseball teams and actual market conditions, as witnessed by a Thursday night search for tickets to next Saturday’s game between the already-eliminated Mets and already-clinched Nationals:

mets tickets

Clicking “best available” garnered an offer of two seats beyond the first base dugout, in the second row of section 111, for $948. Meanwhile, if you went to SeatGeek, two tickets in the second row of section 12, just off home plate, could be had for a total of $640 after fees.

mets seatgeek

That’s still a stupid price to pay to see a bad team play a good team, but at least you can understand someone looking to recoup some of what they paid for those seats in the first place. Meanwhile, the Mets will have thousands of unsold tickets and even more empty seats, adding to the overall drudgery of their slog to the finish.

The A’s don’t figure to be much better next year, but they’ll fill the ballpark for an April game when they otherwise would be playing in front of crickets, and even if the tickets are free, that’s good business in an era when the lion’s share of revenue comes from media deals rather than ticket sales anyway. The free game should light the way to a new model for baseball: keep selling tickets for whatever the market will bear, of course, but when the market doesn’t bear it, let people in anyway, because even if they’re not customers who are paying for admission, they can still be paying customers, and good for business in other ways.

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