Take me out to the uncrowded ball game
Sports writers and other observers of human behavior have been producing worried reports that the number of spectators at baseball games has been decreasing dramatically. (Sports writers enjoy drama.)
The phenomenon is evident in Philly. Television news coverage of Phillies games nightly reveals barren areas of empty seats.
When the team was performing modestly in recent years, there would have been 40,000 fans in the seats, or at least gobbling at the food concessions or just wandering around. Lately, with the team erratically flirting with first place, only about half that number has been on hand.
And, according to worried articles by sports writers in magazines and websites, the decline in attendance has been afflicting major league teams everywhere.
The writers grope for an explanation. A few blame TV. Some say that games are too long and propose adjusting rules about relief pitching changes and other maneuvering. There are complaints about other slowdowns in the proceedings, such as between-innings pauses that seem unnecessarily long and overstretched seventh-inning stretches.
The purpose of pauses, one might suspect, gives attendees time and encouragement to spend some money at the concession counters and gives television time for commercials.
But the cause that seems to me more likely than length of game to reduce the crowds is the cost.
I am, as most readers know and others suspect, old enough to remember quite a while back. I well recall my first baseball game, sitting on my father’s lap in the upper deck above third base at Shibe Park at 22nd and Lehigh, as he pointed out players I heard about on the radio.
“There’s Babe Ruth. There’s Lou Gehrig. There’s Jimmy Fox.” (Wow! A baseball player with the same first name as me!)
I don’t know what the price of admission was in those days of yore. But leap ahead to when I was about 18.
My girlfriend was an Athletics fan, too. We often went to night games at Shibe Park. I can’t remember the admission price then, but I think it was about a dollar, plus tax. I do remember that five bucks covered the pleasant evening’s entire cost, including 30 cents round trip trolley fare for both of us.
Today, the cheapest seats at the ball park are $17, if I read the Phillies website correctly. The rides back and forth on SEPTA would total $7. For economic contrast, minimum wage today is $7.25 an hour. When I was 18, it was 40 cents. (You could buy a hot dog and a Coke at Shibe Park for 40 cents.)
To a more or less ordinary bloke like me, it seems apparent that more fans would be inclined to witness the modern Phillies performances in person if the tickets were cheaper.
It’s obviously expensive to operate a baseball club, with training facilities and equipment costs and salaries for staff and on and on. And players’ compensation is extravagant.
Baseball payrolls are complicated, full of multi-years contracts, incentive payments if certain goals are reached and similar complications. The minimum salary is currently $545,000.
The highest paid Major League ball player is said to be Clayton Kershaw, a Dodgers pitcher, who will earn $215 million over a seven-year contract.
Babe Ruth, in his 22-season career, earned about $910,000, worth an estimated $14 million in today’s dollars.
Could it be that fans are getting tired of paying high prices in palatial stadiums to watch millionaires play a game?