Take me out to the un­crowded ball game

Times Chronicle & Public Spirit - - OPINION - Jim Smart Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­phia.com.

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?

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