SEASON TICKET IRE PART OF THE GAME
`Convoluted' rules frazzle fans as baseball stadium limits loosen up
restrictions are easing at U.S. baseball stadiums, bringing joy to owners, scattered cheers to players — and angst to many of its most committed fans.
With attendance limits changing unpredictably, the pandemic has plunged season-ticket holders into a morass of spreadsheets, carried credits, strained friendships and fears of virus exposure.
“We've been sharing season tickets for about 35 years, and while it's never simple with our six-way split, it's never been nearly this convoluted,” said Larry Tye, a Boston-area author who wrote a book about Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. “We're never sure if we'll actually get the game we want or where the tickets will be.”
Major League Baseball teams play 81 regular home games each year, a tempo that far outstrips field sports like soccer or rugby, or even baseball's British cousin, cricket. The length of the season allows plot lines on the diamond to develop organically over months. It also means that diehards who regularly sit in the same seats forge deep relationships with neighbouring fans and friends who share the tickets.
The packages have never been cheap. And they've long been divvied up among purchasers according to idiosyncratic but time-honored methods, sometimes in a single night that sets the sporting agenda for months to come.
“This year is completely different,” said Ralph Bracco, an actor who has attended every Yankees opening day since before owner George Steinbrenner fired manager Billy Martin in 1978 for the first of several times. Bracco entered a March 22 lottery to buy tickets, holding online almost half an hour before learning he'd just missed qualifying for a purchase.
“They didn't care that I was a season-ticket holder for more than four decades,” said Bracco, 63. “I was No. 326 on a virtual line.”
Teams are having to cope with local COVID-19 restrictions that require social distancing. Only the Texas Rangers, who play at Globe Life Field in Arlington, opened at full capacity. The Atlanta Braves made all their seats available to fans last week. But many others began their seasons allowing just 20 per cent of seats to be filled. The Toronto Blue Jays have yet to welcome any of their fans in Canada; they've been playing at their spring-training facility in Florida.
Ball clubs generate anywhere from 40 per cent to 60 per cent of their revenue from in-stadium sources including tickets, concessions and souvenirs, said Marc Ganis, co-founder of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports consultant. “So this can have a big impact on their finances.”
The core of that support is finding itself frazzled.
In Los Angeles, Mark Hartstein, a 64-year-old retired forensics investigator, is stuck administering Dodgers season tickets that his father first bought in 1966 for a group of about eight. They didn't get their four usual field seats along the first-base side, and were instead moved to a section that cost US$35 more per ticket. They also weren't guaranteed their customary tickets for the home opener.
After breaking that bad news, Hartstein had to become an impromptu public-health official, alerting the group about new rules, such as mask requirements, a mandate for clear plastic purses and a new system for ordering food by mobile phone. The team dropped the food-ordering system after it failed to work as planned at the first home game.
The loss of internet-enabled hotdogs aside, Hartstein's biggest complaint has been the short notice the Dodgers gave fans to make decisions about this season.
“They make us beg and clamour, and they do all this at the last minute, with no consideration for our time or seniority,” he said. “They gave us 22 hours' notice.”
Stan Kasten, chief executive officer of the team, said it lost more than US$100 million in revenue as a result of the ballpark closures last year even as it won the World Series. He understands the plight of fans but cited “not just unforeseen, but unimaginable, hurdles that we've had over the past year.”
Kasten said teams managed to play last year, hold spring training and get a month into the 2021 season without serious trouble. Due to capacity restrictions, the Dodgers can sell about 15,000 seats per game out of 56,000.
“You can't fit all of your season-ticket holders into 25 per cent of your seats,” he said in an interview. “Most people understand this, and have a pretty decent attitude about it.”
But many baseball fans are creatures of habit who love a game that promises continuity across the decades. Will Swarts, a Brooklyn-based editor at a non-profit organization who shares Mets season tickets with friends, had grown to love his regular field seats behind first base about 25 rows back. “You didn't miss anything from that level, and it was just close enough to the overhang, if it was bad weather you could duck back there,” he said.
This year, the team has been offering his group different seats each month. The latest batch was in the very last section behind centre field. While those seats cost about US$22 each, or one-third of what he normally paid — and he said he's happy to be back at Citi Field — he expected better treatment under the new owner, billionaire money manager Steve Cohen. Instead, he said: “Everything has been so `Wait and see what the venue can accommodate.'”
Even some fans who are keeping their regular seats are torn about the decision. George Webb, a 54-year-old patent attorney in Houston and an Astros season-ticket holder, sat out the first month because he wasn't sure who in his group had been vaccinated.
The team has given him a choice: keep his regular seats for all the games, or move to another section where attendees will be socially distanced. Since he's grown to know most of the fans who surround him at the games, he expects they'll all be there, bunched together.
“We do sort of have a concern, because our section will be fairly crowded,” he said.
The Yankees are letting season-ticket holders purchase groups of tickets in multiweek phases. Chris Polek, a New Jersey printing supplies executive, wanted to attend opening day, but would have needed to commit to buying his usual four seats for 10 more games at US$80 each. That's a US$3,200 gamble at a time when finding others to use them would be difficult.
Polek, 57, would normally offer extra tickets to clients, friends or employees, but New York State is requiring that stadium attendees show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from within the past 72 hours.
“You can't just go to the game on the fly like you used to,” he said. “You can't just call up somebody and say, `Hey, can you come to the game today? Have you had a negative COVID test?' “
Some fans are benching themselves entirely. Scott Wuerz, 51-year-old blogger and communications manager, kept his St. Louis Cardinals ticket package even after moving to Texas some years ago. But dealing with last year's park closings and restrictions were too much. One woman who went in on tickets with him died of COVID-19. Another group member committed to 10 games but never paid, leaving Wuerz hanging on roughly US$840.
“We could not afford to take the risk of accepting our tickets this year,” he said. “We didn't know if 90 per cent of them would go to waste.”