Thursday, August 1, 2013


                Your local pro or college team has a home game scheduled for the evening. The game will be televised. Do you want to go to the expense and trouble of attending or are you content to stay home and watch it on the tube?
           Increasingly, fans are opting for the latter choice, and no wonder. With traffic tough everywhere and ticket prices high and rising, it takes quite a lot to budge us from our living rooms, especially in this day of high-def TV. My set is five years old but its picture still is so sharp I can recognize faces in the crowds of the games I watch.  Plus, the fridge is near at hand and I can use the toilet without having to stand in line.
            Yeah, I know, it’s fun to go to games—to be out with the like-minded crowd that cheers on the home team. We urbanites (that is, just about all of us) live atomized existences these days, penned into a daily round of work or play and home that’s notably short on communal experiences. Instead of going to the movies we use Netflix, instead of shopping at the mall we click on ebay or amazon, instead of voting at a neighborhood polling place we fill in our ballots at our kitchen tables and mail in the results.  Agorophobia used to be an illness but now it’s a national condition.  
             Sports provide an antidote, but one that gets progressively harder to exercise for most people. My own example is a case in point. In 1972 I and three pals went in on a pair of season tickets for the basketball Chicago Bulls, who were just getting established in our home city. The tix were good, in the second row of the first balcony in Chicago Stadium, on a line with the Bulls’ bench. If memory serves they cost $5 or $6 per, or about $100 for my 10 or 11 games, well within my reporter’s budget.
               Our group renewed annually for 22 years, and while ticket prices regularly rose they were in the $25-$28 range through 1993, still affordable. Then the Bulls moved into the vastly larger United Center, whose configuration is quite different from that of the Stadium. The seats in the new place the team considered comparable to ours were in the second balcony, far removed from the action, and almost twice as expensive. Seeing the games from there would have been like watching them on a 12-inch TV screen.  We said no thanks and ended the relationship, and with it my career as a season-ticket holder.

                Twenty-years-ago prices seem quaint now, of course. The average single-game ticket in the NBA now costs about $50 and that’s for a not-good seat; according to the Bull’s current seating chart the ones we gave up now go for $125, and there’s a waiting list to get them. Team Marketing Report says the NFL led the average-price standings last season at $78, followed by the NHL at $61. Major League Baseball was last at $27.  Throw in the usual 20 bucks or so for stadium parking and $30 or $40 more for ballpark food and the game bill for a couple today runs from $100 to more than $200, too rich for my blood.   

                You can beat those numbers, but only if you live in or near a city where sports aren’t a religion. I do, in Scottsdale, AZ, near Phoenix. There, the baseball Diamondbacks usually play to half-filled houses no matter how they’re faring afield, and ticket prices are low. The seats wife Susie and I like best are 10 to 12 rows up in the upper deck behind home plate, from where the field stretches out before us. They go for $16 each, and I know a lot where I can park about two blocks from the back gates for six bucks. Add $11 for a brat with kraut and a Pepsi for me (Susie can’t stomach ballpark food and brings her own) and we get off for about $50, not bad as those things go. We’re usually good for 5-6 games a year.

                That doesn’t work here for the other major sports, though, nor does it ever in places like Chicago, Boston, Dallas and New York, where triple-digit prices for single games are common (especially in the so-called secondary market) and lawyers and commodity traders fill the stands. Add the constant fact that everyone at home sees the games better than anyone in the stadiums and you have the attendance declines of the past few years. The gates in the Big 2 sports of baseball and football both peaked in 2007, and while the declines have been small—averaging about 1% a year in each—they’ve been large enough to attract front-office attention.

                The main way teams are attempting to lure the couch-bound is by making their stadiums more like living rooms.  Jumbotrons—huge video display units—decorate stadiums coast to coast. The biggest so far is the one that hangs in Cowboy Stadium in Dallas, that capital of crass. It measures 72 feet by 160 feet. It’s due, however, to be dwarfed by a 55-by-301 unit ordered by the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars. You’ll note that width is one foot longer than the football playing field.

           Jumbotrons carry some of the video replays fans get at home, along with game stats and various between-innings or timeout entertainments. Mostly, though, they’re billboards that turn paying customers into captive audiences for whatever ads home teams can book. A Jumbotron is being planned for Wrigley Field, that erstwhile temple of baseball purity, and Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts makes no bones about declaring that he wants it for the ad revenue it will generate. That’s honest but it doesn’t make me like him better.

Worse by me is the way the huge TV screens dominate any premises they occupy, turning the action on the field into an afterthought. Their 1984 aspect is magnified when they take to exhorting crowd reactions. At Chase Field in Phoenix, my home park of late, the ovine fans rarely budge unless Jumbo tells them to stand, clap or dance, or sounds that silly “charge” bugle.

 I’m embarrassed for them. I’ve known how to behave at ball games since I was 10 and need no prompting. At least when I’m watching at home no one tells me what to do, unless it’s to take out the garbage or something similar.



Mike Levy said...

We also had season tickets to pro sports, Baseball, Hockey and Soccer when we lived in Philly. There's nothing like being on hand for the action, but as we get older and have moved to the Phoenix area, there's little that entices us to watch any sporting event in person. (Can you blame us for the counted upon poor performance of Phoenix based teams?)

TV is fine. Much less hassle and with all the attributes you pointed out.

These days, if I want to see a live sporting event, it'll be a college game where the prices are far less and the excitement and partisan emotions are far greater.

Of course, there's always the most economical Fall Ball baseball which generally features post university players on the way up to the pros.

Tonight, there's a Guinness Cup 'Soccer' Football game being played in Phoenix. It'll feature Real Madrid and The L.A. Galaxy, each team featuring some among the best players in Football. Though a rabid Football follower, I'll be watching on TV.

Mike Levy

Anonymous said...

Fred--a friend passed your blog onto me. We wrote for the DI and went to U of I at same time. I wound up in Chicago broadcasting and enjoyed reading your pieces in WSJ. You're right on target with being there vs. the flat screen. The Stadium days with the Bulls + the Hawks were amazing sports bargains never to be seen again.
Best wishes--Dave Baum