Sunday, April 15, 2018


                The Chicago Tribune, to which I subscribe online to keep up with news from my homeland, last week ran a couple of stories about the ticket prices of the Chicago Cubs, my favorite baseball team. Both made me blink.

                The first was that the Cubs this season will set aside 60 “lower terrace” (i.e., not the worst) seats at their Wrigley Field base for each home game and sell them for $10 each to winners of a lottery the team has set up. Those who want them will sign up at a website 48 hours before the game they wish to see, with the winners announced 24 hours later. It’ll be a two-to-a-customer deal so winners won’t have to attend alone—a nice touch, I thought.

                The second, appearing a few days later, was the counterpoint to the first. It announced the opening of “Club 1914” at Wrigley, a bar-restaurant named for the ballpark’s inaugural year whose membership will be limited to the people who purchased the 700 or so most-expensive Cubs’ season tickets this year, at prices ranging from $695 a game ($56,295 a season) to $400 ($32,400). The glass-and-mahogany affair, situated underground behind the home plate area, will dispense food and drink to the expense-account set while giving them pre-and-post-game hangout space, lockers, access to uncrowded restrooms and their own team-merchandise shop. No computer-lottery victory will be required for access to the place, the members having already won the grand lottery that entitles them to their enviable lifestyle.

                The gentrification of professional sports is no news, already stretching back several decades, but its manifestations still can startle. As a Great Depression baby raised in leaner times, I never fail to marvel at the extent to which people at various income levels are willing to pay to support their teams, even though a flick of a remote can bring the games into their living rooms at little or no cost.  The thrill of joining one’s voice to the roar of the crowd packs a punch that defies quantification or, to me, reason.

                In the 1980s and ‘90s my press pass got me into games for free, but my spectating long predated that. As a kid I saw a lot of Cubs’ games at Wrigley, paying the 65-cent grandstand kids’ ticket price well past the 12-years-old cutoff (I must have looked young), and as a dad years later took my own kids to see quite a few Cubs and White Sox games.

 For 22 years—1972-94—I had a piece of a couple of season tickets to see the NBA Chicago Bulls, receiving also an education in how such things are priced. The initial tag on our seats (second row, first balcony in the old Chicago Stadium, where the balcony hung quite close to the court) was, I recall, $5 each at a time when the fledgling Bulls were a poor draw, but the figure rose steadily until it hit about $30 during the first few of the Michael Jordan title years. Despite my ingrained cheapness I gulped and paid up until the team moved into a new home, called the United Center. When management kicked my group into the upper reaches of the vastly larger arena and about-tripled our seat prices I balked, never to return.

I’ve lived in the Phoenix area for 20 years now and have yet to pay to see an NFL, NBA or NHL game—too pricey! The baseball Arizona Diamondbacks have one of the lowest price scales of any Major League team and draw so poorly that the logistics of attendance at their downtown home park are easy. Wife Susie and I see about a half-dozen games a season, always sitting in the upper deck behind home plate where the ticket tag rarely exceeds $20 per.  By me they’re the best seats in the house, so maybe I should keep quiet about this.  Anyway, figuring in parking and my bratwurst and Pepsi (Susie is allergic to ballpark food and brings her own) the two of us get away for about $60.

The rest of humanity pays quite a bit more. Team Marketing Inc., a company that tracks such things, reported that in 2016, the latest year for which its figures are available, the average cost for a family of four to attend a Major League Baseball game was $212. That included the average prices of two adult and two kids’ tickets, hotdogs, beverages, parking, two programs and two adult-sized baseball caps, and while most people probably would do without the caps it’s still a sizable amount.

In some cities the $212 figure is a dream; according to an online source the average price of a ticket alone at Wrigley Field last season was $151, and it topped $100 at three other parks (Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Atlanta Braves’ Sun Trust Park). The Diamondbacks were in the bottom quarter of the 30-team list at $58, while the Chicago White Sox brought up the rear at $30.

It’s further noteworthy that MLB is the bargain among our major team sports; the family-of-four bill for the average NBA game in 2016 was $329, with $358 for the NHL and $473 for the NFL.  Those figures change in only one direction, so they’re undoubtedly higher now. They’ve all increased by at least a third since 2000.

 It’s ironic that the cost of going to a game is soaring at a time when more teams are seeking (and getting) public financing for their stadiums. That means that a lot of people are being taxed to build playgrounds for teams whose games they can’t afford to attend. Even when the stadium is privately owned (such as Wrigley Field) taxpayers must support the infrastructure improvements and extra policing the games demand.

Buy hey!, if you’ve got 10 bucks, and you’re lucky, you might get to see a Cubs’ game this year.

Sunday, April 1, 2018


                Passover and the new Major League Baseball season arrived in a near dead heat a few days ago, so I think it’s apt to apply a signature question about the former to the latter; namely, “How is this season different from all other seasons?”

                The answer is that this MLB campaign had an earlier start (March 29) than any previous one, if you don’t count the couple of years when teams went to Japan or Australia to play a series before the rest of the teams got underway. The jump was part of a collective-bargaining agreement that provided for three or four more days off for each club during the regular schedule. It also ensures that, absent rain outs, the World Series will end before November begins, the better to avoid the possibility that mittens might replace mitts in the annual classic.

                Baseball’s move follows that of the National Basketball Association, which also started its 2017-18 season a week earlier than before, although that was little noted at the time. The extra week allowed the NBA to eliminate such inhumane practices as having teams play four games in five nights, or 18 games in 30. It also reduced the number of back-to-back contests teams play and threw in an occasional extra off day.
            The issue of schedule length has been very much alive in all our major team sports these past few years, matching the concern about a perceived increase in player injuries. Just about everyone agrees that the annual schedules of our premier professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey leagues are too long, but everybody also recognizes that it’s highly unlikely that will change anytime soon. That’s because schedule length is governed by commerce, not competition, and both the players and owners know that nobody makes money when the store isn’t open. The only one of our Big Four pro loops to reduce its calendar in recent decades was the National Hockey League, which went to its present 82 games a team from 84 in 1995-96. The reason for the move was obscure, as is the reasoning behind much of what the NHL does.
            Professional athletes are paid to do things other people do for fun so it’s hard to gin up much sympathy for claims they are overworked, but one can make that case nonetheless. Athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, and while they get paid more they work harder, too, following the year-around training schedules they need to maintain their places.  It’s a sports paradox that the closer an athlete comes to peak fitness the more susceptible he is to injury and the less it takes to push him over the edge. The wise trainer includes a good amount of rest in his regimens but athletes are as likely as not to ignore it. The motto “no pain, no gain” still resonates despite being largely discredited.
             It’s ironic that the sport that has the biggest injury problem has been least amenable to making schedule changes to address it. That would be football, where after the second or third week of the season every player hurts some place all the time. The National Football League went to a consistent 12-game regular season in 1947, to 14 games in 1961 and to the present 16 games in 1978, and while it cut its summer training-game schedule to four games from six in that last year it’s budged no further since.

 The discussion about cutting football players’ workload has of late focused on cutting the so-called preseason, which almost all observers agree is too long. The owners resist, mostly because they charge their season-ticket holders full price for the two exhibitions each hosts annually. That embodies the “because we can” philosophy that rules the league.

The NBA’s regular-season schedule has stood at 82 games since 1967-68, a time when, in retrospect, the players looked smaller and the games were run at slower-mo. This season’s early start hasn’t seemed to have had much effect on contending teams’ practice of sitting healthy veterans (and, thus, shortchanging fans) to preserve them for the playoffs, Nor has it noticeably affected the injury rate; in one recent game the defending-champion Golden State Warriors sat their four best players (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Clay Thompson and Draymond Green) for various causes. The league is coming to rival the NFL in the role injuries play in determining playoff outcomes.

Baseball is the least strenuous of our major sports but it’s also the one with the longest regular season– a 26-week, 162-game grind before this season’s one-week extension.  A little math shows that worked out to 20 days off a season for each team, or less than one a week, and the numbers were worse when you note that four of the days off came together, at All Star Game time.

 Between about 1920 and 1960 the baseball regular season was 154 games, with each team in the 16-team, two-league setup playing each of its seven league rivals 22 times. The 162-game format was established when the Majors expanded to 20 teams in 1961 and 1962, with each team playing its nine league foes 18 times. Now, with 30 teams and interleague play, the neat arithmetic has been scraped, but the number 162 has become sacrosanct, as do most baseball numbers that have been around for a while.

Baseball players stand (and sit) around a lot during their games, but between the contests their exercise routines are far tougher than they used to be, and their body shapes show it.  Add the facts that pitchers throw harder than they once did, and batters swing harder, and you have a physically more-demanding game than in years past.

 Adding a few more rest days to the schedule is a plus, but a better answer would be to also increase each team’s in-season roster size to 27 players from 25.  Baseball managers tend to use their benches more than other sport’s coaches and dressing one more pitcher and position player would spread the work around more, to the benefit of all. One reason sports schedules never contract is that the players, through their unions, won’t abide the salary cuts that might result, but they’d be sure to like the extra jobs larger rosters would create.  The owners would have to pay two more guys (probably at MLB minimums), but, heck, a 10-cent increase in ballpark beer prices probably would cover that.