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Baseball’s premium problem

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The sky, MLB insists, is not falling. There's no reason to conclude that the sight of empty seats at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field - in the same spots they usually show up at Nationals Park - is a sign the recession has a grip on the game, the league says, because the 4.4 percent drop in attendance is mostly because the two New York teams are playing in smaller ballparks than they used to.

And the statistics back up that assessment - for the most part. An ESPN.com report removed the attendance drops at the Big Apple ballparks and found average attendance is down only 287 fans from last season.

But there's a little more to it than that. While attendance may be surprisingly resilient, though no doubt helped by the deep discounts many teams offered on season-ticket packages and single-game purchases, the price of top-end seats may have hit a wall.

The evidence is right there, captured by the center-field camera every night: The club seats at the new Yankee Stadium, which opened the season priced at $2,625 a game, are empty. The Yankees already have halved the prices on those seats for this season, though there are whispers they won't be so generous next year if the recession goes away.

Citi Field hasn't sold those seats either, and the club seats behind the plate at Nationals Park, which opened last year, are as empty this year as they were in 2008.

"If you take these prices and push up, up, up, up, eventually it has to hit a ceiling," said Maury Brown, a sports business analyst and the founder of bizofbaseball.com. "Unfortunately for baseball, that's coinciding with the recession."

Dave Howard, the New York Mets' executive vice president of business operations, told SportsBusiness Journal the team has sold more than 90 percent of its premium seats and that no-shows across the stadium as a percentage of total capacity are roughly the same as they were last year.

The problem is that even with a smaller ballpark providing less supply, demand hasn't gone up. It has dropped at roughly the same rate as the seating capacity has - Mets crowds, according to MLB.com, are at 90.8 percent capacity in the 42,000-seat Citi Field, compared with 86.5 percent in the final season at the 57,333-seat Shea Stadium. That's a 10,000-fan drop every night. The Yankees are down about 5,000 fans every night.

And while the overall price increases mean the teams should still make more money than they did last year, Brown said the empty seats behind home plate hint at an unsettling trend.

"I have no empirical evidence to support this, but there may be a stigma attached [to premium seats]," Brown said. "You realize there's a bunch of people looking around. You're flaunting it to an extent. Not that long ago, box seats didn't seem unreasonable. Now the haves and the have-nots have become extremely evident. A bleacher seat is $10, and in most of these new ballparks, you're cordoned off - you can't get past the 300 level. There's a clear caste system - part of it is by design, and part of it is how things are being priced. But I can't imagine people aren't saying, 'Look at that guy down there. What's he doing [to make so much money]?' "

Whether it's because fans can't afford the premium seats or because they want to give the appearance they can't, it's clear there's a problem getting fans in the seats behind home plate.

It remains to be seen whether the empty seats will get filled as the weather changes. But for now, the center-field cameras will continue to show where baseball isn't connecting with fans.

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