- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2000

Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette said this week his club could afford the eight-year, $160 million contract it gave free agent outfielder Manny Ramirez.

Perhaps what he meant to say was that the fans could afford it.

Red Sox fans will pay as much as 29 percent more for tickets next season than they did this year, the sixth price increase in as many years for baseball's costliest ticket.

And Boston is far from alone. Half of baseball's 30 teams already have announced price hikes for next season, with several more anticipated after the holidays as the costs of this winter's record free agent signings quickly reach the pocketbooks of fans. Fans seeking seats in prime locations are particularly being hit with high price hikes.

At the top of the list of increases are several teams that already sell some of the game's priciest seats. The New York Yankees, with the game's second highest average ticket cost in 2000, boosted prices by as much as 31 percent. Top seats at Yankee Stadium will cost $65, up from $25 just four years ago. The Atlanta Braves raised prices an average of 9.5 percent, and Cleveland boosted season ticket prices an average of 10 percent.

Baseball's 2000 average ticket price of $16.67 now stands likely to approach $20 in 2001. While that remains less than half the cost of an average ticket in the NFL, NHL, or NBA, a $20 average would be more than twice the typical cost in 1993.

"There's never a good time to raise prices. That remains the basic fact," said Julio Rebull, senior vice president of the Florida Marlins, who raised prices 16 percent. "Our challenge is building this team and making it competitive again while staying affordable and presenting good value to South Florida. It's a never-ending process."

The St. Louis Cardinals were not one of the three teams that bestowed $533 million in contracts on Alex Rodriguez, Mike Hampton and Ramirez. In fact, the National League Central champs will return in 2001 with much the same lineup as this year, and their most noteworthy offseason roster move came yesterday with the trade of powerful third baseman Fernando Tatis to Montreal.

But the Cardinals boosted 2001 prices by 21 percent, and most seats at Busch Stadium will cost at least 30 percent more than they did just two years ago. Yet for the latest increase, the Cardinals perhaps will see an extra $12 million in revenue, slightly more than the $10 million they will add to payroll. After baseball's highest local ticket taxes and revenue sharing commitments kick in, much of the price increase's effect will be muted.

"The question is whether we have gone to a point where we no longer represent value and are pricing out young families and other groups of people," said club president Rick Lamping. "We won't know for sure until our season ticket renewals come in, but I don't think we've crossed that line."

While free agency and rising payrolls come squarely into play with the increases, teams also are working off simple supply and demand. Baseball set an attendance record of more than 70 million in 2000, despite decreases for half the teams. Even the Red Sox, with their league-high ticket costs and failure to make the playoffs, set a franchise attendance mark.

"A high payroll doesn't guarantee a playoff spot, but keeping pace financially is crucial to remaining competitive in today's market," Duquette said upon implementing the increase last month.

The United Sports Fans of America, an active Florida-based fan advocacy group, is not returning to previous calls for a boycott during this latest ticket price escalation. Instead they're shooting for something more a seat at the bargaining table. Baseball's collective bargaining agreement with the players union expires Oct. 31, 2001, and UsFans has contacted both commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Donald Fehr seeking participation in what promises to be contentious talks.

"Fans will certainly pay one way or another. But because of the current CBA, there's little we can do to stem this tide of madness," said Frank Stadulis, UsFans executive director. "It has to run its course. The Tom Hickses and George Steinbrenners of the league right now are simply participating within the current framework.

"What we need is a more NFL-type economic model with lots more central funding so we can relieve some of this fiscal pressure to simply raise prices," he said.

That's precisely what Selig has pledged for months, but the current free agent signings and ticket cost increases suggest the situation will grow worse before it gets better.

In the meantime, some teams are trying to hold the line on ticket costs. The Baltimore Orioles, facing fan backlash after the departure of star pitcher Mike Mussina, will keep prices steady for the fourth consecutive year. Also among those holding the line on prices were Tampa Bay, Houston and Montreal, three of the eight worst teams in 2000.

"We wanted to recognize the loyalty of our fans and contributions they have made in hopes that they will reinvest with us in that tradition," said Bob Graziano, president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also did not raise ticket prices.

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