- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

The days of the one-size-fits-all ticket in pro sports are over.
A fast-growing number of teams, particularly in baseball, are embracing an emerging concept called variable ticket pricing, an idea poised to change ticket buying permanently. Operating on the same concept as tiered pricing for lift tickets at ski resorts, hotels and Broadway, variable ticket pricing charges fans more for popular games in mid- and late-season, on weekends and against marquee opponents. It charges less for less-attractive midweek or early season contests.
In 1999 the Colorado Rockies became the first major pro team to use a variable ticket plan by introducing two-tiered pricing for each individual seat that included factors like month and opponent, much like what has been done for years in college football. Since then, the Rockies' pricing plan has expanded to three tiers, and San Francisco, St. Louis, Cleveland, the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets have implemented variable ticket plans. Several other clubs are considering the same thing.
Another collection of baseball teams, including the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, use modified versions of variable ticket pricing in which they discount upper-deck prices for a select number of less attractive midweek games.
The tradition-bound, highly sensitive pro sports industry has generally resisted variable pricing for years, fearing negative reaction from both fans and rival teams upset with being the fodder of a "bargain night" at the ballpark. But harsh new economic realities such as the still-slumping economy and baseball's 6.1 percent drop in attendance in 2002 have forced new thinking and unprecedented action.
"Before, if we had a higher budget goal to meet, we'd just raise ticket prices across the board. Now, we simply have to be a lot more creative," said Frank Maloney, director of the ticket operations for the Cubs, one of several teams to start variable pricing for the 2003 season. "The family customer is demanding an affordable ticket. We have our needs, too. So we really had no choice but to widen the range it costs to go to a game.
"And really, why should we be charging exactly the same for a game against the Yankees on a summer weekend as we would for a game against Montreal on a weekend in April? The demand is certainly going to be much different. We think this is the right thing to do."
The variable pricing plans also are giving teams more discreet and targeted ways to raise ticket prices. The average price for a major league baseball ticket in 2002 was $18.31, but the 3.8 percent increase from 2001 was the smallest yearly growth in seven years. Knowing that heavy, across-the-board price hikes will continue to be received coldly by the public, the teams with variable pricing are applying most or all of their planned price increases only to individual tickets for the best games on the schedule.
"This is new stuff for major league baseball and really all professional sports," said Kevin Fenton, Colorado's senior director of ticket operations. The Rockies continue to receive calls from other clubs seeking information on the variable pricing program. "But the basic principles are really to protect the season ticket holder, your most loyal customer, from price increases as much as possible, and to drive traffic to games in April, May and September where attendance is not as high. It's a new thing, yes, but we really think it works."
The New York Mets, another adopter of variable pricing for 2003, moved to that system after studying the price adjustments the team made at Shea Stadium based on seating section, as well as the real-time economics of the secondary ticket market.
"After we rescaled the house and looked around at how tickets were being sold elsewhere, it really became apparent there are other key determinants to demand beside location in the stadium," said Dave Howard, Mets senior vice president for business and legal affairs. "It seemed to make a lot more sense to put in a system [the Mets have four tiers of pricing] that includes those elements."
The NBA and NHL, also faced with many less popular midweek games on their schedules, are also expected to begin embracing variable pricing plans en masse soon. The NFL, with only eight home games a team and average ticket sales topping 95 percent of stadium capacity, do not need the extra salesmanship of variable pricing.
The Orioles are also following the rollout of the variable pricing plans closely but to date do not plan to offer a fully fledged one themselves.
"It's something we're watching. It is definitely catching on," said Matt Dryer, Orioles director of sales. "But I don't think we're at a point yet to do that."


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