- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - Before his first practice on the virgin grass of the new Yankee Stadium, Andy Pettitte stood at his locker Thursday and got a lesson on how to work the ThinkPad computer mounted in his wood-paneled cubicle. Each player has one of the gadgets to watch replays or order tickets for family.

In the stands of the $1.5 billion ballpark, which smelled of fresh paint and new leather, fans filed in past the top-priced $2,625 seats and the three exclusive restaurants to watch the practice. The April 16 home opener figures to be sold out.

A different kind of ticket deal is playing out in Minneapolis. To draw fans to the 27-year-old Metrodome, the Twins pegged the cost of 6,500 seats in the Home Run Porch to the stock market. The price will cost $1 for every 1,000 points of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Because the Dow closed at 7,775 on March 27, those outfield seats for Monday home games purchased through Friday will be $7.

Less than a year after the recession first began to crack the seemingly impregnable world of professional sports, a new economic order is in place for the start of baseball season Sunday night _ marked by fewer fans, rising ticket prices and likely lower player salaries.

MLB is bracing for an overall attendance drop of as much as 7 percent following five straight years of 70 million-plus attendance. An Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll this week found that fans think baseball’s top problem is the cost of going to the ballpark.

Even Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner admitted that some tickets at his new stadium would be a hard sell in a financial climate that’s the most uncertain since at least the deep recession of the late 1970s _ and perhaps longer.

“I think if anybody in any business had known where this economy was going to go, they would have done things differently,” Steinbrenner said before he watched Thursday’s workout. “Look, there’s no doubt small amounts of our tickets might be overpriced.”

The Yankees set prices for their premium Legends Suites seats 13 months ago and sold them for $500-$2,500 as part of season tickets. The team says some of those seats remain available for individual games, when the price rises to $2,625.

The Team Marketing Report said Thursday the average ticket price for the majors this season will be $26.64, a 5 percent increase. That’s due largely to the Yankees’ raising their average price by a whopping 76.3 percent to $72.97.

Player salaries likely will be down for just the third time in 20 years. Even the Yankees have trimmed salaries by $7 million despite a breathtaking spending binge on free agents in December.

Teams have largely retained their sponsors, although they’ve had to work hard to overcome financial and car companies dropping out.

“We’re in an economic downturn that’s the worst since the Great Depression,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.

It’s not just baseball, of course. All of sports is smarting:

_ Twenty-three of 32 NFL teams have frozen ticket prices for 2009 and the league office has eliminated 169 positions, just over 15 percent of its jobs, league spokesman Greg Aiello said. Commissioner Roger Goodell took a voluntary cut of up to 25 percent from the $11 million salary and bonuses he was to receive.

_ The NBA’s league office cut about 80 jobs, about 9 percent of its domestic staff. Minnesota lowered the prices of 95 percent of season tickets and said that anyone losing a job would be allowed out of a season-ticket commitment without penalty.

_ At least 20 NHL teams already are selling season tickets for 2009-10 _ even before this season ends in June. Only 11 teams felt the need to begin the process so early last year. Two-third of the teams are keeping ticket prices flat for next season, with Tampa Bay decreasing and Washington increasing.

_ The U.S. Olympic Committee, searching for sponsors to replace General Motors, Home Depot and Kellogg’s, laid off 54 employees, 13 percent of its staff, to save $7.1 million from this year’s $142 million budget.

_ The PGA Tour lost a Fall Series event in Florida when Ginn Resorts walked away three years early, leading to a lawsuit, and is losing tournaments in Milwaukee after this year (U.S. Bank is withdrawing) and Phoenix after 2010 (FBR is dropping).

But the spotlight is now on America’s pastime, which will feel the full fury of the downturn for the next six months _ when it has to sell much of its tickets, advertising and sponsorships.

“We are cautiously or guardedly optimistic that we will be able to provide affordable family entertainment,” said Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer.

Fans might take issue with “affordable.” Almost 60 percent of respondents told the AP-Knowledge Networks poll that going to a game was more expensive than other entertainment they might consider.

“I have a job, and because of my job the economy hasn’t hurt me directly _ but it’s definitely making you think the way you spend your money,” said 17-year-old Paul Burke of Redmond, Wash., who went to spring training to watch the Mariners with his stepfather. “Even though I make a good amount of money, I’m not just spending it all on baseball games.”

Florida Marlins president David Samson was shocked by what he heard when he and other team officials tried to initiate sponsorship deals.

“Some of the people with whom we have dealt with for years are there one day and gone the next, which is something we’ve not seen before. And in corporate sales, relationships are everything,” he said.

“The bad news is we’re spending 10 percent more time to get potentially 5 percent to 10 percent less revenue. That’s not the right business model, but that’s the reality we’re in.”

After watching Congress tear at Citigroup for its $400 million, 20-year naming rights deal with the Mets for Citi Field, Bank of America withdrew from talks for a major sponsorship agreement with the Yankees.

“It just doesn’t seem like this is the time to do something special with a financial institution,” Yankees CEO Lonn Trost said. “There are so many teams being criticized. In the face of that, to do a deal, we would face additional criticism.”

His new ballpark was designed when New York was awash with money.

Business has been relatively brisk, with the Yankees selling 36,000 full season equivalents and the Mets 25,000. But the Yankees have taken out numerous advertisements touting their top tickets, even hiring a real-estate broker to sell them.

“Everybody focuses on the few very expensive tickets, but they have made a lot of tickets available at very reasonable prices,” Selig said.

At Citi Field, the best seats average $495 under the team’s five-tiered pricing, which created a dizzying 190 ticket categories.

The World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies charge from $185 to $230 for their best 126 premium tickets. Still, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard isn’t dismayed by the disparity.

“I wasn’t a business major, but I think it’s common sense,” he said. “I don’t think anyone else can really get mad, any of the other organizations. … If they’re selling, keep selling them.”

New York alone figures to cause a drop in major league attendance. There will be 1.6 million fewer seats, with the Yankees cutting capacity by 5,000 to 52,325 and the Mets dropping by 15,000 to approximately 42,000.

But that’s just part of the expected drop. Some teams coming off disappointing seasons figure to have drops, such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Diego and San Francisco.

Kansas City is offering $5 seats, the Royals’ lowest price since 2001. The Houston Astros created a 10 games-for-$20 promotion. Milwaukee and Atlanta have $1 seats.

Toronto has season ticket prices as low as $76. Two-thirds of teams lowered either their average ticket price or some level of ticket prices, MLB spokesman Matt Bourne said.


AP Sports Writers Doug Ferguson, Eddie Pells, Barry Wilner, Tim Booth and Steven Wine contributed to this report.

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