FACT: Ticket prices are determined by what the market will bear, not by player salaries.
BRING YOUR KIDS TO SEE OUR KIDS! cried the full-page ad run by the New York Mets last August. But the fans were in no mood for family reunions. Earlier in the season, the Mets had traded slugger Dave Kingman and disowned their original child prodigy, Tom Seaver, by sending him and his grownup $225,000 salary to the Reds.
So, with attendance tailing off like one of Tom Terrific's sliders, the Mets made their desperation pitch in print: "Our recent decisions were based in part on a determination to keep the prices you pay to see a game as low as possible. We don't think the practice of paying exorbitant sums of money to certain players in excess of that paid to others will continue in the long run. Frankly, we don't think the clubs will be able to afford it or, more importantly, the fans either; for it is they who will pay the increased price."
The Mets were guilty of committing two errors on the same grandstand play. First, the frequent claim that players' salaries are the sole or even the primary reason for raising ticket prices is simply not true. And second, the Mets did not become one of the most profitable teams in baseball over the last decade by letting low salaries determine ticket prices. More than most teams, they could have afforded to pay their players more and still have made a tidy profit without raising ticket prices. While moderate, the Mets' average ticket price last season ($3.58) was offset by the second lowest payroll ($1,469,800) in the National League. In contrast, the payroll ($2,444,700) of the highly profitable Dodgers was nearly $1 million higher—or the cost of four Tom Seavers—while Los Angeles' average ticket price ($3.59) was about the same as the Mets'.
Instead of turning the fans against the players, an ultimately self-defeating act, the Mets in particular and baseball in general would do better to promote the low cost of their tickets as compared with the average prices in the other three major sports. While football in 1977 charged $9.67 a head, and hockey and basketball tickets in 1977-78 cost $7.87 and $6.76, respectively, the fan can watch baseball this season for only $3.99.
If anything, the striking imbalance between the payroll costs and ticket prices of many teams suggests that high ticket prices are somehow holding down salaries. For instance, the Seattle Seahawks have one of the lowest payrolls in the NFL. So guess whose average ticket price ($11.79) is the highest in the league? Right, the selfsame Seahawks'. Of the 22 teams in the NBA, the Nets were No. 20 in salaries ($1,163,000) and No. 2 in ticket average ($8.58). And while the Toronto Blue Jays premiered last season with the lowest payroll ($858,000) among baseball's 26 teams, they craftily made the most of an anticipated box-office bonanza. As a result, the Blue Jays finished a rousing seventh in home attendance (1,701,052) and a fat-cat third in ticket average ($4.40).
And the most remarkable part of all is that, perhaps because they were so busy keeping salaries down and ticket prices up, the top-dollar Nets, Seahawks and Blue Jays neglected to maintain a firm grasp on another important area of their business. None of the teams finished better than next-to-last in its division last season.
In last place were the Buffalo Bills, the team that three seasons ago cited high operating costs, including Simpson's big salary, as the major reason it was forced to raise ticket prices. Now that O.J., who made a $733,358 bundle last year, has been traded to the 49ers, will the Bills roll back their prices accordingly? Was Simon Legree a humanitarian? Just as players' contracts are never renegotiated downward after a poor season, high ticket prices go only one way—up.
Except, that is, for one curious period in the mid-1950s when baseball's average ticket price fell 9%. Was it just coincidence that attendance also dipped during the same stretch? But there are grander conundrums that need solving, such as: about 30 years ago 35% of baseball's total revenues were allocated to players' salaries. Since then ticket prices have more than doubled, attendance has increased by about 200%, and TV revenues, which didn't exist then, have become a major source of income. Meanwhile, salaries have gone down to 26% of total revenues.
Could it be that there is some mysterious force other than salaries at work in ticket pricing, such as the desire to, ahem, increase profits? Economists who have studied the question from a dozen different perspectives all arrive at the same answer: yes, profits it is.