Day At The Park: A Brief History of Ticket Prices

The cost of baseball tickets, like everything, has increased incredibly over the years. (via Terren in Virginia)

Attendance is down. This is an incontrovertible fact. In June, we learned from The Wall Street Journal that attendance was down something like 6.7 percent across major league baseball compared to where it was last year, to the lowest it’s been in 15 years. Eighteen teams saw a dip in attendance, and seven of those had seen their numbers fall by more than 20 percent. Fortune estimated major league teams were losing something on the order of $355 million on those ticket sales, which does not count the missed opportunity to sell food or merchandise.

That is not to say the major leagues are in immediate danger. I’m not here to ring any alarmist bells. Baseball will still make money in 2018. While the bad spring weather and teams tanking account for some of the problem, they can’t explain it all away. Something is broken in baseball, and it needs to be fixed.

I’m talking about ticket prices. At Beyond the Boxscore, Matt Provenazo wrote compellingly about the steady increase in ticket prices we’ve seen over the last decade or so, which is far eclipsing the increase in median wages and cost of living in major markets. Quite simply, games are getting more expensive even as fewer and fewer people can afford to go to them.

While this seems to be fine short term with owners, who are still not losing revenue thanks to the exclusive and luxury seating options designed to appeal to wealthy fans, it is creating a long-term problem by reducing the opportunity to create new fans. These aren’t fans major league baseball loses. These are fans who never materialize because they don’t have the opportunity to attend games regularly. And each one of them represents tens of thousands of dollars in potential revenue lost over the course of a lifetime.

This is a problem, believe it or not, baseball has had before. The early days of the National League were far more concerned with establishing legitimacy than drawing fans to the park. Its predecessor, the National Association, allowed just about anyone to play and was unable to force its members to complete a full schedule. As such, by 1875, teams played as few as 13 games before folding or as many as 82. The league was dominated by the Boston Red Stockings and run by concerns that favored the Eastern teams. And it was crooked. The New York Times reported,

The Philadelphia Club very nearly killed the Athletics–not on the field, but by bringing the game into disrepute, so that the odor of their crooked doings spread over the whole game, and people assumed that because they were manifestly dishonest there was no use in going to see any base-ball; and they staid [sic] at home until the best games were not attended by more than a few hundred people.”

William Hulbert, the owner of the Chicago White Stockings, was tired of this lack of integrity, so he and seven other owners founded the National League. He was discerning about who was welcome in this new enterprise. New Haven, which had completed 47 games the year before and lost 40 of them, reported to be, “feeling very much hurt at their exclusion from the new league” and that the team was aligned with the principles of the new circuit. But Hulbert and the rest of the league’s directors didn’t agree and rebuffed New Haven.

But New Haven was small potatoes. Hulbert could play rough with the big boys, too. When teams from New York and Philadelphia, the league’s two biggest markets, refused to finish out their 1876 schedules even while they continued to play exhibitions, he had them expelled “for flagrant violations of a fundamental and most vital provision of [the league constitution].”

And when clubs were riddled with players on the take, selling off games, he banned those players and franchises as well. At the conclusion of the first season, “The Louisville club presented a complaint against James A. Devlin.” Devlin was the team’s star — and pretty much only — pitcher, starting 69 of the team’s 69 games, and completing 66 of them. But Devlin was on the take. He got off without punishment, but the following year, in which he was even better, he and three other members of the Louisville franchise were accused of accepting bribes to lose ballgames.

On trial for fraud, Devlin admitted his guilt and flipped on his teammates, testifying that he had been approached by gamblers and had arranged the deal via telegraph and letter. All four were expelled from baseball. That winter, Devlin was reported to be hanging around Hulbert’s office, begging to be let back in. Al Spalding recalled, as relayed on Our Game by John Thorn:

The situation…was a scene of heartrending tragedy. Devlin was in tears, Hulbert was in tears…He acknowledged himself unworthy of consideration, but for the sake of his wife and child. I beheld the agony of humiliation depicted on his features as he confessed his guilt and begged for mercy. I saw the great bulk of Hulbert’s frame tremble with emotion he vainly sought to stifle…I saw him take a $50 bill and press it into the palm of the prostrate player. And then I heard him say, “That’s what I think of you, personally; but, damn you, Devlin, you are dishonest; you have sold a game, and I can’t trust you. Now go; and let me never see your face again; for your act will not be condoned so long as I live.”

While Spalding’s recollection is probably at least partially apocryphal, Hulbert’s commitment to his ironclad policies was accurately relayed. Hulbert realized that, over the long term, the health of his league was dependent on fans viewing the contests as legitimate and on the league being respectable. A short-term attendance dip, he figured, was worth it to create a product people could count on. And he was right; he would go down in history as “the man who saved the game,” as Spalding put it. But his obsession with respectability and integrity led to a different problem.

Hulbert’s National League simply was not profitable. The United States was still suffering from the effects of the Panic of 1873, a financial downturn that saw unemployment rise as high as 14 percent. Meanwhile, Hulbert set ticket prices around the league at 50 cents and banned Sunday play. This, according to Edward Achorn’s Summer of Beer and Whiskey, “marketed the game only to the rich, or at least the upper middle class–the lawyers, accountants, and businessmen who had the freedom to take a break in the afternoon and go to the ballpark.” Hulbert also kicked out clubs in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Louisville — the first, second, sixth, and 16th cities in market size, respectively, in the country– leaving the league stuck in small or medium-sized cities like Troy, Buffalo, and Worcester.

John Thorn reports in Baseball In the Garden of Eden that “the league had lost money in each of its first four seasons, and salaries were climbing. Unlike today, when a team’s operating losses can be tolerated in hopes of finding a buyer who will enable a handsome capital gain, nineteenth-century clubs could not repeatedly run in the red.” It would be useless to save the National Pastime only to see it succumb to bankruptcy. Moreover, Hulbert had closed off other avenues for revenue, refusing to let member teams sell booze at the ballpark and preventing them from playing on Sundays. Cincinnati learned this the hard way after the 1880 season, when Hulbert summarily dismissed the team for violating both of these edicts.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“We respectfully suggest,” the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote bitterly the next day, “that while the League is in the missionary field, they turn their attention to Chicago and prohibit the admission to the Lake Street grounds of the great number of prostitutes who patronize the game up there.” By kicking out the Reds, Hulbert had made himself and his league another powerful enemy. And soon these enemies got together to do something about the National League. Thorn notes, “Hulbert and Spalding applied corrective measures but their straitlaced reliance upon prohibition defied human nature and inspired rebellious competitors to take the field.”

In 1882, entrepreneurs that included the spurned owners in Cincinnati, brewers, and a saloonkeeper named Chris von der Ahe (whom I have previously written about here), founded a rival circuit, the American Association. Von der Ahe provided especially valuable insight as to how the league could get ahead. As Achorn points out, it would “welcome working men and fellow immigrants, those who toiled all week and could not break free from their jobs to attend a game. These men had only Sundays available for something like baseball. They could not easily afford the National League’s admission price of fifty cents, but they could come up with twenty-five cents for a ticket.”

The move against Sundays was an especially aggressive one for the young league. Most communities had so-called “blue laws” that banned most professional activities on the Christian Sabbath. This ban included, often specifically, baseball, as an activity that not only was work for the players and team employees, but was disruptive to peaceful communities and people engaging in contemplative prayer. In particular, this was a massive concern in the 1880s, reports Charles DeMotte in his book Bat, Ball, & Bible: “Aside from the crusades against alcoholism and vice, the Puritan Sabbath was probably the most distinctive symbol of evangelical civilization in the English-speaking world at this time.” Teams literally risked arrest in many jurisdictions by scheduling and playing games on Sundays.

Finally, the new league also would be centered in the major cities and their largely German immigrant communities, from which the NL had withdrawn. As you could guess by the men who founded it, the American Association would welcome booze in the ballpark. It would, of course, prove to be a rowdier atmosphere. Swearing and gambling were regular occurrences in the grandstands, and, according to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “In the cities where the American Association is represented, notably Louisville and Cincinnati, the hoodlums appear to rule the roost.”

Still, there’s no denying this upstart American Association was proving to be a runaway success. “[It was] just as von der Ahe predicted. Immigrants, in particular, turned to baseball. It gave them a way to learn what America was all about.”

The Association’s club in baseball-starved Philadelphia turned a profit of $22,000 in its first year and attracted more fans in its second season than the entire National League had in the year before the Association took it on. Thorn reports that, “As a whole in 1883, the Association outdrew the league by some 70 percent.” These new owners were rolling in money; they were, to some extent, sharing revenue among clubs to prevent any one team from getting too strong and to ensure a rising tide lifted all boats to prosperity.

The Association also was becoming a major thorn in the National League’s side. In an emergency meeting in 1882, the NL owners met to plot their response without Hulbert, who had died of a heart attack in the spring at the age of 49, to guide them. “You cannot afford to sneer at the American Association and call it the abortion of the League,” said the president of the Detroit Wolverines. “The American Association clubs have all made money this season, and the aggregate population of the cities in which they play far exceeds that of the League cities…No, gentlemen, you cannot afford to sneer at the Association. They are taking our players because they can afford to pay higher salaries.”

The leagues went to war with one another, invading cities claimed by the other circuit and raiding one anothers’ rosters offering higher salaries. And yet, there was general prosperity. The NL benefited greatly from being back in the major population centers, and the Association still drew from the immigrant crowds that had made it profitable. Eventually, the sides made peace, agreeing not to sign each others’ players and even playing a World Championship series between the two pennant winners from 1884 to 1890. The good times lasted for the rest of the decade, until a third upstart league,organized by the players themselves, stole even more market share from the now frenemy leagues.

That Players League folded after just one season, but the reintroduction of its players onto the market prior to 1891 reignited the war between the American Association and the National League as teams scrambled to grab as much talent as they could in violation of their old truce. The Association would be crushed in the chaos, with several of its teams winding up in an expanded National League.

But the NL had learned its lesson. Teams already had given way to the demon drink and priced its games more competitively, but in 1892, the NL began scheduling games on Sundays to draw in the AA’s old clientele. Thus, in spite of a financial panic that lasted from 1893 through 1897, baseball managed to soldier on by continuing to make itself affordable to the masses.

There were sacrifices made, of course. The National League pared down from 12 teams to eight in 1900, but that just paved the way for the foundation of the American League, which thrived by picking up the customers the NL had abandoned. And after 1903, the leagues worked together to fight off competition and maintain their de facto monopoly until their eventual merger into a single entity in 2000.

It’s around this time that ticket prices jumped significantly. According to the legendary Doug Pappas, the average ticket price in the league jumped 12.5 percent in 1998, then 12.2 percent in 2000, and another 13.6 percent in 2001 as six teams transitioned into new ballparks with luxury seating and increased demand for tickets.

The price of attending a game has only continued to increase since then, even without taking into account the out-of-control rise in the cost of concessions. In 1985, Sid Hartman reported two people could have attended the All-Star Game in Minneapolis, bought hot dogs and beers, and been out $25. It’s virtually impossible to have that same experience for any spring training, let alone regular season, game three decades later.

As the prices kept soaring, catching a game at an affordable price became unreachable for much of the country. According to a 2016 study out of the University of California at Berkeley, “The average pre-tax income of the bottom 50% of adults has stagnated since 1980 at about $16,000 per adult, while the average national income per adult has grown by 60%.” The poor, as it were, got poorer. Too poor, now, it would seem to be able to attend more than a handful of games at best.

Again, this doesn’t mean baseball’s sky is falling. There are, after all, revenue streams available to Major League Baseball now that William Hulbert and Chris von der Ahe could not possibly have dreamt of. MLB Advanced Media guarantees each team tens of millions of dollars before the season even begins. Broadcasting rights and licensing fees make it extremely difficult for any responsible owner to lose money.

But in order to continue to take advantage of those revenue streams, baseball needs to continue to create new fans. And the surest way to do that, besides winning, is to get fans from all walks of life through the now-proverbial turnstiles. At least half the country is functionally prevented from doing that now with any kind of regularity, and if that income inequality continues to widen, attending games will only become more of a luxury. Increasing access to games for everyone will go a long way toward ensuring that, when and if a lean time comes, the league’s billionaire overlords can continue to afford those yachts. And it means more baseball for the rest of us.

References and Resources

Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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5 years ago

Great article. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a lot of games as a kid since my dad split season tickets with a neighbor until the late 90’s when they got to expensive. This has locked me into baseball fandom to this day, but i doubt i would be the avid fan i am today without those childhood experience that drew me in. Also why cant they do fireworks in the Skydome anymore (not sure if other teams did or still do)? Some of my most vivid memories of the game when i was very little were the fireworks for a HR and after a win.

5 years ago

‘ the odor of their crooked doings spread over the whole game, and people assumed that because they were manifestly dishonest there was no use in going to see any base-ball’
bad news folks – it is the same today
the dishonesty is just harder to see
ask Nikola Tesla how it works

5 years ago

Any study about ticket prices as to factor in the secondary market, and I am not sure the referenced study does. On the secondary market, tickets are often sold well below face value, creating an avenue of affordability for fans. Also, looking at average ticket prices can be misleading because we have seen a shift away from larger stadiums with more cheap seats toward smaller capacity with more premium seats. That results in a higher average, but doesn’t necessarily reduce affordability as long as the number of cheaper seats remains sufficient to meet demand. What I think we can say is a very good seat in the lower section has become prohibitively expensive, and I am not sure about the degree to which that inhibits the creation of new fans.

5 years ago
Reply to  williamnyy

I live in Los Angeles and routinely get Dodgers tickets for less than $20 on Stubhub and during midweek games, I can get tickets for $6 (excluding fees and taxes). Compare that to the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, the two NFL teams no one wants, and even the two MLS teams and it’s the best bargain in the city. I just saw Ant-Man and the Wasp and had to shell out nearly $20.

5 years ago

Great ideas, i love your article. It gives me more ideas on home to organize my room with my shoes and stuff for my children.Keep up the good work
happy wheels