M’s need to stop price gouging

This article first appeared in the August 2014 of The Grand Salami.

By Jon Wells

Believe it or not, the biggest problem the M’s have had with getting fans to come to Safeco Field the last few years has not been the team’s status as perennial losers. No, the main reason attendance has been down since 2012 is the Mari­ners’ “dynamic ticket pricing” system.

Introduced by the Mari­ners before the 2012 season, dynamic pricing purports to price tickets based on supply and demand. That sure sounds innocent enough; in fact, dynamic pricing has been good for fans in other markets around the country. The St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most successful teams in baseball (10 playoff berths in the last 14 seasons, 2 World Series titles in the last 8 years) had tickets available for $5 or less for 53% of their games last season.

The reason dynamic pricing has worked in other cities is because prices can go up or down in the days and weeks before a game based on the number of tickets available for that particular game. But the Mari­ners, anxious to encourage early-bird ticket buyers, instituted a dynamic pricing scheme that has prices only going up, never down. Simply put, that is not true supply and demand. And without true supply and demand, the system basically amounts to price gouging on the popular dates on the team’s schedule.

The Mari­ners’ inflexible, one-sided system raises prices significantly for games against teams like the Yankees and Red Sox (sometimes double and triple the original ticket prices!) while not lowering prices for less desirable games. For example, if the M’s have 35,000 unsold tickets (out of a capacity of 47,000 at Safeco) for a Wednesday night game against the Astros, refusing to allow a “dynamic” reduction in ticket prices means they’ll still have nearly 35,000 empty seats come gametime. Fans are getting no benefit from this system whatsoever.

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Advertising parody by The Grand Salami

The M’s have seen how charging so much more for certain games has affected their attendance the past few seasons, but they haven’t made appropriate adjustments and accordingly they’ve seen similar results. A series against the World Champion Boston Red Sox in late June (the only Red Sox games in Seattle this year) failed to average 25,000 per game, with one date drawing just 20,015 fans. I’m pretty certain that marking up $42 box seats to $86 and asking for $24 for center field bleachers that typically cost $7 had a lot to do with it. The M’s used to be virtually guaranteed attendance of 40,000 or more whenever the Yankees or Red Sox came to town, but thanks to price gouging, of the six games against New York and Boston this year, just one of them drew a crowd of more than 30,000—and that was certainly due to the Macklemore bobblehead given away that night.

The M’s are having a great season, contending for a playoff spot for the first time in ages. And I’m excited for the pennant race and the potential that the team could reach the postseason for the first time in 13 years. But my fear is that the Mari­ners will use their improved performance to jack up ticket prices for important home games in August and September. How will that affect the Mari­ners’ home field advantage in crucial games against the A’s, Angels, and Blue Jays? Instead of 40,000 screaming fans at those games, will we see crowds in the 25,000 range? I want to see a stadium full of fans excited to root on the best M’s team in a long time rather than a ton of empty seats because the team’s ownership was greedy and myopic.

Think back to 1995 and the Mari­ners’ thrilling run to the playoffs. A team that was drawing less than 20,000 fans per game all year suddenly had 57,000 crazy baseball fans coming to every game at the Kingdome. The noise at those games was deafening. Would the Mari­ners have won 13 of their final 15 home games of the ’95 season without the support they got from the fans at those games? Would they have been able to beat the Yankees three games in a row in the Division Series without a full Kingdome? If the M’s don’t make the postseason in ’95 or don’t beat the Yankees in that playoff series, Safeco Field probably doesn’t get built and the team would likely be playing their home games in some other city.

It’s an exciting year to be a Mari­ners fan, but I want to experience what baseball fans in every other Major League city have experienced. I want a World Series at Safeco Field. Believe it or not, Seattle is the only city with a current MLB franchise that has never hosted a World Series game.

Hopefully, the bean counters in the Mari­ners’ offices will come to their senses and price tickets at reasonable rates for the remainder of this year’s home schedule.