MLB’s attendance, you might have heard, was down last year, around four percent by season’s end. The league’s front office, represented by anthropomorphized wet blanket Rob Manfred, has operated under the assumption that pace of play is the issue, arguing that “putting the best entertainment product on the field” would bring attendance back up. There are of course other ways to explain such a drop in attendance, but those are topics Manfred doesn’t really want to broach in public. One issue is that more teams than ever are more willing than ever to put a non-competitive product on the field. Another is that MLB teams across the country have ensured that the actual experience of attending a baseball game is increasingly laden with hassle and expense.
The most recent example of a team squeezing fans from every angle possible can be found in the Washington Nationals’ bag ban. Joining in the American tradition of impeding ease of access to public spaces through feckless security theater, the Nats announced that backpacks will no longer be allowed in the stadium. “The bag policy was created for the safety of all our guests,” explained the team in a statement, ignoring the fact that there is scant evidence that such security measures actually make anyone safer. What is certain, though, is that the Nats’ bag ban will inconvenience fans while separating them from more of their money.
The Nationals waited more than a month after announcing the ban to reveal that they had partnered with D.C-based startup Binbox to “make 500 medium- and large-sized storage lockers available” in which to store bags that won’t be allowed in the stadium. Binbox, in the laudable startup tradition of providing an already existing service but in a more complicated and expensive fashion, offers a baffling pricing scheme of “$2 per hour, charged in six-minute increments.” Also, payments have to be processed through an app called Stripe, so now fans can look forward to downloading a useless app they’ll never otherwise need and stressing out over each pitching change that threatens to extend the game by another six minutes. Dumber still is the fact that, according to the Washington Post, backpacks will need to be searched by a security staffer before they can be placed in the Binbox, which should make you wonder why a bag that’s been deemed safe by security is somehow still too dangerous to bring into the stadium.
The Nationals’ bag ban may not seem like a huge deal on its own—the Cardinals quietly implemented a similar rule in 2017, after all—but the cash grab here is brazen, and it’s just the latest in a slew of developments that promise to make MLB stadiums less hospitable to the very fans they are meant to entertain.
The average cost of an MLB ticket rose to $32.99 in 2019, a 48-percent increase since 2006, far outstripping the 25.4-percent inflation rate over the same period. The Dodgers, after charging $60 for gate parking during the World Series last year, hiked in-season gate rates to start at $25. The Nationals, in addition to the bag ban, do not offer a parking option cheaper than $20, and that one is four-fifths of a mile from the stadium—it will cost $48 to park in one of the lots directly across from Nationals Park, plus a $6 fee to purchase either pass online. Third-party parking options exist, but most involve walking distances that are simply unfeasible for many, particularly families. Meanwhile, stadium concession prices have risen to insulting levels, even considering the minuscule decrease to the average cost for a beer ($5.97), hot dog ($4.95), and soda ($4.60) in the 2019 season, per Team Marketing Report.
The use of personal seat licenses (PSLs), a nasty practice pioneered by the NFL wherein a fan pays a fee for the privilege of then purchasing season tickets, has also been quietly implemented by the Diamondbacks, Twins, Padres, Giants, and Cardinals in recent years. Fan derision kept the Rangers from instituting PSLs at their new ballpark that will be opening next year, but there was no saving them from a heavy increase in season ticket prices. One 25-year season ticket holder told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that his per-game ticket price will be increasing from $25 to $200 when the new stadium opens.
Teams love to talk about how new and renovated stadiums will greatly improve the fan experience, but the primary purpose of such improvements is always to extract more money from fans. Each new season brings another set of teams adding premium fan clubs to their stadiums, which are enclosed spaces separated from the regular concourses and seating areas that are only accessible to fans who have purchased a certain tier of ticket. These areas, which teams can sell the lucrative naming rights to, are meant to offer fans an elevated experience, complete with fine-dining options and craft cocktails. The Chicago Cubs are set to open three such clubs this season, and the Indians are set to complete renovations on their stadium (in part funded with $2.9 million of public funds collected from a “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes for repairs to Progressive Field), which include a luxury “Club Lounge” only accessible to season ticket holders, who will pay at least $62.75 per game for the privilege of watching the game on “two arrays of nine 75-inch TVs.”
Perhaps there are fans out there who want to go to a baseball game and spend the afternoon watching the game in a replacement-level sports bar while munching on a $15 bison burger or easy-bake dessert, but the more obvious answer to the question of why these clubs are becoming so prevalent is that they allow teams to bake higher costs into ticket prices. For example, let’s say you buy a ticket to see the Mets play at their home stadium. You may not even realize until reading the fine print that your $65.00 ticket includes access to the Foxwoods Club. You never really asked for or wanted access to the Foxwoods Club, but now you have it, and so in the fourth inning you decide to walk over and see what it’s about. What you will find is a large room that that looks like an airport bar and contains all the charm of a mall food court. You’ll be able to buy sushi in there, which you can enjoy while watching the Mets lose on a television screen affixed to a pole near one of the trash cans. If you’re disappointed by the concessions offered in this exclusive and luxurious sector of the stadium, it’s probably because the Mets’ executive chef is busy brainstorming their latest batch of disgusting and overpriced stunt food, which won’t be designed to be enjoyed by fans, but to be talked about and promoted by shills in the media. Eventually, you’ll return to your seat, forced to wonder if a brief trip to the Foxwoods Club was worth the increase in the ticket price that you probably didn’t even realize you were paying.
If onerous security measures, overpriced tickets, and mediocre in-stadium sports bars presently define the experience of going to a baseball game, then the Rays are ready to show us yet another inconvenience that may help define the future. The Rays announced earlier this year that their stadium will be going completely cashless this season. Arguments for doing so tend to be forwarded on the premise that it makes purchasing items inside the stadium more secure, faster, and easier for customers. Rays Vice President of Strategy and Development, William Walsh, argued the change “will increase speed of service and reduce lines throughout the ballpark.” Even if we accept that the angry beep of the card reader and fumbling movements of newly-minted Apple Pay users will make lines move faster, it’s impossible to ignore the piece of the plan that comes dangerously close to straight-up scamming. Fans who still want to be able to use cash inside the stadium will have to use their dollars to purchase a Rays gift card, available in $10 or $20 increments only. This is a policy that near-expressly indicates a hope on management’s behalf that fans will either leave a balance on their card and have to come back to use it again, or scramble to spend extra money that they hadn’t originally planned on spending as the game comes to an end.
An article in Venues Now, which includes numerous quotes from Walsh, posits two factors beyond transaction speed that may have played a role in the Rays’ decision: going cashless “also reduces employee theft, according to teams and vendors” (the article gives no proof for this bold claim), and “digital technology enables teams and concessionaires to gain more information about their customers to improve their experience and generate incremental revenue through upsells and promotions.” The promise of shorter concession lines is a great selling point to pitch to fans, but just as is the case with the proliferation of premium clubs, the real motivations behind the change have little to do with making fans happier. The Rays want their fans to spend more money while thinking less about how much they are spending, and they want the data necessary to upsell them in the future. It seems the practice will catch on: The home arena of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC announced and adopted the policy shortly after the Rays did, and now the Mariners will have “cashless pay points” throughout their newly branded park this season.
These sorts of changes and additions to the gameday experience may not be things that will routinely ruin anyone’s day at the ballpark, but they each exist as points in the same constellation that, when examined in its totality, reveals the overall experience of going to an MLB game to have been getting increasingly and subtly worse. Let’s imagine a family of four trying to go to a baseball game a few years from now. Opening Day, 2021: four tickets cost $132 on average in 2019, so let’s say this family paid $150 per ticket. Kids have little legs, so they will need to park close: add another $50. After struggling to bring up their e-tickets on a single phone at the gate (the team recently phased out all paper tickets), our family will be informed their backpack is a no-go, and they’ll have to spend $20 to rent a Binbox. Finally, after making it into the stadium, it’s time to buy food. Hot dogs and peanuts for four, plus beer and sodas for two each will likely crest $40, and that’s assuming the parents are okay with cans of cheap frat-party beer. (For a pour of the local microbrew, it will be more like $15 each. We’ll say the conscientious parents share one.) Our imagined family had better have their credit card, too, or else they’ll need to load their cash onto a gift card before buying anything in the stadium. Maybe they will be lucky enough to have access to the State Farm-Geico Rewards Club, which the e-ticketing app will remind them of along with directions to the team store. After meandering through the State Farm-Geico Rewards Club so as not to feel like they have missed out on any perks available to them, the parents limit their children to the choice of one $25 stunt food to split. When our family returns to their seats with their Mac and Cheese Pizza Nachos just after missing a home run, they will have already spent a small fortune. If they decide not to attend another game for the rest of the season, it’s unlikely that pace of play will be a determining factor.