The Baseball Stat You Don't Want to See ; as Owners Pay Top Dollar for Players, Ticket Prices Rise, Threatening Baseball's Enduring Status as the Last Affordable Professional Sport

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Standing in shade beneath Dodger Stadium's center field scoreboard, Juan Gutierrez explains why his family of four will only be in the stands for two games this season.

"Parking costs more, food costs more ... I just can't afford it," says Mr. Gutierrez, holding up four $30 tickets as sounds of organ music and the smell of hot dogs waft into the palm-lined parking lot. "I used to come 10 to 15 times a year, but now, forget it."

As Major League Baseball fans from here to Boston converge on their favorite ballparks for the new season, they are running into sticker shock even as many franchises say they are reaching out with new ideas to attract fans.

On average, a family of four will spend $155.52 for a day at big- league ballparks this year, up nearly 3 percent from 2003, according to a new study by Team Marketing Research in Chicago. Philadelphia Phillies fans will pay $188 (family of four), up more than 25 percent from last year. And even the bargain basement Montreal Expos - the league's least expensive team - will sock families for $100.

At the same time that they shrug and rationalize such figures as "market driven," sports industry analysts say they worry that America's favorite pastime is becoming elitist.

"We are pricing the poorer population of America out of the national game," says Peter Roby, president of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University. He says statistics show participation in baseball reflect a steady decline for 15 straight years.

"Players used to live in the same neighborhoods as their fans," he says. "Now we have the alienation gap with fans increasingly resenting astronomic salaries, performance-enhancing drugs, and socially aberrant behavior by players."

Baseball owners say they are doing all they can to keep their ball parks attractive while offering enough discounts and deals to fill seats. They say they try to buffer the costs of tickets - which cover, on average, only about a third of total costs to run their franchises - by making deals with broadcasters and advertisers. To up the appeal of their teams to brand advertisers and TV networks they have to spend money for the best players.

New Angel owner, Arturo Moreno, for instance recently doled out $146 million for just two players (Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon), almost as much as the $183 million he spent to field the entire team last year.

"By no means are ticket payers shelling out enough to pay for these guys," says Robert Alvarado of the Angels' front office. "At the same time we are signing top-dollar players to attract broadcasters and corporate advertisers, we are trying to send at least some ticket prices in the other direction."

Although overall Angel ticket prices have gone up nearly 4 percent over the past year, the team is trying to cut ancillary costs such as the price of beer, programs, and souvenir caps. They are creating more kinds of family packages that include food, beverage, and tickets and offering more nights for children when general admission prices drop to $3. …