Last Friday, St. Louisans were presented with a rare and special opportunity. That night, the St. Louis Cardinals were going to face the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the 2019 National League Championship Series, in a sporting event that would dominate the national sporting landscape for the night. The downside was that the temperature was to be a bit chilly, in the low-to-mid 40s throughout the game in what was to be a precipitous drop-off from recent norms. The upside was that the market reflected this. Tickets into Busch Stadium that night could be found for $30 a piece on the secondary market, an amount comparable to prices for a regular season game. I, a person who woke up that morning with no intention of going to the game and plans early the next morning, couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The temperature was chilly but not completely brutal, and despite the complete absence of anything resembling a Cardinals offense, I feel like I made the right decision.
But I feel like I made the right decision for me. I didn’t have plans that night. My plans the next day would not require me to get a ton of sleep the night before. I don’t have children, so I didn’t have to get a babysitter. I got off work early enough and live close enough to Busch Stadium that attending the game wasn’t a major logistical headache. I have enough financial security that I could pay close to $100 for a pair of tickets to a baseball game without being concerned how it would impact my bank account–while these tickets were relatively inexpensive when compared to other postseason games, there have most certainly been stages in my life when forking over three figures to attend a sporting event was not a realistic option.
Tickets to Game 1 of the NLCS, and to a lesser extent Game 2 of the NLCS (which I was unable to attend), were noticeably cheaper than tickets for the upcoming games of the series at Nationals Park, which are selling in the hundreds of dollars. The reasons behind this aren’t all that difficult to understand–tonight’s game will be the first game past the League Division Series stage of the playoffs in Washington, D.C. since 1933, the D.C. metropolitan area is over twice as large as that of St. Louis’s, and the game time temperature is expected to be materially warmer.
Intuitively, that tickets are so much cheaper to games at Busch Stadium than at Nationals Park should be considered a perk of living in St. Louis, much as affordable real estate and a generally low cost of living should be considered a perk. It is a declaration so self-evident that it shouldn’t merit a discussion. Would you rather pay ten dollars for a gourmet dinner or eighty dollars for what is fundamentally the exact same dinner?
For generations, a popular refrain has been that tickets to sporting events are too expensive and that price gouging has limited the non-wealthy from attending games in person. But in the era in which online authorized ticket resellers such as StubHub have centralized the secondary ticket market, the opposite mindset has developed. High ticket prices became a badge of honor as a proxy for passion, and low ticket prices became a marker of shame and apathy.
Throughout most of baseball history, packed stadiums have not been the norm. In 1958, the New York Yankees won their ninth pennant in ten seasons and their attendance for the season, at a stadium with a seating capacity of 67,205, was 18,551 fans per game. This mark led the American League–the 114-loss Detroit Tigers averaged more fans per game in 2019. And yet the 1950s are typically perceived as the glory days of Major League Baseball while 2019 baseball media often self-reflects that the sport is dying. And this comes during an era where attendance has never mattered less to the bottom line of Major League Baseball.
In professional sports in general, everything is catered towards the in-home, rather than the in-stadium, experience. If attendance were a priority, every weekday MLB playoff game would be played at or near 7 p.m. local time rather than being sprinkled throughout the day so that TBS can broadcast baseball continuously for an entire day rather than airing The King of Queens reruns in the late afternoon. If attendance were a priority, the start time of Game 4 of the Cardinals/Braves NLDS series would have been announced when the series was announced, rather than the work day before the game was played (while I would have loved to skip out of work early on a Monday afternoon to head down to the game, this wasn’t a realistic option when I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to mention it to my boss before that day–that the game did not sell out was absolutely more a reflection of the game’s timing than, as “has literally never had a job that didn’t revolve around the baseball schedule” Mike Shannon theorized, “the fans giving up on the team”). If attendance were a priority, rather than working around Fox’s competing NFL broadcasting rights, last night’s New York Yankees at Houston Astros game would’ve started earlier in the day and not put in a position to end around midnight local time (and around 1 a.m. for visiting fans).
Professional sports teams are quite adept at weaponizing fan obligation. Taxpayers have spent tens of billions of dollars furnishing new stadiums for privately-held professional teams under threat of relocation–St. Louis learned this experience first-hand four years ago, after the National Football League had milked 22 new stadiums during the time the nation’s second-largest market was without a team and constantly used as a credible alternative to extort cities. Now, there is essentially zero threat of St. Louis losing its baseball team any time soon, and even if there were, there isn’t a market anywhere close to as desirable as Los Angeles to use to hold taxpayers hostage, but the knowledge of what has happened, most recently in basball with regard to the former Montreal Expos, still looms heavily.
But luckily, for team owners, plenty of fans are willing to do the dirty work for them. Relatively little sympathy is given to fans of the Tampa Bay Rays for the lack of attendance at an aesthetically awful stadium that is located half an hour from the area’s main population center, hosting a team that consistently has a payroll near the bottom of the league as run by an organization that openly trumpets its own cost-cutting strategies as a far bigger part of its identity than having long-time star players. When the Cardinals didn’t sell out Game 4 of the NLDS last week, it wasn’t as though the team itself or Major League Baseball openly complained about it. But the deeply American value of cheerleading for billionaires went into full force and continued through the Friday and Saturday games.
Let me say this as forcefully and emphatically as I can–whether you attend a game or not has absolutely no impact on the on-field product of the St. Louis Cardinals. It has absolutely no impact on the long-term health of the organization. The most expensive season tickets at Busch Stadium are in the Diamond Boxes, the sections immediately behind the dugouts, and it would require you to purchase 73 of those season tickets just to cover the annual salary of a player making the league minimum. MLB teams make hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue before they ever sell a single ticket. Baseball hasn’t quite gotten to the point of the NFL, where each team’s shared television revenue exceeds the league’s salary cap by tens of millions of dollars and thus it is borderline impossible to not earn a profit, but it’s not that far off of it. Baseball teams are an extremely safe moneymaking investment for billionaires. They don’t need your help.
And to reiterate–I’m not saying “don’t attend games”. I attended Game 1 of the NLCS, and if the series gets back to St. Louis on Friday and/or Saturday night, I would gladly attend again if similarly inexpensive tickets can be found. But I would be attending because I enjoy going to baseball games and I have the personal and financial flexibility to do so. Being able to go to playoff games and it not costing me an arm and a leg is a feature of living in the St. Louis area, not a bug. Every city should be so lucky.