Saturday, January 19, 2002

Ticket price won't keep fans away


By John Erardi and John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Baseball fans know the drill all too well: Their team gets a new ballpark, and ticket prices take off.

        The Cincinnati Reds, facing some of the most enthusiastic but skeptical fans in all of baseball, decided to take a cautious, conservative approach to their cutting-edge new ballpark.

        The team Friday announced ticket prices for 2003, its first year in Great American Ball Park, and the prices — spread across 12 “neighborhoods” in the stadium — are on the low end of where they might have been.

        “It was extremely important to us that we maintain affordability,” said John Allen, the team's chief operating officer. “The Cincinnati Reds have long been know for keeping our average ticket price reasonable, making it affordable for all of our fans and having a variety of ticket prices. We feel very strongly we've been able to do that.”

        The Reds helped themselves by ramping up tickets prices for the best seats at Cinergy Field for the last few seasons. It was a lesson well-learned from the Cleveland Indians: Raise prices gradually and avoid giving fans a case of sticker shock.

        Comparing the Reds to 14 other teams that have opened new ballparks over the last decade, Mr. Allen is right. The Reds do come in at the low end by comparison. An example: The best seats in the ballpark (that are not corporate-priced club seats) are the infield box seats, on the field level between the bases. Among 14 teams that have taken up residence in new ballparks over the past decade, those seats average $35, ranging from $25 in Tampa to $40 in Cleveland.

        In Great American Ball Park, that's a $30 seat — $2 less than it is in Cinergy Field. Does that make sense? Mr. Allen says yes. There are more of those seats in Great American than in Cinergy, so the team will still make more money. The average ticket price in the new ballpark will be about $21, about a third higher than the $16 average this year in Cinergy Field.

        But that average is pulled up by the corporate-priced club seats, from $42 to $175. Some 90 percent of the seats are $30 or less; 60 percent are $16 or less.

        The Reds want to keep this affordable, at least for the first year. “We didn't just wing it on these ticket prices,” Mr. Allen said. “We did a lot of research. We hope we did it right.”

        Compared to other ballparks, the first-year prices at Great American probably won't keep fans away. And fans are already showing they're eager for a change of scenery.

        The 61 luxury suites, costing $50,000 to $125,000 a year plus tickets, sold out in 37 days two years ago. The 312 $175 Diamond seats behind home plate are also sold out, as are the $50 clubs.

        Mr. Allen said sales of the $42 club seats, on a second tier along the first-base foul line, could be better. But the team only began selling them Oct. 11 and hasn't begun to market them beyond the current base of season ticket holders.

        If fans fall in love with the ballpark — as they have in Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore — the Reds have plenty of room to raise prices in the future.

        Teams continually tinker with prices. In Pittsburgh, the fans fell in love with the outfield bleacher seats, so the Pirates raised them from $12 to $15 in right field and from $16 to $18 in left. Sometimes what were thought to be lackluster seats turn out to be popular. Sometimes, the converse.

        What began as a $7 bleacher seat in Seattle when Safeco Field opened was $12 only two years later. The Brewers underestimated the popularity of the $1 Uecker seats, high in the upper deck behind home.

        Mr. Allen concurred that the Reds will adjust prices, and the ones fans love the most will probably jump most in price. “Until it actually happens, you don't know for sure how these "neighborhoods' (inside the ballpark) are going to develop,” he said.

        There is much about the park fans may well love.

        Not since the days of Crosley Field — and in some cases, not even there — have fans seen seats as good as these. Fans haven't seen low-level, right-field seats this good since the days of the Sun Deck/Moon Deck at Crosley, which closed in 1970.

        The lower-tier seats in left field are so good, the view is bound to lure some season ticket holders into relocating there. There have never been low-level left field seats this good in Cincinnati. But Mr. Allen said Reds would not sell season tickets in the outfield. Those are for individual-game ticket buyers.

The Notch

        Because the Reds designed a gap in the upper deck above third base, the second deck and upper deck are situated lower, closer to the field.

        “We think those are going to be some pretty fantastic seats,” Mr. Allen said. “People are going to be able to watch the field, river and have a look at downtown. They're going to be pretty cool.”

Left-Field Bleachers
        These are the second-deck seats in left field. They are the only bleacher seats in the park, $10 apiece. They will comprise their own unique neighborhood, because of the hard-bottom bench-type seats with backs and because the upper left-field corner will feature a brew-pub restaurant called “The Machine Room.”

        “I can see being out there in the bleachers on a nice sunny day and just sitting back and enjoying everything,” Mr. Allen said. “It has to be a relatively inexpensive seat because fans there are underneath the scoreboard. We'll have LED ribbon boards all the way around the facade of the stadium. And this ballpark is going to have more TVs than H.H. Gregg. There are 300-plus TVs.”

        How many are in Cinergy?

        “It can't be over a hundred,” he said.

Places to hang out

        There will be several spots for fans to gather informally. They define a ballpark's “happening” quotient. The Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium does a good job of accounting for these. So do most of the new baseball parks, especially those in Baltimore, Texas, Seattle and Atlanta.

        There will be a good spot in front of the Machine Room in upper left field. It will have a patio-type feel — some high-top tables to stand about, set your food and beverages, and have a laugh with people around you. There will also be room on the bridge connecting the upper decks at “The Notch” for several hundred people to stand.

        “It's pretty wide,” Mr. Allen said. “We'll have to meet all the safety standards and control ... but I think it's going to be a pretty fun area to watch the game. ... These (gathering spots) help create the atmosphere” in a ballpark.

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