Baseball Nostalgia

It is currently an interesting time to be a New York baseball fan. Both the Mets and Yankees are in their opening seasons of heavily subsidized new stadiums. A common complaint about both of these stadiums is that the seat and food prices are too expensive and—unlike in past times—it is no longer feasible for middle class families to go to games multiple times per year. Wallace Matthews of Newsday critiques the owners for running the teams “as if they were hedge funds.”

I’m moderately sympathetic to this argument. I, for one, do not support using taxpayer money to fund the stadiums of two very profitable organizations. “The Yankees got $1.2 billion in tax-exempt bonds and $136 million in taxable bonds; the Mets got $697 million in tax-free bonds” to build their new stadiums according to Sports Illustrated. But, the Mets and the Yankees are not to blame; they are in business to make profit, so if the government is going to throw money their way, then it doesn’t surprise me that they take it. Ideally, I’d love them to be honorable and not take the funding, but that is too much to expect. The government, on the other hand, has the power to stop disbursing these bonds; the onus is on them to stop giving billions of dollars to already profitable organizations. Accordingly, I have trouble accepting the argument that because Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium are subsidized, they somehow owe the fans—the taxpayers—affordable ticket prices.

What about the argument that attending baseball games is a traditional American pastime? People used to pay a dime to gain entry into a game and owners have a duty to ensure an affordable experience for lower and middle class families. This is a tougher argument to address, especially since it is, of course, desirable for more people to be able to afford to attend games. In fact, selfishly, I’d love for the twenty-five dollar upper deck seats to only cost five dollars. But, to claim that there is some obligation to tradition for tradition’s sake makes little sense. If ticket prices used to be high, then all of a sudden the obligation to offer fans an affordable game experience goes away? The logic behind this argument is weak and based on nostalgia. Access to baseball on TV was quite low in the 1950s and 1960s: You could generally only count on seeing one game on television per week; this game of the week tended to blacked out in large metropolitan areas. Even by 1969, the average number of games televised per team per year was only 43, about ¼ of the games per season. By 1973, this number increased slightly to 47. Fans can now watch virtually every game on television or MLB.tv.

While attending a game at the ballpark can certainly be a fun and memorable experience, so can watching a ballgame on TV given a decent team (believe me, as a Mets fan I understand all too well the significance of this “given”). Robin Ventura’s NLCS grand slam single (which I’m pleasantly surprised has its own Wikipedia page) and Todd Pratt’s NLDS HR in 1999—both of which I watched on TV—are perhaps my most salient and pleasant in-game memories of the Mets.

There is certainly a trade-off: With more TV revenue (and therefore, not being dependent on getting as many fans to the game as possible), teams are able to jack up seat prices and make it more expensive to attend the game. If teams jack up the seat prices too high and demand drops enough (which I suspect may happen with the Mets and Yankees), the owners will need to rethink their pricing plan. But, ultimately Major League teams are just in a different economic situation than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, and this results in a trade-off. We have much better access to games on TV, but it is more expensive to attend the game in person. Is one side of this trade-off clearly better than the other? Do we really want to get nostalgic about the days when you could not watch the vast majority of your team’s games on TV?

One response to this post.

  1. […] not be credited with the foul ball. Bai appeals to the argument from tradition that John S. and I have resisted so strongly in our prior posts. “[A] generations-old lesson in the randomness of […]

    Reply

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