Baseball-Playoff Seats Get Harder to Score

By Russell Adams, The Wall Street Journal
Posted date: 09/27/2006

Baseball is a game of numbers, but some new statistics this playoff season may spell frustration for rank-and-file fans.

With more demand from season-ticket holders and sponsors, and with stadiums getting smaller, there are fewer postseason tickets left for the general public this year. The St. Louis Cardinals, who are leading in the National League Central race, made only about 3,000 seats a game available for each of their potential home playoff games; last year, they made 14,000 tickets available for their first-round games. This week, the Los Angeles Dodgers – who were battling for a wild-card berth in the National League – held a public sale of about 10,000 seats a game for the first round of the playoffs, a significant drop from the 15,000 tickets for the opening round in 2004, the last time the Dodgers reached the postseason.

What's more, fans who are able to get seats will be paying more for them, thanks to Major League Baseball, which sets a suggested price range for playoff tickets. Regular box seats for the World Series are selling this year for a percent increase over last year and more than league-mandated $250 apiece, a 35 triple the price a decade ago. For the earlier rounds of the playoffs, the league increased by as much as 10 percent the suggested price for tickets.

Fans who can't get their hands on seats through the teams are increasingly using secondary ticketing services that have made it easier, if more expensive, to get into big events. But here, too, there is new pressure on supply. The New York Yankees, the American League East champions, recently revoked the season tickets of fans who sold their unused tickets on some of these sites, and other teams could follow suit.

The scarcity of playoff tickets has been an issue for years in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, where fewer games and smaller arenas, respectively, shrink the supply of tickets. Many NFL teams have only a tiny fraction of their playoff tickets left for the public. And by the time the league distributed 2006 Super Bowl tickets to players, coaches, VIPs and sponsors, each participating team was left with only about 18 percent of the available tickets, which sold for $600 and $700 apiece.

But it is a newer phenomenon for baseball. Fans unable or unwilling to buy season-ticket packages have long been able to land playoff tickets if they were willing to endure a night or two camped outside of the box office. These sales are increasingly rare, however, as teams instead use online lotteries or set aside blocks of time during which fans can try to buy tickets on the Internet or over the phone.

Cardinals fan Andrew Ozgeylani has been trolling ticket-resale Web sites since getting shut out of the team's lottery. The 19-year-old college student from Toronto remembers in 2004 when it took him just a few minutes on the phone with the Cardinals' ticket office to get a seat for a National League Championship Series game. "It's gotten a lot harder," he says.

The fact that a number of the league's newest parks can't hold as many people doesn't make things any easier for fans such as Ozgeylani. The new Busch Stadium in St. Louis has about 5,000 fewer seats than the old one, and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia is nearly 20,000 seats smaller than its predecessor.

But a big factor in many cases is the push by baseball teams to sell more season tickets by offering them in smaller packages and with extra perks, including early dibs on playoff seats. Some teams now offer a half-dozen different season-ticket packages – including ones for as few as six games. Since 2004, the Dodgers have grown their season-ticket base to the equivalent of more than 26,000 full-season ticket holders, from 20,000. (The Dodgers say they left "plenty of seats available" to the general public for the playoffs.") The New York Mets this season increased season-ticket sales by more than 26 percent over last year.

"You have to accommodate the plan-holders first," says Dave Howard, executive vice president of business operations for the Mets, who clinched the National League East championship last week. The team, he says, has slightly fewer seats available to the public than for the 2000 playoffs, although he says it's within the same 10,000-15,000-a-game range.

Other teams are also tight-lipped about how they distribute their tickets. The Minnesota Twins and Yankees, among others, declined to offer specific numbers on playoff-ticket availability. But executives from most of this year's likely playoff teams, including the Yankees, say they are leaving aside fewer tickets for the general public.

In some cities, fans don't have quite as many season-ticket holders to compete with. The Detroit Tigers lead the American League Central and have secured a playoff berth. But they are only three years removed from a 119- loss season and have seen their season-ticket base erode significantly. The same goes for the Minnesota Twins, who play in a huge stadium and consistently draw sparse crowds.

But even those teams say a rise in ticket-plan holders could soon force them to make some tough decisions. The Tigers, which currently give 21-game plan-holders the opportunity to buy tickets for every playoff game, will have to re-evaluate that policy next season, when they expect demand to soar, says Bob Raymond, the team's vice president of marketing and ticket sales. "We just won't have enough inventory to take care of everybody," he says.

More-enterprising fans improve their chances by getting friends and family members to help them hit the redial button during limited phone sales. The safest – but priciest – bet is one of the secondary ticketing sites, where prices typically start at double the face value of the tickets.

Sites such as StubHub, eBay and RazorGator host online marketplaces that bring together individual buyers and sellers, while others, such as TicketsNow, list tickets only from licensed brokers. A growing number of these secondary ticketing companies are partnering with sports teams, and primary ticketing companies such as Ticketmaster are increasingly offering resale services to their team partners.

After the Mets clinched a berth in this year's playoffs, Dan Asnis resolved to get tickets any way he could. First, the retail salesman from South Brunswick, N.J., joined more than 600,000 people who have now registered for the postseason lottery. Denied, Asnis turned to the resale market, where he paid about three times face value – or $138.45, including surcharges – for a ticket to the Mets' second home playoff game.

Then he discovered he had won a second lottery and was eligible to buy two tickets. He did, but it was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory: His two seats, in the upper deck, are at opposite ends of the stadium.

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