Take me out to the ball game

Take me out to the ball game

Some say the experience of going to a Major League Baseball game is priceless. And once you see your kid take in the size of that huge, green field or feel the hot sun burning the bridge of your nose while you finish a lukewarm beer and yell at no player in particular, you have to agree.

Once we stop kidding ourselves, though, we realize that Major League teams don’t exist solely to distribute warm memories and inebriated high-fives, and that you can indeed pay a pretty remarkable price for this experience. Teams are businesses, after all, and many of them do just fine on account of our desire to show our favorite baseball teams some love.

As businesses, they also understand the importance of providing value to their fans, and in terms of dollars and cents, some teams do a remarkably better job than others.

Team Marketing Report, a sports marketing firm that surveyed all 30 Major League clubs on fan costs at the start of the season, developed the Fan Cost Index, which takes into account four adult tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four regular hot dogs, two programs, two of the least expensive adjustable hats and parking for one car at the ballpark. Though teams introduce various promotions throughout the season, the index provides a fairly consistent snapshot of the league’s prices.

Believe it or not, there’s affordable baseball to be watched. Keep in mind that winning is not part of the Fan Cost Index, but these parks still offer the most bang for the buck.

Tampa Bay Rays, Tropicana Field

Tampa Bay Rays, Tropicana Field

When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays joined the league in 1998 in a neglected sports complex, sporting a lineup including Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff, and a team logo reminiscent of an old Nintendo cartridge, it all seemed like a hilarious straight-to-DVD movie. Instead, they went straight to last place for several years.

Now called the Rays and with a sharp new logo, the team is consistently competitive and still one of the most affordable park experiences in baseball, with a Fan Cost Index of $139.68 — fifth lowest.

“The biggest factor is the importance that we place on being a leading source of family entertainment in the Tampa Bay region,” says Brian Richeson, vice president, sales and service. “Our fans have become accustomed to seeing a very exciting brand of baseball, and this year is no different.”

Richeson cites a significant reliance on fan feedback to improve the park experience, resulting in tickets starting at $9, an all-you-can-drink soda special and a pregame $3 Budweiser Happy Hour. Sundays offer The St. Petersburg Times Family Fun Days, which Richeson says is very popular, providing a lower-level ticket, hot dog, soda and snack for $22.

Despite team performance and attractive pricing, the Rays still struggle with an attendance in the bottom 30 percent of baseball, and The Tampa Tribune reported that the once-strong TV ratings are down by more than 30 percent. With plans for a new stadium stuck in limbo, someone should really call Wade Boggs about that movie script.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Angel Stadium

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Angel Stadium

There was a time when you’d be forgiven if you attended an Angels game in Anaheim, Calif., or Los Angeles, and expected to see a kid next to Danny Glover flapping his arms in the bleachers.

But reality has Arte Moreno taking over ownership from Disney in 2003 and ushering in an era of significant fan-friendliness, including what is still the most affordable ballpark experience in the American League, with a Fan Cost Index of $129.50.

The big word around town at the time of Moreno’s takeover was the announcement of lowered beer prices at the park, and sure enough, they’re still among the least expensive in the majors at $4.50 a piece. The overall effort, however, was to make the ballpark as family friendly as possible.

“We’ve not deviated from our strategy on pricing,” says Robert Alvarado, vice president of marketing and ticket sales for the Angels. “We want to provide the baseball experience to as many people as possible.”

As a result, the Angels employ such specials as $5 tickets for fans 18 and under and a family special for $44 (which includes four tickets, four hot dogs and four small sodas).

Pittsburgh Pirates, PNC Park

Pittsburgh Pirates, PNC Park

The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season, their fans were high-fiving to the top three singles of the year, which were by, in order: Boyz II Men, Sir Mix-A-lot and Kris Kross. That was 1992. Nineteen years and more than 1,650 losses later, it seems they’ve come to the end of the road for 100-loss seasons.

One silver lining for Pirates fans, though, is PNC Park, which opened 10 years ago on the shores of the Allegheny River and is regarded as one of the most beautiful ballparks, with the yellow Roberto Clemente Bridge rising behind the outfield. The park is also one of the most affordable in baseball, with a Fan Cost Index of $127.71 — the third-lowest in the league.

The average regular ticket price of $15.30 to start the season beat out every other team.

In a vacuum, attendance would not be an issue at a great ballpark in a big sports town. Alas, the Pirates ranked 27th in the majors in attendance last year, more than 10,000 per game below the league average.

There is more optimism than in recent seasons with the progression of the Pirates as a team, but PNC is a good major league deal regardless of records, with some of the lowest average prices for hot dogs ($2.75), soda ($2.75) and beer ($5). And speaking of records, the Pirates own one with the most consecutive losing seasons, which reached 18 last year.

San Diego Padres, Petco Park

San Diego Padres, Petco Park

It seems that every year there is a Cinderella story in baseball. Last fall, the Padres rode an unexpected run of solid performances and gritty play to just miss the playoffs, in the final game of the season. This year the San Diego baseball team hasn’t fared as well, but that hasn’t stopped fans from showing up.

Despite not repeating last year’s heroics, attendance is up so far in 2011, according to team president and COO Tom Garfinkel. It certainly helps that Petco Park has the second lowest Fan Cost Index at $125.81, down 6.5 percent from last year’s figure.

When Garfinkel and lead owner Jeff Moorad took over in 2009, they responded quickly to fan feedback on a perceived lack of value at the park, resulting in deals such as introducing $5 beers and kid’s meals last season (independently, of course), $7 caps and free programs. Additionally, more than a third of all seats at Petco are less than $18 and regular special pricing is available to San Diego’s large military population.

“Ultimately, pricing is a function of supply and demand, and when we arrived in 2009, supply was high and demand was at an all-time low for Petco Park,” Garfinkel says. “While we are encouraged at the results we have seen so far, we have much more work to do to get where we would like to be.”

Garfinkel says the Padres don’t anticipate team performance when setting pricing, instead focusing on consistent value to fans.

Arizona Diamondbacks, Chase Field

Arizona Diamondbacks, Chase Field

Try going back in time to the days of polo grounds, handlebar mustaches and player nicknames like “Old Tomato Face” and explaining to baseball enthusiasts then that there is a team in the desert that plays in a stadium with a giant retractable roof. Also, there’s a pool.

Opening in 1998 for the expansion Diamondbacks and hosting the 2011 All-Star Game, Chase Field is an enormous presence to watch a game in, drawing comparisons to an airplane hangar. It is also the cheapest overall park experience this year, according to Team Marketing Report, with a Fan Cost Index of only $120.96. That’s about a third of the price that it costs to go to a Yankees game.

The Diamondbacks are playing above many preseason expectations, but John Fisher, senior vice president, ticket sales and marketing, says buying trends are most important in price setting.

“We begin our renewal process in August of each year,” Fisher says, “so our season ticket pricing is set long before we even know how the team finishes the season on the field.”

Then there’s the pool. Purists may (and do) scoff at the concept of heckling the center fielder wearing nothing but trunks and a grin, but when you live in a scorching desert that NASA considers “a good stand-in” for tests on Mars, it must make sense. Fisher says the pool area, which goes for $3,500 per game, sold out for the season in late May, with some popular games selling at more than $4,000.

Chase Field offers the D-backs Pepsi Max Value Pack, which for $19 covers the cost of a bleacher seat, soda, hot dog and a voucher for 20-ounce Pepsi Max. (There’s also a $15 kids’ version.)