The Nuts And Bolts Of Variable And Dynamic Pricing

With fewer than three months until Opening Day, major league teams are revving up their ticket-sales operations. For nearly all teams, that means working to attract new season-ticket holders, as well as single-game and mini-plan ticket buyers. Only the Giants, Red Sox and Cubs have waiting lists to become season-ticket holders. Even the Phillies — which saw a 257-game home sell-out streak end last August — are selling partial season-ticket plans on their website.

Teams use a variety of marketing tools and incentives to attract ticket buyers. There are bobble-head giveaways, fireworks nights and bring-your-dog-to-the-park days. There are food coupons and discounts at the team merchandise store. But I want to focus on the basics: the day and time of game, the opponent and the ticket price. Teams use these factors in a variety of ways to drive ticket sales and maximize ticket revenue.

We’ve heard the terms “variable pricing” and “dynamic pricing.” Occasionally, they’ve been used interchangeably, although they apply to different pricing strategies.

With variable pricing (sometimes called tiered pricing), teams set different prices for the same ballpark seat, depending on the day and the time of the game and the popularity of the opponent. Variable prices are set before the season begins. The goal is to drive demand for certain games with low prices and maximize ticket revenue for high-demand games with high ticket prices.

For example, the Mariners divide their home games into four levels: Single, Double, Triple and Home Run. Games designated “Single” are Tuesday and Wednesday evenings against teams that don’t draw big crowds (Astros, A’s, Tigers and Royals). Tickets for these games are the least expensive ones available all season. “Home Run” games include Opening Day, and series against the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs. Those are the most expensive. “Double” and “Triple” game ticket prices fall somewhere in between.

Most teams use variable pricing of some sort, particularly with mini-plans. Weekend game mini-plans are more expensive than weekday game mini-plans, for the same number of games, and for the same seats. The same may very well be true for single-game tickets, although that’s difficult to verify because many teams haven’t listed prices for single-game tickets or put single-game tickets on sale for the coming season.

But some teams use variable pricing even for full-time season-ticket holders — the fans who purchase season tickets to all 81 home games. The Mariners are one such team, and they say so explicitly on their website. Same with the Twins, Braves and Mets. But for other teams, that information isn’t as readily available. I’m a Giants season-ticket holder, so I know San Francisco uses variable pricing for season tickets, even though that information is not available on the team website. Season-ticket holders for the Cubs provided me with a chart that shows variable pricing tiers for a full season of tickets at Wrigley Field. Rays, Phillies and Cardinals fans reported variable pricing for their full season-tickets, as well.

Dynamic pricing uses algorithms to measure demand and price sensitivity to a particular game on a real-time basis. Many factors are considered, including the weather, a winning or hitting streak, the debut of a hot prospect and the price tickets are selling for on the secondary market, like StubHub. Pricing consultants crunch the numbers and then the teams to decide whether to raise or lower the ticket price for a particular game and by how much.

The Giants were the first to adopt dynamic pricing for single-game tickets. In 2009, the team used dynamic pricing on 2,000 seats in the upper deck and bleachers at AT&T Park. They sold an estimated 25,000 additional tickets, for an additional $500,000 in revenue. In 2010, the Giants expanded the program to all ballpark seats and it’s been quite successful in the past three seasons. The Giants think the dynamic pricing model helped the team’s sellout streak, which now is at more than 155 games.

After the Giants’ success, the A’s and Cardinals adopted dynamic pricing for single-game tickets. Then the Padres and Braves joined the bandwagon. By the 2012 season, 17 out of 30 MLB teams used dynamic pricing in some fashion, according to TicketNews. In addition to these fives teams, I was able to confirm that the Blue Jays, Twins, Rangers, Phillies, Pirates, Cubs, Brewers, Diamondbacks and Rockies also use some form of dynamic pricing. I do not know the three other teams that used dynamic pricing in 2012.

Major League Baseball, through MLB Advanced Media, maintains a common platform for ticket sales, but each team makes its own ticket-price decisions, whether it be variable pricing, dynamic pricing, mini-plans or flex plans. According to Mark Plutzer, Vice President for Ticketing, MLBAM helps teams interested in dynamic pricing by vetting the pricing consultants but, ultimately, the decision on whether to use dynamic pricing and with which vendor is the team’s to make. Plutzer identified four pricing consultants currently used by MLB teams: Qcue, Digonex, Stratbridge, and Ticketmaster.

Plutzer wasn’t in a position to identify which teams will use dynamic pricing in 2013 but there’s no doubt it’s a growing trend. In fact, dynamic pricing is one of several tools teams can use to capture ticket sales lost to StubHub, MLB’s official secondary-market ticket partner. By monitoring ticket prices on StubHub, and incorporating that information in their dynamic pricing algorithm, teams can adjust their ticket prices to better reflect real-time supply and demand. In other words, when the secondary market has tickets available for $5 for a Tuesday night game in August, a team with hundreds or thousands of tickets available can compete by lowering its ticket prices and offering other benefits, like food coupons or vouchers for future game tickets.

Gone are the days of one-price-fits-all for major league games. Teams have a variety of tools available to more precisely meet the demand for tickets at the right price. With league-wide attendance somewhat stagnant in 2012 (putting aside the bump from the opening of the Marlins’ new ballpark), teams will continue to look for creative, cost-effective, and revenue-maximizing ways to get more fans out to the ballpark. Most teams, anyway. The Yankees, so far, have resisted a move toward dynamic pricing, despite having the loudest complaints about MLB’s contract with StubHub. Indeed, the Yankees opted-out of the latest MLB-StubHub arrangement and will work with Ticketmaster on the secondary-ticket market instead. (The Angels and Cubs opted-out, as well.) It will be interesting to see whether the Ticketmaster arrangement will stabilize the Yankees’ single-game ticket sales.

And the fans? No one likes paying more for the same product. But StubHub and other secondary-market ticket sellers already put fans in similar seats at the same game at different ticket prices, and fans flock to that service. Teams just want their share of the real-time demand for their product.




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Wendy's baseball writing has also been published by Sports on Earth. ESPN.com, SB Nation, The Score, Bay Area Sports Guy, The Classical and San Francisco Magazine. Wendy practiced law for 18 years before beginning her writing career. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


20 Responses to “The Nuts And Bolts Of Variable And Dynamic Pricing”

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  1. Kevin says:

    Dynamic pricing is inherently flawed given the existense of StubHub. Teams will never go below a certain dollar amount (usually the price the season ticket holder pays) and thus will rarely if ever beat out the StubHub prices.

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    • KH says:

      This is true, but the only tickets available on StubHub are resale tickets. For teams that don’t sell out, fans may see more availability by dealing directly with the team.

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      • Kevin says:

        Teams that don’t sell out frequently put much of their inventory on StubHub at rock bottom prices but deny it publicly. The Mets, at least, have been doing it for yeats, with whole rows available on StubHub for literally pennies.

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      • Bob says:

        Kevin,

        You are completely incorrect. Teams never sell seats directly to StubHub. Most likely what you are seeing are independent brokers who purchased large chunks of season tickets from the team and are stuck with them so they are willing to sell them for whatever they can get.

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      • OingoBoingo says:

        I went to a game at Citi Field last year, and tickets were actually cheaper through Mets.com than they were through StubHub. I was shocked because I live in SF and tickets are generally much cheaper on Stubhub or craigslist, but for whatever reason, things were different for the game I saw in NY.

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    • Billion Memes says:

      I think this assumes of market of perfect information where everyone is aware that StubHub is likely to have lower prices than can be offered by the team. I believe this is a faulty assumption. Many, many folks out there who wouldn’t or couldn’t buy tickets on the internet, many more who would only go through the team because they aren’t aware of stub hub or are uncomfortable with it becuase of its connection with “scalping.”

      To me its clear dynamic pricing implemented by teams will generate more revenue and helps them take back some of that lost revenue from resale providers like stubhub.

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      • Kevin says:

        I never argued that people will automatically choose StubHub. I simply stated that dynamic pricing is undercut by the exitense of StubHub.

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  2. Kevin says:

    I have to disagree with you, Bob. Based on my own experiences searching StubHub, I have seen entire rows in the wort parts of the stadium going for quite literally pennies. How on earth does a broker have any kind of incentive to 1) purchase such undesireable tickets and 2) sell them for such a miniscule amount. It is far more likely that teams are trying to get people into the stadium so that they can purchase concessions. Of course there is no reason for clubs to admit this practice.

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    • Tookie says:

      Kevin, you are making very large assumptions.

      1)Teams sell “undesirable tickets” to brokers when they are purchasing more high in demand locations.

      2)Brokers are the ones who sell their tickets at a “miniscule amount.”

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      • Kevin says:

        Huh? Why would a broker want to sell their assets at pennies on the dollar? Why would they invest in nosebleed seats that they are likely to sell at a loss? Isn’t it far more likely that teams are trying to put people in the stadium so that they spend money elsewhere?

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      • Bill says:

        As a cheap mets fan who scoured the prices on both stubhub and mets.com, I can tell you this is not the case. Only time I could get tickets under 5 dollars was on Easter. Tickets started around 10-30 depending on how well they were doing at that point of the year. Even in August after their losing streak tickets were about 10 dollars, a far cry from your ‘pennies’

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  3. Ram says:

    Wendy, every article you have written for fangraphs has been fascinating. Keep up the good work.

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  4. cs3 says:

    Wendy,
    I love your series of articles on the economics of baseball. It is a subject I find fascinating and I look forward to more of your writing.

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  5. soladoras says:

    “And the fans? No one likes paying more for the same product.”

    It’s not the same product. The product you’re paying for isn’t the seat, you’re paying for the entire baseball experience. Speaking as a Giants fan, I don’t want to go to a baseball game on a Tuesday night to watch the Marlins in the same way I want to go to a Saturday day game against the Dodgers, even if it’s the same seat. And the reason for that is patently obvious.

    Another problem with this topic is that people tend to look at variable pricing as if that equals price increase. It doesn’t. Some ticket prices go up, and some go down. The fact that additional tickets were sold, proves this point. A price hike on premium tickets alone would not cause more tickets to be sold, it would cause less tickets to be sold. Teams were able to sell a higher volume of tickets precisely because they discounted the prices on tickets that weren’t selling.

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    • Wendy Thurm says:

      I was referring to the scenario when fans sitting next to each other at the same game pay different prices for their tickets. This happens with the secondary market and with dynamic pricing.

      I discussed prices going up and down with respect to both pricing strategies.

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  6. EarlWebb says:

    Dynamic or Demand-based pricing is certainly here to stay and growing in the ticketing space. There’s another service company called PriceWhispers.com that is also in this space and their model is unique in that they enable teams to engage the market dynamically through a Name-your-price mechanism. This helps the teams see actual demand versus the estimated demand of the different pricing algorithms…and MOST importantly, it actually engages the fans to participate in the process i.e. as opposed to just having price changes “done to them” like the airline industry – fascinating space.

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  7. Baltar says:

    I don’t understand what “variable pricing for season tickets” means in this article. Of course, season ticket prices are going to vary according to how good the seats are, but there seems to be a different concept here.
    Would some kind soul please explain this to poor, ignorant me, please?

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    • Wendy Thurm says:

      As I explained in the article: “With variable pricing (sometimes called tiered pricing), teams set different prices for the same ballpark seat, depending on the day and the time of the game and the popularity of the opponent. Variable prices are set before the season begins. The goal is to drive demand for certain games with low prices and maximize ticket revenue for high-demand games with high ticket prices.”

      In other words, you pay more to see the Red Sox at AT&T Park on a weekend than the Rockies at AT&T Park on a weeknight.

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