The $17 ticket that costs $25

Ever have one of those moments when reality just smacks you upside the head? One of those brief bits of clarity where you realize that a slow-moving, incremental change has wrought a greater difference you realized because you had only hazily paid attention to how it gradually eroded what had once been?

I had such a head smacking moment last year. I bought two tickets to see the Cubs play in the cheap seats: $17 each. When I first bought cheap seats, they were only $10. That wasn’t the scalp-slapper, though. I was well aware that prices had gone up. How couldn’t I be? The annual raising of the ticket prices receives plenty of press attention.

What caught me off-guard were the incidental fees. The Cubs charged a “Total Convenience Fee,” as well as an “Order Processing Charge” with the tickets. Those $17 tickets really cost me about $25 each.

Back in the $10 days, the surcharges were about $4 per ticket. And you had to do it through Ticketmaster. This was back when Congress held hearings on Ticketmaster gouging the consumers, so you knew the $4 was exorbitant. Despite not going through them this time, the middleman fee had nearly doubled. Added bonus: In the olden days, I could avoid the worst of the fees by leaving the tickets at will call. Now, I’d get stuck with the fees even if I did that. Knowing that the Cubs organization had recently set up its own ticket brokerage, I sure wasn’t about to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

It was right about here reality smacked me in the head. Something was rotten in the state of Wrigley. Cutting out the nation’s most notorious gouger shouldn’t cause the fees to skyrocket.

The plot thickened shortly thereafter when I went to see the Sox play at the Cell. They had similar add-on fees. It used to be I’d walk up to the stadium and buy as many seats as I needed for that game. However, the ’05 championship made that an iffy proposition, depending on what team was in town, especially if you wanted to go with others.

It got me to thinking: I hear a lot of talk every year about the price of seats, and the cost of ballpark food, but I’ve never heard any analysis of seat fees and processing charges. Sure, you can avoid them by buying on game day. Living in a place like Chicago, that’s not always a viable option because all those other pesky fans keep purchasing them. What exactly are teams charging for “Total Convenience” (aka “Total Con Fees”) or “Order Processing”? Who guns up the costs the most? Who does it the least?

Plan of action

One great thing about the Internet age: You can find out about what’s going on all over the nation. If I want to find out how much teams are charging, all I have to do is go to 30 different websites and check out how much teams are charging in con fees and order processing. A few things I wanted to look at:

  • Con and order processing fees for all clubs, as well as any other fees that might be in the mix.
  • Do clubs charge the same for all seats, or does it vary from section to section?
  • Do these prices vary if you order one seat compared to a group of seats?

To do this, I decided to pick the least desirable September home game each team played. After all, with some clubs—like the Red Sox or Cubs—most of the good games don’t have much available, and I wanted to be consistent and go for lousy games for all if I’m choosing that for some. For the same reason, I chose the cheapest seat available for my first check, figuring there’s almost always one of those left over. So that’s my starting sample size.

To check if clubs vary gouging fees depending on seat price, I also chose the best available seat to see how that came up. Finally, I’d try to order three tickets in the cheapest section I could to see if that caused any variations. The plan was set; now I just needed to execute.

I ran into one unexpected problem: those damn Blue Jays. For the life of me, I couldn’t get their website to process my order. I’d get halfway through and … it wouldn’t let me continue. It made no sense. They had no idea I was going to back out on the last screen. As far as they knew I was offering them money. They wouldn’t take it? Some sort of border issue? Maybe, but that’s mighty stupid. To get around that, I had THT’s secret agent Canadian, John Brattain, order the tickets for me. His results came back a little funny, but then again their entire website made little sense.

Who gouges you, baby?

So, who much are they charging? Turns out there’s only one additional fee: taxes for a few franchises. Here’s the entire list of add-on costs for all 30 clubs:

Team    TCF     OP      Tax     Total
BOX     4.00    7.00    0       11.00
CWS     4.50    3.50    0.36    8.36
CHC     4.59    3.50    0       8.09
DET     3.75    3.85    0       7.60
PHI     3.50    4.00    0       7.50
HOU     3.00    4.06    0.25    7.31
OAK     3.25    4.00    0       7.25
LAD     3.25    3.80    0       7.05
BAL     3.50    3.50    0       7.00
DCN     3.50    3.50    0       7.00
NYY     3.90    3.05    0       6.95
SEA     3.25    3.32    0.29    6.86
CIN     3.84    3.00    0       6.84
LAA     3.00    3.55    0       6.55
STL     3.50    3.00    0       6.50
NYM     2.00    4.50    0       6.50
FLO     3.75    2.60    0       6.35
MIN     3.25    3.00    0       6.25
CLE     2.75    3.35    0       6.10
SDP     2.00    3.50    0       5.50
ARI     2.00    3.50    0       5.50
COL     2.00    3.50    0       5.50
PIT     2.00    3.50    0       5.50
SFG     1.75    3.50    0       5.25
KCR     2.00    3.00    0       5.00
ATL     2.75    2.05    0       4.80
TBD     1.50    3.25    0       4.75
TEX     2.75    1.75    0       4.50
TOR     3.75    0       0       3.75
MIL     3.25    0       0       3.25

In general, the teams that sell out the most charge the highest. Makes sense. Just try, if you dare, to imagine how fouled up the Red Sox ticket office would have to be to justify charging $7 a pop for the processing charge alone. Slow-witted seventh graders calculating costs with abacuses should be able to handle it at a better price than that.

Two teams have no processing fee at all, and one of them, Toronto, was the only team I couldn’t check first hand. Maybe they just do things differently in Canada? The best bang for the buck is easily the Milwaukee Brewers. They got a great young team, and it’s three bucks cheaper than an average squad.

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The Cubs have the highest con fee. I’m pretty sure that includes a tax, though, since it’s such an odd number, and their cross-town rivals have a tax. If that’s the case, then the White Sox actually have the highest con fee. The Brewers actually have a league average convenience fee. It’s their odd lack of a processing charge that lowers their cost. The Devil Rays have the lowest con fee.

Difference in seats

What happens when I switch to best available? Well a few things. First, all teams give the same processing charge. Only the con fee changes, and it does rise for most teams. Only nine charge the same convenience fee: the Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Phillies, Cards, Reds, Twins, Brewers, and according to my inside Canadian, the Blue Jays. That’s an interesting set, with the most expensive teams and the two cheapest thrown in.

I should note, there’s a possible error here. Best available veers in quality greatly from stadium to stadium. I can get great seats in Yankee Stadium still, but not in Wrigley. Its possible some of the above actually do have varying convenience, but it’s too late to prove it. Alternately, in the chart below, the gaps between some teams might not be full-sized. It’s the best I can do, though. Here’s the difference for the rest:

Team      Cheap  Pricey      Dif
SFG         1.75   11.25     9.50
LAD         3.25    6.75     3.50
TBD         1.50    5.00     3.50
OAK         3.25    6.25     3.00
LAA         3.00    6.00     3.00
NYM         2.00    4.50     2.50
DCN         3.50    5.75     2.25
SDP         2.00    4.25     2.25
COL         2.00    4.25     2.25
BAL         3.50    5.50     2.00
ARI         2.00    4.00     2.00
PIT         2.00    4.00     2.00
ATL         2.75    4.50     1.75
NYY         3.90    5.55     1.65
CLE         2.75    4.25     1.50
KCR         2.00    3.50     1.50
DET         3.75    5.00     1.25
FLO         3.75    5.00     1.25
HOU         3.00    4.25     1.25
SEA         3.25    4.25     1.00
TEX         2.75    3.75     1.00

Those Giants seats are something else. It costs a lot of money to get a clear view of them getting creamed by the opposition. Someone tell Theo Epstein about how much you can get away with charging the fans on this. By and large, the Mets, Tigers, and especially Brewers are really good values based on how well those teams are doing this year.

Number of seats

I checked half the teams to see if there was any difference. I found none, so I got sick of trying. Admittedly, a lot no longer had three-packs available, showing that often these seats really do cost more than face price. They were the teams you’d expect: Cubs, Red Sox, White Sox, who also tend to be the ones gunning up their extra charges the most.

However, Double-0-Canadian reported the Jays increased their charges. That ain’t supposed to happen. The law of buying in volume means you’re supposed to get a better value per pound the more pounds you purchase. They do a lot of things differently under J. P. Ricciardi, apparently. I have no explanation.

Sympathy for the devil

This is an article fueled by populist discontent from a self-satisfied upper deck denizen. To be fair, however, I must admit there is another side to this case.

First, one can modify an argument Jeff Sackmann made in a recent column here, the $7 Ballpark Brewskie. In it, Sackmann defended the high cost of ballpark food. It’s an optional cost after all. You can eat before going to the game, and survive for three hours without gorging yourself. Those who want that part of the experience, well they pay for both the food and the experience. If you want the comfort of knowing you have an assured ticket in advance, you have to pay not just for the ticket but for the ability to get it early.

A second defense is that it’s a team’s goal, nay, it is a team’s duty to maximize its revenues as much as it can. Those multiyear contracts to star players don’t pay for themselves. If people are willing to pay the fees, then dang it, they may as well charge them.

The purely logical part of my brain sees some validity to this. The first one makes a lot of sense … depending on the team. You don’t want to pay the $3.25 con fee and $3 processing charge for a Metrodome cheap seat? Then don’t. Really, how often do the Twins sell out that dump? If you’re looking to save on cost, you can walk up the day of the game and buy a ticket to most parks. That’s what I did with the White Sox for many years. The pricier the section, and/or the more tickets you need to buy in bulk, the trickier it gets to buy tickets, but in most stadiums you can land seats the day of the game.

Most, but not all. Not only isn’t that true for all teams, but the clubs with the heftiest additional fees are the ones you most likely to sell out in advance, and its especially tricky trying to walk up to purchase if you’re buying for more than one person. For these clubs, the con fees are a bit duplicitous. They’re not as much a convenience as they are an additional cost for the seat itself. Dammit, that $17 seat really is $25. Sure it’s their duty to make a profit, but frankly speaking as a sample size of one, I’d rather have them tell me it’s a $25 ticket upfront. Getting it from behind is far more aggravating.

I will say this much, it’s probably stupid for a team to be really low with these extra costs unless they have serious attendance problems. Sure I like that the Brewers keep their add-on costs so low, but from a business point of view, it’s the worst of both worlds. They both lose that extra revenue, and don’t get much local goodwill in return. No one pays attention to this stuff. Every year there are reports on the cost of tickets and ballpark food, but I did this study because I’ve never heard of anyone looking into at these costs. For the Brewers, it’s a tree that fell in a forest, but didn’t make a buck.

The reasons partially explain it, but not enough to fully smite my cheapskate fueled populist rancor. Ah well, at least as a Cubs fan I know that the team has made such good use of it putting so many quality teams on the field over the last 98 years or so. Grrrrr.

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