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Dan Shaughnessy

Sox' call on the money

Not raising prices is good business

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 13, 2008
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It amounts to grandstanding on the price of grandstand seats. And it's a smart thing to do on a particularly bleak November day.

Red Sox ownership issued a statement yesterday telling the world they're freezing ticket prices for 2009. It's the first time the Sox haven't hiked prices in 14 years - back when baseball was apologizing for the work stoppage that killed the 1994 World Series.

At 3 p.m. yesterday, Sox CEO Larry Lucchino stood in front of Fenway Park's Gate A ticket windows and answered questions from the media. Two hours later, team chairman Tom Werner went on WEEI and explained the decision. The Sox got themselves good publicity on the 6 and 11 newscasts. This newspaper deemed it Page 1 worthy.

It's a long way from the old days, when the Sox' smashmouth public relations office would send out a fax at 5 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving, whispering whopping ticket increases under the cover of darkness, hoping we might not notice.

Today's headline makes the Sox appear mindful of the economic doom that grips our nation. These are days of layoffs, bankruptcies, foreclosures, $700 billion bailouts, and 401(k) accounts falling faster than Jason Varitek's batting average. Christmas parties are canceled, charitable donations are down, retailers wonder where all the customers have gone . . .

And the Red Sox respond by announcing they will not charge more for tickets in 2009.

"We have been beneficiaries of financial support and fan loyalty," Lucchino said. "And at a time when our fans may be feeling some kind of economic adversity, we should show some sensitivity to that . . . No industry, no baseball team is utterly impervious to the economic conditions of our time and that's our view and we need to be aware of what's going on with our fans."

Swell, Larry. But let's not kid ourselves. "Baseball's most beloved ballpark" is still baseball's most expensive ballpark (average ticket price: $48.80). So this announcement is tantamount to news that your 2009 Cadillac Escalade isn't going to cost more than your 2008 model. And unconnected Red Sox fans are still going to have trouble scoring seats for 2009 without patronizing the proverbial Ripoff Bros. Ticket Agency.

I know nothing about economics. I wouldn't know a hedge fund from a hedgehog. Until last week I thought venture capital was the name of the band that recorded the theme from "Hawaii Five-O".

But I know this: When it comes to selling seats to ballgames, the Red Sox are as close to recession-proof as any professional sports team in America. And I'm not just saying that because Daddy Globe is owned by the New York Times, which owns 17 percent of the ballclub (you may have heard about this conflict).

It's about supply and demand. The Sox have sold out 469 consecutive ballgames - going back to May 15, 2003. The ballpark has become a bigger attraction than the Freedom Trail and fans are willing to pay above face value when tickets become available at auction, or on the black market. When's the last time you had any trouble unloading two grandstand seats in section 16 on the day of a game? Here at the Globe, when someone posts a pair on inter-office e-mail, they're invariably gone within minutes.

It's almost pathetic. Fenway Park has become a desperation destination. The Sox are trendy. Limited availability has only led to increased demand. The spontaneous game-day buy is gone and the place is packed nightly with a lot of people who know little about baseball. The prices are ridiculously high and no one seems to mind. Sox fans embrace the opportunity to pour their dollars into Fenway as if it is some perverted privilege.

The Sox could charge more and get more. But they're smart enough to know that it might hurt them down the road. Someday, the team will not be as competitive or popular. Someday, they may actually have to promote the product. Someday, Red Sox Marketing might involve something more than, "Hmmm, what time should we open the gates?"

So there is no hike for next year.

"It's an investment in creating good will with our fan base for years to come," said Lucchino. "We've been fortunate in recent years to have tremendous success on and off the field, but we want that to continue for a long time and it seemed to us that to have some sensitivity to this issue for our fans would send a message."

In other words, they could gouge the fans now and fans would probably still pay. But that might not always be the case. So they make an announcement that makes them look like Father Christmas instead of Scrooge - knowing that you will gladly continue to pay the highest prices in baseball for the privilege of sitting in old Fenway.

It's not fair to rip the Sox for holding the line on prices. But let's not make this more than it is. It's good business in a bad business climate.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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