Monday, April 06, 2009

Not even in the ballpark.

We tend to get ourselves all worked up about the soulless rich, AIG, the GM execs who fly in on their corporate jets to ask for federal handouts. We rail against the excesses of Wall Street, and not without cause. But AIG at least provides (or underwrites) highly valuable insurance for millions, while GM manufactures a product that is part and parcel of the American way of life. "Wall Street," meanwhile, is a vague, nebulous term, an impossibly broad term that misleads in the end, for it also encompasses any number of pensioners, 401(k) holders, and everyday Americans who are invested in the the nation's equity infrastructure whether they realize it or not.

There is a much better symbol of excess, and it's one that comes to mind as a sort of blemish on my annual joy at the arrival of baseball's Opening Day. That symbol is the new Yankee Stadium. Never before in baseball history, perhaps, has the stark divide between haves and have-nots been so clear.

The Yankees' new $1.5 billion home stands as a literal monument to the consuming appetites of that charmed 1 percent of American society in whom wealth and power have been increasingly concentrated in recent decades. This is a class of people who are largely insulated from the indignities and uncertainties that have buffeted (no allusions to the Sage of Omaha intended) the rest of us. At a time when many if not most Americans are worried about their ability to keep their jobs and pay their mortgages, decent field-level seats in this grand edifice, purchased on a single-game basis, cost $350. I haven't done an algebraic analysis of all the seating options, but I'd guess the average somewhere-near-the-field seat will set you back $275. Think about the implications of all this. It means, among other things, that if you are not fairly well-off, you can never, not one time, afford to have good seats at the Stadium. You have been priced out of the equation. Yeah, I know: Lots of things in life are like that. If you're not rich, you can't have a perfect 10-carat diamond or a Bentley or a 60-foot yacht, either. But baseball wasn't supposed to be like that. A baseball game shouldn't be a luxury. Baseball was Everyman's game: "family entertainment." Family entertainment? Are you kidding me? Even a seat down around the foul poles and somewhat recessed from the action will set you back $95 on game day. Thus a family of four ends up paying at least $500 to attend a game, eat a few hot dogs, drink a few cold beverages. That is simply not in budget for most familiescertainly not for a single-day event like a ballgame.

And do you know why seats at Yankee Stadium cost that much? It's not A-Rod, it's not Jeter, it's not the spanking-new pitching staff imported to the Bronx to the christen the Steinbrenner clan's crown jewel with another championship season. That's the short-sighted way of looking at it.

The real reason is this: The seats cost that much because there are enough people who can pay that much.

The Yankees know their market. You would not, for example, see the Kansas City Royals charging $300 for a typical field-level seat...because they'd play each night to an empty ballpark, which means that in very short order, there'd be no more Kansas City Royals. You can get away with it in New York, however. The demographic is right. There are people in Manhattan, major companies, wheeler-dealers, Trumps and Trump wannabes, who will pay pretty much whatever it costs to have a box seat in Yankee Stadium. The sky's the limit. They'll figure a way of writing it off, go into debt if they have to, lay off staff if they have to, but they'll get those season tickets, because Yankees tickets are simply a must-have accoutrement.

So here we have a lesson in free-market capitalism in its purest sense: The well-to-do fans can pay whatever the Yankees charge, ergo, the Yankees can afford to sign the best players*. There is no conscience about it, no moral or philosophical debate about what a ballgame is "worth." There is simply a commoditythe New York Yankeesand the willingness of the well-heeled fans to support the team. That is all that matters.

I am not a big fan of Broadwayto me, it seems like three intolerable hours of overacting and shouted lyricsbut I'm told that much the same phenomenon is taking place there. Disneyland and other major amusement parks also have gotten increasingly pricey, thanks in no small part to a steady stream of foreign tourists who come to America to romp and play with the dollars we sent overseas. I don't know how to go about it, but somehow we must prevent a situation where the nation's entertainment venues become the exclusive playground of the well-to-do.

While we're at it, can we at least ensure that a well-meaning Dad doesn't have to bankrupt himself to give his sons a glimpse of the most revered legacy in what was once called The National Pastime?

* It's not quite as simple as that, as there are also multibillion-dollar cable TV deals and other revenue enhancers. But the point holds.

24 comments:

Noadi said...

One good thing for families is that minor league baseball tickets are still quite affordable. The players might not be as well known (yet) but it's still a high level of play and just as entertaining.

It's too bad that places like Yankee Stadium and Disney decide that catering to only the top tier of customers is valuable and leave so many others out. Partly because it means I can't afford to go to Disney but also it can be a dangerous gamble if things turn. Broadway is learning that, many shows are closing early or cutting extra shows because they have fewer people buying tickets.

Anonymous said...

Steve - you are describing a New York problem and not a baseball problem.

I dropped into Tampa last year and took in a Rays game in September when they were in their first pennant race - my two kids and I bought 3 box seats for $100 combined - which was under the face price. Scalpers down there discount.

Yankee Stadium was planned when thousands of hedge funds were making billions of dollars and it seemed like the New York party would never end. But that bubble popped. The Ferrari dealers no longer have 2-year waiting lists. And $350 box seats won't have much demand unless it's a client #9 situation.

Stever Robbins said...

I like to think that we invented business and markets so we could all be better off in the end. While most people see to get more conservative as they age, I've drifted more to the left. The more rich, fabulously wealthy people I meet, the less and less convinced I become that they contribute anything more to the world than the average cab driver, and in many cases, a lot less.

So while I'm very impressed at American capitalism as an engine for stimulating certain kinds of growth, I'm underwhelmed at its ability to spread the wealth around and produce an overall lift for everyone.

It's a lousy system, but it's the best I know at the moment.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: I know it's a New York problem. That's why I'm using it as a symbol of the free market at its worst.

Stever: Are you invoking Churchill at the end there?

RevRon's Rants said...

Screw 'em! I quit going to pro baseball games when they built the Astrodome here. Too pricey, too removed from the game. I wanna hear the managers cussing the umps, or I ain't going! :-)

And $7.50 for a freaking hot dog, and $4.oo for a damn Budweiser?? Not Maggie's boy! (Maggie was my mom, and she invented curmudgeon)

Elizabeth said...

The more rich, fabulously wealthy people I meet, the less and less convinced I become that they contribute anything more to the world than the average cab driver, and in many cases, a lot less.

A-men, Stever. BTW, check this out (it's brief and apropos):
http://tinyurl.com/c4bxyl

And, Maggie's boy -- I like your spirit! :)

Elizabeth said...

The irony. Today's Quote of the Day on SHAMblog is the following:

A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.
Jane Austen

And there we have it.

Anonymous said...

Steve:

I wasn't invoking Churchill - I was invoking Ashley DuPree and former Gov. Spitzer. If I have to shell out over a grand for two seats and ballpark accoutrements for a stinkin' Yankees game, then I better get (fill in the blank with your juvenile imagination)!!

Hey Stever Robbins - you obviously are exposed to the wrong kind of rich people if they don't contribute more to the world than the average taxi driver. The rich people I know spend lots of time, talent and money on charity. And why do you think capitalism should distribute equally? It doesn't, and it's never promised to do so. Not everyone will get a lift when the economy prospers. Those who do well - the rich - will always pull away from the crowd; but there is no guarantee they will stay ahead - it's not a birthright.

If the successful people aren't getting richer then we have real problems. Jacking up taxes will keep the members of crowd from becoming wealthy - they will have to fork over a huge percentage of tehir gains every year. This is the european way - which leads to a much more static class system, which keeps the poor stuck in poverty for generations. And it doesn't create many jobs because there isn't much upside to taking risk. France's lowest unemployment rate during the go-go 1990's was higher than the current US unemployment rate today - their best performance could not match our worst.

Matt Dick said...

Minor League Baseball and the various independent leagues provide a product that is at least as good as MLB, at a billionth the price and an easier parking/de-parking experience.

Noadi is right, the entertainment is just as good (better, as you get sit closer to the action), and the environs of the ballparks are *exactly* what baseball was meant to be.

dicswi

Anonymous said...

'This is the european way - which leads to a much more static class system, which keeps the poor stuck in poverty for generations.'

Just want to point out, Anon 2.56, that the europeans do not necessarily view their class system as static. The tradition of direct action and public protest is alive and well in France which remains proud of it's bloody revolution and the guillotining of the aristocracy.
Last week one of France's richest men, the boss of Puma, Gucci and FNAC, was bossnapped by disgruntled workers protesting job losses, four Caterpillar executives bossnapped the same day. Directors of Sony and 3M also recently bossnapped by workers.

Static class system or the can-carrying workers uncowed and unintimidated by their richer supposed betters?

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:54 -

It's a static class (or economic) system if there isn't much movement - if the middle class and poor can't move up and if the rich don't move down.

The US has a very dynamic system - tens of thousands of top-quintile Wall Street types, bankers, real estate developers and high-tech investors have just been thrown out of "the rich" category; while tens of thousands of immigrants are bootstrapping themselves into the top quintile.

The recent tantums by the French workers will not help the "can-carrying workers" at all. Capital - both the human skills and the money which create jobs - will go where it is treated well. And when investment of human and financial capital doesn't happen in France, they can thank their class warfare agitators.

Elizabeth said...

This is the european way - which leads to a much more static class system, which keeps the poor stuck in poverty for generations.

There is a way to overcome that hurdle. It's called socialism.

Anonymous said...

'The recent tantums by the French workers will not help the "can-carrying workers" at all.'

The continuing determination of the French can-carriers has ensured that socialism survives and thrives in France. It is a mistaken American assumption that the rest of the world necessarily wants the competitive, unstable 'dynamism' that the US is so keen to export.

Anonymous said...

The old european monarchist systems produced the best art and music. Keep your fingers crossed and the US may break up into warring states, ruled by a new aristocracy, and you may get some Mozarts and Leonardo's, instead of the crap you have now.
Never mind socialism, you need a few palaces and castles knocked up.

Sarsabu said...

Republic of Ireland played Bulgaria in Dublin last week - tickets €90 - soccer. ROI played Italy in Bari 4 days later - tickets cost €10. However people who travelled to Italy on packages were charged €70 per ticket. I was shown a ticket €10 printed on it. A senior member of our government stated maybe 10 years ago that we are "closer to Boston than Berlin"sivierse. Deffo on the cost of tickets to sports events!

Anonymous said...

Boring American capitalist exports

McD's
Starbucks
Rap
Disney
Etc. etc.

Should we really be impressed at your successful upper quintiles when their success means filling the world with rubbish?

At least nobody wants your sports very much.

RevRon's Rants said...

I love it when a dialog descends into a "My dog's better than your dog" montage. While the US has admittedly contributed somewhat to the coarsening of the culture in some other countries, it has also contributed substantially to the well-being of those countries. This is not merely a "we saved your asses back in WWII" argument, either. There are whole industries in Europe and Asia whose prosperity can be directly attributed to US involvement, either in development of the industry, financial support through mergers & acquisitions, or as a significant customer base for their products.

In the arts, where snobbery finds a solid foothold, the US has hardly been a backwater nation. I will grant that the US will never surpass Europe and Asia in examples of art forms that were created before Europeans even came here, but in the various media available throughout the course of post-Columbian American history, the US has produced works that are at least the equal of those produced in other cultures.

There's just no such thing as all good or all bad where countries or cultures are concerned, and those who forward such attitudes - on both sides of the pond - cast blemishes to their own countries' image, not to mention diminishing their own countries' and global well-being. We in the US have only just replaced an egregiously condescending administration with one more prone to thoughtfulness and cooperation; I'd hate to think that we have reined in our own image of arrogance, only to have it emerge full-bore on the Continent.

Anonymous said...

For all our boring exports (the high-tech revolution; advanced medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, Oprah's magazine), we still manage to attract the best and brightest from around the world. The brain drain is responsible for about 20% of our doctors; 27% of our engineers and 67% of the heads of research and development of the top 200 US tech companies.

And don't forget the Elton John for Madonna swap - that worked out well for the US.

Anonymous said...

So those upper quintiles, whatever they are, didn't fill the world up with rubbish in order to pat themselves on the back for being successful capitalists then?

And BTW, before you start crowing about winning the world war for everyone,
IBM- helped organised holocaust
Standard oil- made fuel for nazi's
Bush- bankers for the nazi's
GM- trucks for the nazi's
Eugenics- American export for nazi's
Ford- hitlers hero

Some ripe and juicy upper quintiles working for that lot, I would think.
Anything changed or is a fat pay packet still the only sign of a successful system?

Has your education system failed so badly you have to import talent such a huge talent pool?
If a load of bright sparks have lost their jobs selling cola and burgers to the people of earth, maybe you can retrain them for something useful now.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 3:34: One of the problems with the blogosphere (and cyberspace in general) is that facts turn into gossip and gossip turns into agenda, and yet often such material is presented in such a way that it sounds authoritative. This is all the more the case whenever a complex situation is distilled down to a mere handful of sound-bitey words--e.g., "IBM organized the Holocaust."

Many of us are familiar with Edwin Black's allegations--but even if one accepts every single fact in his (sometimes journalistically dubious) account, it is really, really stretching things to propose that "IBM organized the Holocaust"--and I think it's safe to say that anyone who makes that allegation is being intellectually dishonest. Further, what we seem to have arrived at here is one of the more difficult challenges of a free-enterprise/free-market system: i.e., to what extent is an entrepreneur or manufacturer responsible for the uses to which its products are put? Do we attempt to hold the heirs of Samuel Colt responsible for all handgun crime? (It's not an entirely hypothetical question; some have attempted to do just that.) Anyway, just thought I'd throw that in.

Anonymous said...

Ah well, you're the journalists, you argue it between you and come up with the truth for us please. I'm just a punter, I didn't know he was lying, do I have to check everything?
Anyway, they helped, not made the whole thing, he said.
Ok, cross that one off and leave the others, how 'bout dat?

Anonymous said...

By the way, you can have Madonna back.

Steve Salerno said...

By the way, you can have Madonna back.

That's making the large assumption that anyone wants her....

Anonymous said...

Did the indians get massacred with colts?