For years, Major League Baseball teams tried to convince fans that paying $500 to have people bellowing in your ear, dropping hot dogs in your lap or sweating on you for nine innings was a luxury. The economic downturn has turned the tables on teams, which are now offering well-heeled fans time on the field during batting practice, meet-and-greets with players and free wine tastings just to stick around. It's a buyer's market for baseball's premium seating, with teams getting more creative and private seats becoming more accessible to willing investors.
"In any economic climate, creativity will always be rewarded," says William Droste, premium sales manager for the Boston Red Sox. Companies have been wooing clients in luxury boxes for generations, but the recession has forced many to ditch their plush digs. As early as December 2008, General Motors ( GMGMQ) was in talks to unload its suites at the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park, where it also pulled advertising this season. Amid a budget crisis, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his staff gave up luxury boxes at the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets' Citi Field earlier this year. The Yankees' bad news got worse when an embarrassing stretch of early season no-shows forced them to cut the prices of some seats in the Legends and Delta 360 suites by almost half. "We usually will have one or two luxury-suite lessees that will cancel for various reasons, but this year we had four or five," says Louis Artiaga, suite manager at Wrigley Field in Chicago. "We definitely felt it but, with our fan base being what it is, we were able to find replacements for those companies that cancelled."
Despite having long waiting lists, the Cubs and Red Sox have been remarkably flexible in filling their coffers and historic confines. Wrigley has made its suites, which run $2,500 to $12,000 a game, modular to accommodate single groups as big as 55 people or multiple groups as small as 15. For aspiring high rollers, the park offers a centerfield observation room and bar that fits and feeds 75 to 100 people for $165 to $270 each. The Red Sox, meanwhile, managed to sell out more than 500 straight home games by auctioning off $7,000 suites for $5,500 and offering single-game "Itinerary packages" that include limousine rides, hotel accommodations and more time on the field than Julio Lugo. A $32,000 package gets you and 27 friends private seats atop the park's Green Monster in leftfield, free jerseys and a feast of lobster rolls, filet mignon and all the booze you desire. For a third of the cost, the team will allow you and 19 buddies to shag fly balls during batting practice. Despite its celebrity clientele and first-place ranking, the Los Angeles Dodgers had to divide $200,000 season tickets for the four seats behind home plate into 10-game packages. Sideline tickets that run $80,000 a season are available in four-game chunks. Those plans might not get you full-season perks like free playoff tickets, face time with Joe Torre or a chance to pitch in the bullpen, but you get the same food and spot on the field before games.
"It's increased our exposure to a new audience that has never experienced premium seating," says Antonio Morici, the Dodgers' senior manager for premium sales and services. Even teams with newer stadiums are getting more from less. In Seattle, the Mariners ripped out eight of their 68 boxes in 10-year-old Safeco Field in 2006 to make way for the 140-person All-Star Club. While the club's entry cost is lower, fans get free parking and food. In Philadelphia, where fan dissatisfaction has made booing Santa Clause a cliché, the $4,000- to $20,000-per-season Diamond and Hall of Fame clubs have been full since Citizens Bank Park opened five years ago. Even before last year's World Series win, almost 90% of premium ticketholders returned each year -- and it's not the cheesesteaks that keep them coming back. According to Derek Schuster, the Phillies' director of season ticket sales, each premium customer has his own account representative, meets a different player each month and gets a monthly events calendar. VIP fans are invited to a free wine tasting in July. "Whether we win the World Series, make the playoffs or aren't fortunate enough to be in the playoffs, we try to remain consistent," he says.