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."