PORLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The price of beer at the ballpark is a baseball team's most basic compact with its fans. If a team will gouge you on beer pricing, it will do so on just about any other portion of its business.
This is why steroids, gambling, instant replay, collisions at the plate and just about any other point of contention in Major League Baseball short of a season-ending strike or lockout will still generate less fan rage than the escalating price of beer. There'll be accusations of price inflation. There'll be cries for discounts and reparations. There'll be an overarching argument that the whole thing is unfair ... and that's just the stadium vendors talking.
We learned a few things about beer pricing in baseball while writing about it over the years, but the biggest lesson is that fans, teams and stadium concessions providers have vastly different views of beer pricing at baseball games. From the vendors' perspective, it's not their fault you can't find the handful of places they're serving "discount" beer at the lowest price they quote to sports research firm Team Marketing Report.
To fans, it's just a league that's increased revenue from $1.4 billion in 1995 to more than $8 billion last season squeezing its customers for every dollar it can and providing little in return. The Houston Astros set a Major League Baseball record for revenue last year by slashing salaries to the bone during its first year in the American League and taking in more than $100 million. What did fans get out of the deal? A team that put up 51 wins and 111 losses and trailed the next-worst team, the locally reviled Miami Marlins, in their ballpark that extortion built -- by 11 games.
Fans have good reason for their skepticism. Take the Washington Nationals, for example. Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index puts the price of the cheapest beer at Nationals Park this year at $6.50 for 16 ounces. But Nats fans were quick to point out to The Washington Post last season that the lowest beer price they were seeing was $9 -- or about $4 more than you'd pay for it at the taproom across town.
While the concessions folks have a case if there's even one stand in the building selling beers at the lowest quoted price, it's tough to jump all over the fan's case if vendors aren't basically hiding that low-priced beer. In a climate in which fans aren't afraid to sue when they're being misled about beer sizing and pricing, it isn't in a team or concessionaire's best interest to play hide-and-seek.
Especially when Major League Baseball's average price for a small beer has risen from $5.81 in 2011 to $6.09 this year. That's down from $6.12 last year, but still isn't all that encouraging. At this time in 2011, the highest price for a small beer was the $7.25 the Boston Red Sox were charging at Fenway Park. These six teams have met or exceeded that price, with two teams breaking the $8 barrier.
Even that doesn't quite tell the entire story. The real pain is felt by the ounce, and a team charging $7.50 for a 20-ounce beer is providing far more value than a franchise with the audacity to demand $7.75 for just 12 ounces.
That's the measure we're going to use this year. With help from Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index, we took a look at the Top 10 beer prices in the league by ounce -- but know that even that may be a gross underestimate compared with what fans are seeing. If any of these prices look like outright lies to you, snap a photo of the prices you're seeing and send them my way on Twitter @Notteham:
10. Chicago White Sox, Washington Nationals and Kansas City Royals
Price of a small draft beer: $6.50 for 16 ounces
Price per ounce: 41 cents
Don't get too mad at these three teams. Those per-ounce prices, as put forth by the teams' concessionaires, rank in the lower half of the league. No, there isn't a playoff team in this mix, but the Royals had their first winning season in a decade and the Nationals stayed on the right side of .500. The White Sox? Well, management seems to feel bad enough about its three losing seasons in the past five years and its role in the Boston Red Sox's latest World Series win -- helped largely by former White Sox hurler Jake Peavy -- that it resisted price hikes at U.S. Cellular Field this year. That's more than can be said for the 90-plus loss Chicagoland teams on this list.
9. Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A's
Price of a small draft beer: $5 for 12 ounces (Tigers, Rays and A's), $6.75 for 16 ounces (Orioles)
Price per ounce: 42 cents
Now we're getting into baseball's upper beer echelons, but at least these teams gave fans something for the money in 2013. The Tigers and A's played a tremendous five-game division series between a team with a monster payroll and myriad superstars and one that's so Moneyball that it can't even shell out for functional plumbing in its decaying ballpark/football field. The Rays, meanwhile, fought off a feisty Cleveland Indians squad in the American League Wild Card game before being shown the door by the Red Sox, who also ended the Tigers' run. The O's missed out on all of that, but manager Buck Showalter just gave the team its first consecutive winning seasons since the '90s. That's worth raising a $6.75 pint to.
8. Atlanta Braves
Price of a small draft beer: $7.25 for 16 ounces
Price per ounce: 45 cents
What else can you call it when a team charges one of the highest beer prices in the league, jacks up ticket prices 3.8% after making the playoffs and then finalizes plans to leave Atlanta proper for the northern suburbs in Cobb County once the team's lease at Turner Field expires in 2016. That's basically an about-face on decades of ballpark development that situated fields in downtown areas rather than vacant suburban tracts, but that's Atlanta for you. The suburbs reign, cars and congestion are the norm and the MARTA subway system that brings visitors from Hartsfield-Jackson airport doesn't have much range, is derided for suburbanites for being nowhere they want to go and stops about a mile from Turner Field.
With Atlanta already giving in to the $1 billion ransom demand issued by the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons, who got no less than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to help them threaten to move if they didn't get a new stadium to replace the 22-year-old Georgia Dome, the city had little will to throw public funds at the team and keep it in town. Now the Braves will spend the next few seasons as squatters until they pull up stakes for their 1950s dream home. That high price Atlanta-bound Braves fans will pay for beer isn't an investment; it's gas money for the team's trip up the highway.
7. Cincinnati Reds
Price of a small draft beer: $5.50 for 12 ounces
Price per ounce: 46 cents
What price does Cincinnati pay for losing the National League Wild Card game to the once-lowly Pittsburgh Pirates? A 3.2% hike in ticket costs and a small beer that wouldn't even be much of a value at 16 ounces. We realize the town is still enjoying the Reds renaissance that's taken place since 2010, but they're paying more than 10 cents more per ounce for beer than fans in Los Angeles. If Cincinnati fans cared as much about protecting their game-day investment as they do about defending the city's Skyline Chili from Deadspin, maybe the team wouldn't treat their beer money like a free-flowing tap.
6. Chicago Cubs
Price of a small draft beer: $7.50 for 16 ounces
Price per ounce: 47 cents
We'll just go on record as saying the Cubs have no idea what they're doing anymore. A new deal with Anheuser-Busch InBev is squeezing fan favorite Old Style out of Wrigley Field. Renovations to the ballpark itself might cut rooftop neighbors out of the action -- though those rooftops haven't been bleacher-free mom and pop operations in decades. They haven't had a winning season since 2009, haven't made the playoffs since 2008 and seem content to run the franchise as the Wrigley Field museum complete with rewards programs, mobile ticketing and bear mascots. Worse still, despite 96 losses last year that placed the Cubs dead last in the National League Central and only three games ahead of the White Sox for "best" team in Chicago, the team bumped up the price of a beer by 25 cents. Does this team have fans anymore, or is it just serving as somewhat educational day care for Wrigleyville bros?
5. New York Mets
Price of a small draft beer: $5.75 for 12 ounces
Price per ounce: 48 cents
There's just no end to the indignities for Mets fans. Ace Matt Harvey is gone for the foreseeable future after Tommy John surgery. Offseason pickups Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon look like lost wards of the New York Yankees Home For The Aged. Second baseman Daniel Murphy was berated by New York's sports radio braintrust for daring to miss Opening Day for the birth of his child. They haven't had a winning season since 2008 and, since moving to Citi Field in 2009, attendance has dropped every year. Many of those who do show up would rather wait in line for a Shake Shack burger than see what fresh hell is unfolding on the field. For all of this, Mets fans pay only two cents less per ounce of beer than their counterparts at Yankee Stadium. Awful.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
Price of a small draft beer: $6.82 for 14 ounces
Price per ounce: 49 cents
Evan after buying the better parts of the Miami Marlins' roster and some pitching help from the Mets a year ago, the Blue Jays lost 88 games and finished dead last in the American League East. Thus, after two straight years of beer price increases at Rogers Center, the price of a beer there actually decreased by about 50 cents. Some of that has to do with the increased strength of the U.S. dollar against the Canadian dollar, which has softened over the past year and diminished greatly since the U.S. recession -- when the Canadian dollar was briefly the stronger currency. A lot of it, however, has to do with unrealized expectations and a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1993.
3. Miami Marlins, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners
Price of a small draft beer: $8 for 16 ounces (Miami), $7 for 14 ounces (San Francisco), $6 for 12 ounces (New York and Seattle)
Price per ounce: 50 cents
Fair enough. All are major markets with the high incomes to support this kind of pricing, but it doesn't take a whole lot to figure out who's getting the most value for their money. The Giants and Yankees have won three World Series between them in the past five years. The Mariners haven't made the playoffs since 2001, have had three winning seasons in the past decade and are consistently outdrawn by Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders. If the Sonics came back tomorrow, the Mariners would be the fourth most-popular team in the city -- though even the WNBA's Seattle Storm has won a title in the past five years.
As for Miami, two years after the last roster purge they're still charging a a worst-in-the-country $8 for 16 ounces of beer. Granted, the Marlins dropped ticket prices 7.7% this year, but that's only after springing a 55.4% price hike on fans when Marlins Stadium opened in 2012 and sticking them with a tax increase. As much as Miami hates the "deal" it made for this ballpark, the nearly 1.6 million fans it drew last year is still the team's highest seasonal attendance since 2005. The 19,584 fans who showed up per game last year, on average, is little more than half of Marlins Stadium's 37,000 capacity, but better than the 16,290 the team averaged during its last World Series season in 2003. As loathed as they are, the current Marlins and their stadium with its ridiculous home run lawn ornament are somehow an improvement.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
Price of a small draft beer: $6.75 for 12 ounces
Price per ounce: 56 cents
That beer price isn't unconscionable or completely out of touch: It's the Cardinal Way.
You see, what you hustle-bustle non-Midwesterners don't realize is that St. Louis values its beer the way this country once valued sleepy summer nights on the front porch, waving hello to your neighbors and overt, violent racism. Sure, its benefactors at Anheuser-Busch may have sold out to a Belgian/Brazilian concern, laid off much of its local workforce and spawned a bunch of talented beer brewers whose small breweries stand in stark contrast to everything Anheuser-Busch InBev now stands for, but it was kind enough to keep its name on the ballpark the Cardinals were kind enough to take all that public money for.
Now don't you go fussing about how close Busch Stadium is to the beer's source and how other beer-named ballparks such as Miller Park in Milwaukee and Coors Field in Denver charge only 37 cents an ounce. Do their teams play baseball the way it's meant to be played? Do their fans conduct themselves with the grace and character of Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter's spiritual progeny? Do they have the great fortune of cheering each year for the franchise that God himself chose to be the greatest in all the world?
Do they have 11 World Series titles, or even one? No? Then they should have no voice in this conversation. The historians and scholars will judge Busch Stadium's beer price on balance with all the good the Cardinals organization has brought to baseball and to sport in general. In the meantime, just be grateful that more than 3 million fans a year file into Busch Stadium each year to keep the Cardinal Way alive -- and that they're generous enough to send national treasures such as Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and the inscrutable Jhonny Peralta to your town for a few games each year.
1. Boston Red Sox
Price of a small draft beer: $7.75 for 12 ounces
Price per ounce: 65 cents
When last year's World Series turned into the Super Bowl of fan self-righteousness, Red Sox Nation made it look as easy as their team did.
In what other city is a team that's won three World Series in the past decade still considered a lovable loser and perennial underdog? In what corner of the universe is the ageless Cathedral of Baseball in desperate need of party decks, bullpen bars, engraved bricks, statues supplanting other statues and a completely arbitrary mascot? Where else can a team not only fudge the numbers on sellouts and jack up prices on every concession in the place, then pat itself on the back for playing "Moneyball" with only $159 million in payroll.
The Sox raised prices on beer again this year -- as teams that win a title often do -- but this franchise and the cult of personality around it will soak fans on beer prices as much as the most insufferable citizens of Red Sox Nation will drown anyone within listening range in a tide of priggish pedantry as thick as the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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