PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Its average television audience for the World Series qualifies for AARP benefits. High-definition television hasn't made its games of three hours or more any shorter. Yet baseball is still the best bargain professional sports in the U.S. has to offer.
Beyond geographically isolated NASCAR and still-growing Major League Soccer, the top tier of U.S. professional sports still consists of MLB, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. We've argued for the National Hockey League as part of pro sports' big four, but after the loss of more than 2,300 games to lockouts and strikes in the past 20 years, we can see the other side of that debate.
Baseball, meanwhile, hasn't had a strike since its World Series-canceling work stoppage in 1994 through 1995 and hasn't locked out players since 1990. Even the NBA (which locked out players in 1995, 1996, 1998-99 and 2011) and the NFL (which locked out players in 2011 and referees last year) can't say the same. Fans, meanwhile, have been rewarded with ticket prices that average $27.93 a game and a day at the ballpark that averages $212.46 for a family of four spending on food, drinks, souvenirs and parking, according to Team Marketing Report.
That's a little more than half the price of an average NBA ticket ($52.50), slightly less than half the cost of a ticket to an NHL game ($61.82) and well below the price you'd spend on any given Sunday in the NFL ($81.54). That doesn't mean MLB is an all-around discount, but it's still a great deal for folks outside of its larger markets.
Ticket prices jumped 2% this year, while the full-game cost for a family of four inched up 2.3%. The mileage tends to vary by city, too, so expect to spend an NBA-caliber $52.32 for a ticket to Fenway Park if you want to see a home game featuring the World Champion Boston Red Sox. It's a similar situation in New York, where the Yankees' absence from the playoffs last year hasn't stopped the team from charging an average $51.55 a ticket to watch Derek Jeter take his last trot around the league.
By comparison, the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats have locked up a playoff spot this year while charging an average of $29.27 per ticket during their 2012-13 season. That's still above the MLB average, but it's giving fans more for their money than, say, the Houston Astros. That team slashed payroll to the bone under new ownership, dropped 111 games last year and took in a league record $99 million in revenue last year. Even after a 13.6% price drop, the Astros charge fans an average of $27.98 to see a team that's already looking like it could match last year's futility.
Hoping to see a better brand of baseball? Well, that gets costly. After filling the team treasury with TV money, stacking the roster and making the National League Championship Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers jacked up average ticket prices 15.3%, to $25.80. That's still cheaper than the average cost of seeing any team in the NHL or NBA, though even the NBA's least expensive team -- the New Orleans Hornets and their $26.87 average ticket price -- doesn't come close to the Dodgers' recent success.
By comparison, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season and made the playoffs for the first time in 20 years last year, but even a 6.5% hike in ticket prices couldn't bring the average ticket price higher than $18.32 -- third-lowest in the league. Meanwhile, Detroit Tigers fans got a 7.7% price hike for their team's trip to the ALCS in 2013, though the team's average ticket prices stayed below $30.
So is anyone in MLB really getting a raw deal this year? The Oakland A's made the playoffs in 2013, but a 4.4% ticket price hike comes with the additional baggage of playing in a decaying stadium with terrible plumbing this year and playing who knows where five years from now. The Atlanta Braves took the National League East this year, but their 3.8% ticket price hike in 2014 comes with the added insult of the team's impending move out of Atlanta to suburban Cobb County.
Despite their team winning the World Series two years ago, San Francisco Giants fans are entitled to grumble after their team missed the playoffs altogether in 2013 and increased ticket prices at AT&T Park 5.8% this year. Arizona Diamondbacks fans had to suffer the dual indignity of missing the playoffs and having the Dodgers celebrate their NL West title by swimming in the Diamondbacks' outfield pool, but still have to cough up 6.4% extra for tickets this year. Granted, it's for tickets that go for an average of $17.98 and are the second cheapest in the league, but there's principle behind it.
No, the folks getting royally hosed this year are Kansas City Royals fans. It's bad enough that the team hasn't been to the playoffs since 1985 and has had only eight winning seasons during that time. But what did loyal fans get for watching their team win more than 80 games for the first time in a decade in 2013? A 24.7% jump in ticket prices. Seriously, ticket prices at Kauffman Stadium are roughly a fourth higher than 2013 just because the team wasn't absolutely terrible.
Hasn't Kansas City been through enough within the last year? Boulevard Brewing, the Kansas City brewer whose billboards have been all over Kauffman Stadium and whose beers are ubiquitous in its stands, was sold to a Belgian brewery last fall. The NFL's Kansas City Chiefs saw an 11-5 season end with a crushing loss to their division rival San Diego Chargers and their Wild Card playoff appearance end in a one-point loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Do fans of a team that's a synonym for "small market" really need to be punished because that team was a bit too good last year? Does one of the longest-suffering fan bases in baseball need negative reinforcement every time its team threatens to make the playoffs? Does Royals management really think its team's one season of mediocrity represents some sort of premium on an Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates or Tampa Bay Rays ticket? Because fans who bought those tickets in 2013 saw a playoff team, which the Royals haven't been in 29 years.
Major League Baseball is still a great bargain in the grander scheme, but it's only as good a deal as the folks in the local front office allow it to be.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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