By Candice Chio -- AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Forget the steroids and outrageous salaries. The real scandal in Major League Baseball for many fans is the price of a ball game.
One way to bypass the $7 beer is to head to the minor leagues or even college baseball. They've long been alternatives to the big leagues, but are getting renewed attention as the baseball season kicks off amid a prolonged economic downturn.
Attendance in the minors has gone up for five straight years. Over the same period, turnout in the majors fell for the first time last season. This year it's expected to drop another 7 percent.
One likely reason is price. An Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll last week that found the cost of going to a game is now the No. 1 problem for fans in Major League Baseball.
But savings aren't the only reason to check out the alternatives.
"Players are fighting to get noticed, so they put effort into every play," said Mike Gillespie, coach of UC Irvine's baseball team. That in turn feeds crowd excitement, he said.
Here's what you need to know about the minors and college baseball.
MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
For starters, the average price of a Major League Baseball ticket this season is about $27, according to The Team Marketing Report. By comparison, a ticket for a Triple-A game costs an average of $7.
For a family of four, the average price to attend a minor league game is $55. That includes tickets for two adults and two kids, hot dogs with drinks, a program and parking, according to the league. Imagine how much you'd save if you ate before the game.
The relaxed intimacy is another reason to head to the minors.
"The fans are a lot closer to the field, and players seem much more accessible," said Steve Densa, a spokesman for the minor league.
Stadiums are usually smaller versions of big league venues, with Triple-A stadiums having a seating capacity of between 5,000 and 10,000. A major league stadium could seat five times that amount.
There's usually a greater sense of fan involvement, too. For instance, local advertisers might run promotions, such as a free car wash for the dirtiest car in the parking lot.
As for the level of play in the minors, it varies greatly depending on the league. The highest level, Triple-A (or Class AAA), isn't dramatically different from the majors. It's not unusual to see big leaguers who are nursing injuries or up-and-coming players on their way to the majors.
Beneath the Class AA, and Class A leagues are the rookie leagues. Rookie league players are a lot less skilled, but tickets are even cheaper at around $5 on average — about what it costs for a hot dog at the new Yankee Stadium.
Two rookie leagues (the Arizona Summer and Gulf Coast leagues) even offer free admission to games.
To find a minor league game in your area, you can run a search on www.minorleaguebaseball.com.
College sports often have a specific air of excitement not found in professional leagues. One reason is the fan base, which is a mix of students, alumni and players' friends and family.
School rivalries, more commonly associated with football or basketball, carry over to the baseball diamond too.
Venues are improving as well. Louisiana State, Oregon State and UC Irvine are among the schools that recently remodeled or rebuilt their stadiums.
"These institutions are investing in baseball. They're seeing significant interest among fans and see that it makes sense for them financially," said Damani Leech, NCAA director of baseball and football.
The college baseball schedule is also convenient for many families, because games typically take place over the weekend. And with 286 programs in Division I alone, there's no lack of options. The biggest programs tend to be in the South, West Coast and other warm-weather spots, however.
If nothing else, you might enjoy the novelty of hearing the 'ping' of balls connecting with aluminum bats, which are used at the college level.
Still, if you're a die-hard Major League Baseball fan, there are bargains to be had.
Two-thirds of the league's 30 clubs lowered either their average ticket price or the cost of some level of seats, according to MLB.
As part of a new campaign this season, MLB.com is highlighting team promotions in its Fan Value Corner. Each club's home page also features special discounts.
Getting a good deal doesn't mean being exiled to the bleacher seats. Many teams offer deals on same-day tickets for decent seats. This year, the San Francisco Giants are trying "dynamic pricing," meaning ticket prices will be adjusted until the morning of the game based on demand.
Season ticket holders often sell their seats for some games on eBay or other online resellers.
Lastly, skip the all-you-can-eat deals pushed by clubs. You most likely have to overstuff yourself to make it worthwhile. Instead, check your team's Web site to see if it has a $1 hot dog night and eat up for cheap.
Better yet, bring your own food and drink to the game if the stadium allows it.
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