Which Major League Baseball Teams Are Fleecing Fans The Most


Current Chicago Cubs’ ownership seems pretty bent on getting its way regarding upgrades to Wrigley Field (the “improvements” are basically more ad boards and a video screen that can also play ads during the game, so ads). But fans worried that it will ruin the game day experience by turning the ballpark into something akin to every other modern ballpark might not need to fret much because, once you quantify it, the experience at Wrigley is already pretty terrible.

The graph above an attempt to map out how good of a deal going to a baseball game in any particular city is. And the Cubs are spared from being the worst by only the Astros.

Every year the Team Marketing Report puts out something called the Fan Price Index for each of the four major professional sports in the US (and Canada in as much as there are Canadian cities in the NHL, NBA and MLB). The index is just the cost to take a family of four to a game, here defined as the sum of:

Two adult average price tickets
Two child average price tickets
Four small soft drinks
Two small beers
Four hot dogs
Two programs
Two adult-size caps

Apparently TMR hates kids so only adults get hats. But the 2014 FPI for MLB (pdf link) was the genesis for the graph above.

Starting with that FPI, the ratio of how much a game costs relative to the average was calculated for each team. So, for example, the cost of a St. Louis Cardinals game is $233.86. The average FPI is $212.46. The ratio of the two is just 1.101 (or 233.86/212.46).

Then I did the same thing for the Cost of Living in each of the 29 US MLB cities. So, yeah there are only 29 teams on the graph because the site I pulled the Cost of Living Index (COLI) from is a US government site and, despite bad jokes to the contrary, Toronto ins’t part of the US.

So the FPI ratio is plotted on the x-axis, and the COLI ratio is plotted on the y-axis. Huh?

Okay, what you’re looking at is a ratio of ratios. It’s how much more or less are you paying for a baseball game relative to the average vs. how much more (or less) does it cost to live where you are relative to the average. That diagonal line is where the two are equal. Basically, anything below the line is a bad deal, anything above it is pretty good.

Remember these are relative. The Mets are terrible at baseball but the Mets are a good deal, so they are above the line. How is that possible? Well, New York City is a really expensive place to live. So the cost of going to see the Mets be terrible (as opposed to the cost of an average team) is not too bad considering it’s in New York where it’s really expensive to live.

But the Mets spend a lot of money and are really bad, how are they such a better deal than the Cubs (10th vs 28th… you can mouseover any of the circles in the graph to ID the team and get its rank (more on that in a bit))?

The short answer is because the Cubs are bad and aren’t bothering to spend any money.

The longer answer is that the model isn’t perfect and the Mets are sort of being rewarded for the chronic mismanagement that has them doing things like paying Bobby Bonilla about $1.2M a year until around 2036 (and coincidentally they day they cut that annual check happens to be today).

But the graph is also capturing how good a team is and how much money management is spending in its attempt to be good (or to not bother being good in the case of the Marlins). The radius of each circle is a based on payroll and and the FPI. It’s measuring how much much management is spending vs. how much they are asking you to spend. A large circle means you are paying MLB prices to see a team that management doesn’t want to pay major league salaries for (so yes, the two really big circles are Miami and Houston). Finally winning percentage as of the end of June 2014 is scaled to a given circle’s opacity. Pale circles are losing teams (so yes, those two really pale circles are Miami and Houston).

To get a ranking I created a simple formula that incorporates all the measures—relative cost of a game, ratio of management spending to what they are charging fans, and winning percentage. So below the line, big and pale? That’s a bad baseball team that is actually charging you a fair amount of money to see bad baseball. And that’s the Cubs.

Again, it’s not perfect. As mentioned before the Mets probably fare way better than you would expect. And if you mouse over all the teams above the line it’s clear that teams are being over-rewarded for being in really expensive cities. New York and San Francisco are the two most expensive places to live in the US and all 4 of those cities’ teams are above the line. The other way to look it, though, is that, as a function of the cost of living, baseball in general is an expensive form of entertainment.

Still, the graph itself is a good representation of the relative cost of a game. The associated rank as an index might still be undercooked a bit. To wit, the self-appointed Best Fans is Baseball will no doubt complain that as all that is pure and holy about the game there is no way the Cardinals can be ranked 23rd. A) Cheer up, you’re beating the Cubs (again) but more importantly B) for a pretty cheap city to live in St. Louisans are actually paying a premium to see the Cardinals play. That’s in addition to having a not-outrageous payroll.

So, again, a metric which should punish owners who don’t spend money has an unintended consequence of also punishing teams that don’t (wisely) offer Albert Pujols a $254M 10-year deal right as his skills start diminishing. On the flip side, a half-game is all that’s keeping the Cards out of 4th place in the Central (as of this writing). So even though they are over .500, they are only a bad weekend series away from being the 7th or 8th best team in the NL.

One thing that’s clear from the graph though it that, while owners might really like shiny new stadia with a glut of luxury suites and built by taxpayer dollars, if you really want to suck money from patrons, you probably want your stadium to age a good 100 years or so. The Red Sox and the Cubs both get away with absolutely fleecing fans. And the Cubs do it with a bad baseball.

Part of it is because the Cubs aren’t the attraction so much as Wrigley itself. The index here is largely a financial measure, but what’s not contained in plotting ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is the experience of the ballpark itself as a separate thing. People aren’t going to Wrigley for good baseball (or the $9 beers), they are going because there are very few places left where baseball isn’t a multi-media assault on your senses; there’s possibly only one other (Fenway) and they are also charging fans a pretty penny for the privilege.

Of course Cubs owner Tom Ricketts seems intent on “fixing” that. And if you think ticket and beer prices will come down when additional money comes flowing in from scoreboard and outfield ads, then you don’t have a good grasp on how businesses operate.

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