Over the last 25 years -- basically, beginning after the 1984 division title -- the Wrigley bleachers have become "the place to be" rather than what I knew it as in the mid-1970s when I began to sit there on a regular basis. Back then it was a place for old gamblers and some of our generation to hang out and discuss baseball, and you could get in for a dollar.
The reasons for this change are many; part of it is cultural, the change in the 1980s to a more materialistic culture in general. There were also masses of young people moving into Wrigleyville, gentrifying it and making it a cool place to live and party -- rather than the edge of Uptown that it had become in the 1970s. Harry Caray's television presence also helped beget this change. Caray glorified the beer culture on TV and made appearances in the bleachers. The synergy of all those things made the bleachers start to become a "party" rather than a serious place to watch baseball.
Small groups of the serious fans stayed -- and remain to this day; these are the core groups of bleacher season ticket holders, one of which is the group I belong to that used to sit in right field until the bleacher reconstruction, when we landed in section 301. But the "party" didn't begin to become rampant until Sammy. After 1998, the whole party thing took off, and with the division title and near-miss in 2003, Wrigley and the bleachers became almost automatic daily sellouts. That, of course, has now begun to change. The prices began to rise, first slowly, then exponentially. After the jump, a breakdown of all bleacher ticket prices since 1997:
1997: 65 games @ $12, 16 games @ $6, season ticket price $876
1998: 64 games @ $12, 17 games @ $6, season ticket price $870
1999: 74 games @ $15, 7 games @ $6, season ticket price $1152
2000: 73 games @ $15, 8 games @ $6, season ticket price $1143
2001: 75 games @ $20, 6 games @ $10, season ticket price $1560
2002: 74 games @ $24, 7 games @ $12, season ticket price $1860
2003: 28 games @ $30, 47 games @ $24, 8 games @ $12, season ticket price $2064
2004: 26 games @ $35, 44 games @ $26, 11 games @ $15, season ticket price $2219
2005: 43 games @ $38, 33 games @ $28, 5 games @ $15, season ticket price $2633
2006: 46 games @ $40, 29 games @ $30, 6 games @ $15, season ticket price $2800
2007: 47 games @ $40, 28 games @ $30, 6 games @ $15, season ticket price $2810 *
2008: 49 games @ $45, 25 games @ $36, 7 games @ $22, season ticket price $3259
2009: 14 games @ $60, 34 games @ $50, 28 games @ $40, 5 games @ $25, season ticket price $3785
2010: 26 games @ $60, 30 games @ $50, 19 games @ $40, 6 games @ $25, season ticket price $3998 **
2011: 13 games @ $81, 17 games @ $65, 19 games @ $47, 17 games @ $36, 15 games @ $22, season ticket price $3983 **
* for 2007, single game prices were higher than season prices, giving STH a small break
** for 2010 and 2011, prices are rounded due to the splitting out of taxes making all prices a non-even dollar amount. Those taxes are reflected in the prices above.
Yes, that's right -- the bleacher season ticket holder got a $15 reduction for 2011, about 1/3 of 1%; two beers' worth, if you want to look at it that way. If you go only to the "value" games or even include some of the $36 dates, you will save money -- but those $81 top-priced tickets are, in my opinion, at an unsustainable level. Note the significant price increases after playoff seasons (1998-1999, 2003-2004, and 2007-2008-2009). The increase for 2011 is not similarly justified based on team performance. Based on the letter we received regarding the increase, they based it on "analysis" of ticket buying patterns from 2005-2010 -- but those patterns no longer apply, because the team is not winning and there is a recession on. They saw that summer Saturday games and games with the Cardinals, White Sox and Yankees (when NYY is in town, which so far has been only once, in 2003) became priced very high on the secondary market and have priced their tickets that way in an apparent attempt to dry up that market. Here's the problem with that theory: the secondary market only accounts for maybe 10% of the total sales for those "hot" summer dates. Trying to sell all 5,100 seats at those prices cannot possibly be sustained. A dynamic pricing model like the Giants used this year might work better.
Why don't other teams price their bleacher seats at similar levels? Bleacher tickets at Fenway Park cost $28 ($12 for "upper bleachers", far from the field) and in the palace that is New Yankee Stadium, just $14 (2010 prices). The bleachers in other ballparks simply do not have the "cachet" of Wrigley, due to the cultural and other reasons described above. In New York and Boston, they can make loss-leaders out of their bleacher seats because their other ticket prices subsidize them. The Cubs can't -- Chicago people will not pay $500 and up for a box seat, with a small number of exceptions, and there are more suites and premium-priced club seating in Boston and New York; the Cubs do have suites, but far fewer than those teams. Also, those parks have large electronic scoreboards from which they reap big ad dollars. Basically, they don't sell bleacher tickets for high prices because they don't have to and the culture of the city, the fanbase and the team would not sustain prices that high.
That said, Cubs prices, as you can see, have galloped way ahead of inflation and the team's performance. The Red Sox and Yankees can charge what they do because of many years of sustained success and winning World Series from time to time. The Cubs do not have that. I believe the Wrigley bleachers should have a top price of somewhere between $50 and $60, and that only for a small handful (less than ten) games. The rest should be lower. They will have tremendous problems selling tickets for the Marlins and Astros in July at those prices, especially in an economic recession.
The bottom line is this: Cubs bleacher prices have outpaced both economic conditions and the performance of the team. Perhaps the 2011 team will get off to a good start and play well through the summer, in which case demand will go up and sales will be good, although I still doubt there will be the automatic sellouts they were accustomed to in the 2004-2009 period, essentially the period they were basing these prices on. Those conditions no longer apply. I'm renewing my season tickets... but at these prices, I wonder how many fewer the Cubs will sell in 2011 than in seasons gone by.