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Why The Cubs Risk Thousands Of Empty Seats This Season... And How To Fix It

Gulls invade the bleachers in right field during the 11th inning of a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field in Chicago Illinois. The Astros defeated the Cubs 4-3 in 12 innings. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Gulls invade the bleachers in right field during the 11th inning of a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field in Chicago Illinois. The Astros defeated the Cubs 4-3 in 12 innings. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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We've had quite a bit of discussion on this site about the Cubs' ticket pricing policy for this season, which saw bleacher ticket prices for certain games raised to over $80 ($100 if you bought them through the premium presale), an extra pricing tier added to give five tiers of games, pricing tiers split differently for bleachers and what the team is calling the "bowl" (but the rest of us still term the "grandstand"), and an increase in the number of value dates from seven to 15.

The result of all of this was a much smaller number of tickets sold on the first day of single-game sales on Friday. Checking the CubWorld Live Camera on Sunday a number of times, there was no one in line to buy tickets even though the windows were open.

As of Sunday afternoon, the following games were completely sold out:

June 17, June 18, June 19

And, the following games were sold out of bleacher tickets (in addition to the above):

April 1, May 14, July 1, July 2, July 3

It took more than a day to sell out bleachers for Opening Day, one of the "marquee" games priced at $81. In fact, some of those dates are still available in the bleachers if you buy the six-packs still offered on the Cubs website. In past years those tickets were sold out within an hour of the on-sale time. The same was the case for most summer Saturdays as well as other weekend dates. Compare those numbers to this comment I posted in the VWR thread on the first day of sales in 2008:

23 dates are sold out:

March 31, April 21, May 10, 17, 31 , June 1, 20, 21, 22, July 12, 13, 26, 27, August 2, 8, 9, 10, 23, 30, 31, Sept 19, 20, 21

Also in that comment, I noted that 42 games had bleacher tickets available, which means that 39 dates (the 23 noted plus 16 others) were completely sold out of bleacher tickets on the first day of sales (through 5:10 p.m., when I posted that comment) in 2008, coming off a division title year and before the economy tanked. In 2008, the Cubs had 49 bleacher dates priced at $45, 25 dates at $36 and 7 dates at $22.

While sales of all ticket levels are down somewhat -- you can still get good field boxes for nearly every non-weekend game -- this post will focus mostly on bleacher tickets, for which sales appear to be way down. Prices have increased -- three years later, 49 games are priced higher than the 2008 top price of $45 (and many are significantly higher), 17 games are priced approximately at the $36 level, and 15 games are approximately $22.

So the Cubs have increased the number of "value" games, but other dates are either at or far above 2008 levels. After the jump, more analysis of this and how it may affect attendance, and what the Cubs can and should do to increase their chances of selling more bleacher tickets.

It's true that there are now more inexpensive games -- inexpensive being, of course, a relative term -- in the bleachers than there were last year. There are 15 games that are priced at $22, compared to seven last year. All of these games are in April, late August and September. While the August and September games will likely sell a fair number of tickets, presuming the weather stays good, the April games will be a tough sell. An even tougher sell will be some of the weekday and weeknight games in May, only two of which are the $36 price; the rest of those are $47 (gold price) or $65 (platinum price -- all of these are rounded to the nearest dollar).

Based on a quick look through various dates I did on Sunday, there are literally thousands of tickets left for almost all of these dates. These tickets will be a very tough sell unless:

  • the weather is nearly perfect, and
  • the team is playing well and in early contention.

Neither one of those scenarios, obviously, is guaranteed. What will be even more difficult for the Cubs to sell out are the eight "marquee" bleacher dates that aren't already sold out. Opening Day took far longer than it has in past years, and again, unless the Cubs are in contention midseason, Saturday games against the Reds, Marlins and Astros will be a tough sell. Yes, they may eventually sell out, and in making these dates "marquee" dates, the Cubs have eliminated a lot of the secondary market. But they may have also killed some of the primary market by pricing these tickets and choosing these dates based on outdated information. Sure, sales and prices may have been this way in 2007 and 2008 -- but that was with a team going well and an economy that wasn't struggling.

Here are some suggestions -- some of which I've made before -- on how to fix this problem and blunt the criticism that the team is getting.

Change the pricing tiers. Looking at this year's schedule, there aren't 13 "marquee" games. There are six: Opening Day, the Yankee series, and the Saturday games in the Cardinals and White Sox series. Without an opponent like the Yankees next year, there might only be three such dates (or four, if the Cardinals are in on two weekends). That's it -- the rest of the games designated as "marquee" really aren't. The split should be more along these lines: six marquee games (as above), 17 platinum games (the other summer weekends), 17 gold dates (non summer weekends), 20 silver dates (most weekdays in summer) and 21 value dates (weekdays in April, May & September). That would make several games much more affordable -- 41 in the two lowest tiers instead of 32 -- and be a much better reflection of actual attendance patterns in 2011, instead of basing it on how things used to work three or four years ago. For reference, here's the 2011 Cubs seating and pricing chart.

Adopt the dynamic pricing system used by the San Francisco Giants. This way, if the Cubs played well and contended in the summer, they could charge much higher prices for many summer dates -- more than they have even now. Also, they could discount early-season or bad-weather dates in order to sell tickets for some dollars rather than no dollars. Last year, I complained about a deep discount given for some bleacher tickets -- but a dynamic pricing system is different, because you would know this ahead of time; the STH might wind up paying more for some games, but if the team does well, STH would wind up paying less. In doing such a system, season ticket holders should be given some sort of discount off their tickets ahead of the single game sale -- even $1 or $2 per ticket would be a nice gesture, and STH still get playoff privileges. This would make it fairer for everyone.

Stop splitting out the entertainment tax. It's now very clear what the reason for doing this the last couple of years is -- the proposal to use a portion of this tax to finance Wrigley improvements. Whether you agree with that or not, and this post isn't about that, adding such a large chunk of what the customer actually pays to the base price is misleading. If you go to the Cubs website and call up a bleacher ticket for a marquee date, the price listed is $72. But by the time you get past the entertainment tax and the various online fees, the price is $89.55 -- plus another $2.50 if you want to print at home (a complete ripoff, charging you to use your own paper and ink). So that $72 ticket really costs you $92.05 -- 28% over the base price. This is the reason people hate airline pricing with all the added taxes and fees. Just tell us what we have to pay.

At the Cubs convention, team president Crane Kenney basically told us that the higher-priced tickets were "subsidizing" the lower-priced games. But they can't do that if there are too many games priced that way and those tickets don't sell. It's a tough call. We all realize that the Cubs have to generate revenue to put forth the kind of baseball payroll that will put a winning team on the field, and that -- at least right now -- the Cubs don't have the kinds of revenue sources that some other teams have (Jumbotrons, team-run TV networks) that could put the lid on some of these price increases. The price of my bleacher season ticket has almost doubled since 2003. Payroll has gone up considerably since then, too.

But there is a perception that the Cubs are selling tickets at Red Sox or Yankees price levels without the decade-plus of sustained success that those teams have had on the field. If the Cubs had multiple World Series wins in the last decade, I don't think any of us would complain about ticket prices at these levels. Until that happens, the Cubs risk a large number of empty seats this year -- changing the perception of a Cubs ticket as "hard-to-get", and perhaps keeping that spiraling downward.

The dynamic pricing system would help. So would winning. Let's hope this is one of those out-of-nowhere winning years. That would be a great thing for everyone.