February 27, 2016

Mo' Money! Mo' Money! Mo' Money!

The Washington Wizards released 2016-2017 season ticket pricing this past Friday to much self created fanfare. Their announcement on Twitter (shown above) makes the pre-game team introduction about as sexy as it can possibly be and their website features video highlights of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat and Nene in action against the Philadelphia 76ers, New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks. In each of those games, of course, the Wizards emerged victorious and I'm sure that's deliberate. Personally, I'm having more difficulty forgetting our home losses this year vs. the Lakers and Nuggets than I am remembering the home wins against teams with records far below .500. Maybe it's just me. I think that stuff's more important.

Once you get beyond the flashy packaging (or click the link in your personalized season ticket holder email that arrived in your e-mail in box yesterday if you already have tickets this year), you will of course find out that ticket prices have increased. Again. This is the third consecutive year that prices have gone up. In that time period my upper deck tickets have increased in price from $16 per game to $30 (88% increase) and my lower level tickets have increased in price from $50 per game to $80 (60% increase). I know other fans in other sections with different pricing than mine are experiencing similar hikes.

Now I mostly get the lower level price increase. Before the 2011-2012 season the Wizards cut the cost of these seats about in half as a concession to season ticket holders who would be subjected to a planned teardown and rebuild of the team. The price increases these past three years are steps toward restoring the price of those tickets to the pre-2011 levels. I still don't get the upper level increases any more than I did in January when I wrote about the same subject. The price of those tickets went up $1 (from $15 per game to $16 or 7%) in a span of 12 years. Now in three, they've almost doubled.

Whether we as season ticket holders agree or disagree with the pricing increases this year, we have to decide in the next couple of weeks whether we are in or out. If we are out, our tickets likely go to some fair weather fan just getting on board for what might be some good years. If we are in, we need to spend more money to do one of the things that I love best in my life. My biggest fear about being a season ticket holder has always been that the team will price me out of my pricing comfort zone. I don't think I'm there yet but pretty soon, I'm going to have to start considering other options, especially if I am no longer able to split the cost with a friend (which is getting more and more possible each year due to the increased cost).

Over the past day or so, I've swapped e-mails, texts and Twitter messages with fellow fans. The feedback I've received has been mostly negative. I mean I didn't really expect anyone to be positive about this situation. I think there are a number of interesting things about the Wizards raising prices in this way at this time. Here are a few thoughts as to why.

1. The Team Is Worse Than Last Year
Sports ticket prices are not supposed to directly correlate to how good a team is each season so to say ticket prices should go down as performance goes down is, in my opinion, a flawed argument. However, I could easily argue that performance far below expectations (which is where I put the Wizards this year) is justification for fans to expect no ticket price hike. This is quite honestly as disappointed as I have felt in a Wizards team, and I've sat through some stinker seasons.

The Wizards have claimed accurately that most seats are not increasing or not increasing much. Unfortunately, there are bunch of us out there who are being asked to pay 20% more than we are this year. It's almost as if the team decided how much they were going to increase prices at the beginning of this season and waited to see if the team ever got better before eventually saying "Screw it, let's throw these prices out and see what happens." The results might not be good.

2. It Seems To Ignore Secondary Sales Trends
There is no doubt in my mind that the ticket prices should not exactly follow secondary market prices. The last thing I want to suggest is that the team start charging season ticket holders the maximum secondary market value for each game. Buying 41 games (plus 2-3 preseason games) per year is a whole different proposition than some fanatical Celtics fan paying over market value to make sure he gets the seats he wants to the only game he'll attend that year.

But in claiming that season ticket holders are getting a discount on the cost of tickets, the team has to look at the secondary market, not just at the price they print on the tickets. You can print $41 on my tickets in Section 415 to watch the Utah Jazz all you want, doesn't mean it's worth that. I couldn't sell mine for $5 ($7 with service charges) on the TicketMaster resale site at all. As of last month, the cost of resale seats for seats similar to my upper deck tickets were only about $4 more expensive than I paid. That's not really a discount at all.

3. The Fan Base Is Still Not Solid
When I got to work on Wednesday last week, somebody asked me "Do you still go to Wizards games?" When I said yes and asked why I, the die-hardest of diehard Wizards fans, was even in consideration for that sort of a question, the response was it looked like on television that there was nobody at Verizon Center. And that observation is absolutely true. The games this month against the Pelicans (last Tuesday) and Jazz were especially poorly attended. There have also been games this year where you still hear more Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Warriors chants than Wizards chants. We need more Wizards fans.

Earlier this season, my account representative with the Wizards told me the team now had over 10,000 season tickets sold, which is considered around the league as a success. Despite that success in selling seats, we still need folks who are multi-year dedicated Wizards fans. Raising prices might erode that number. Wizards fans are not Caps or Nationals or Washington's football team's fans. There's no history of strong support. The last thing the team needs is defections. If I were the team, I'd consider deeper discounts for longer tenured ticket holders. But that's just me. I think it would encourage folks to ride out the bad years and stick with it.

4. They Are Nickel-ing And Dime-ing Us
As I already mentioned, I have no problem with the price of my lower level seats next year, just really the timing and what I see as a large increase all at once. But the upper deck tickets at $30 per game and the dividing sections vertically to create different price points in the same exact section is just petty and greedy.

$28 for an upper level seat at VC is fine for me (well, actually it's not but..); I don't need it to get any higher at all. But adding on another $2? I mean what's the point? I guess from the team's perspective, it's only $85 more per seat ($2 for 41 regular season games and $1 for 3 preseason games) but from my perspective it's absolutely unnecessary. The next step here is another $2 each of the next couple of years and all of a sudden I'm really questioning why I'm paying $34 for a seat that six years ago was only $16. They should have laid off on this increase. I've already said my peace on this more than once.

5. They Don't Need The Money
Last year the Wizards were one of several teams who claimed they lost money. While the players' union disputes this because they claim the teams are excluding certain revenue streams, I guess I'm inclined to let this claim stand as is. But even if that was true, it's soon in no way going to be true.

Next year, the new nine year, $24 billion television deal will kick in. That's billion with a B. The NBA's revenue stream will almost double under the conditions of that deal, meaning the owner's portion will almost double and the pot of money allocated to players' salaries will almost double. But you know what won't double? Labor costs of arena staff and team employees; building costs; transportation; and pretty much everything else associated with the operation of a professional basketball team. Ticket revenue, which once stood as a significant portion of income of a team, is going to be relatively meaningless. There were a lot of discussions during the lockout in 2011 about whether the owners or players are the ones that generate the revenue. I got news for both: it's the fans. No fans = no advertising = no money. I would love it if the new television deal kept season ticket prices a little lower. Won't happen, but it's my blog dammit so I get to say it.

6. The Offseason Looks Exciting
Or does it?

What once looked like a foolproof strategy to lure a big name free agent (and let's face it, we were pinning our hopes on Kevin Durant) to Washington maybe doesn't look so great anymore. The Wizards have positioned themselves to have a ton of salary cap room this summer so they can sign a marquee free agent. They have deliberately kept contracts short or affordable on pretty much every player except for John Wall so they could make the biggest splash possible in the offseason.

The problem? Well, there are two big ones. First, Kevin Durant is really the only significant unrestricted free agent thought to be available. Sure, LeBron might opt out to sign another one year with a player option on a second in Cleveland but let's not get carried away. And why would KD come to Washington except because he has a soft spot for home? Durant will either stay in OKC on a deal similar to LeBron's or he'll sign somewhere to win a title.

Secondly, EVERY team has significant salary cap room this summer because of the new TV deal. Instead of the Wizards being one of two or three teams with cap room to sign a max deal free agent, now pretty much every team can. Competitive advantage gone. We are more likely to get 30 year old Al Horford or waste time pursuing Harrison Barnes than we are getting Durant to sign with his hometown team.

7. Most Season Ticket Holders Might Not Be Ready For This
The most interesting part of this season ticket price hike for me is the unique position the Wizards have put themselves in. With the team slashing prices in 2011, they created a class of season ticket holders that might not understand how much a lower level ticket to an NBA game costs. Think about it, if you bought right after the price cut, you might have bought tickets at about half what they used to cost. Now if that price seemed like a bargain, you might be prepared for some increases later on. But if not, if you thought it was a stretch, you might be inclined to abandon ship once ticket prices start getting steep again. Like now.

Now for a team with a longstanding fan base, that might be OK, but the Wizards are not a normal team. For the last two years, the Wizards have placed the names of every season ticket account holder on the court and have organized them and identified them by tenure. Based on an analysis of these names last season, approximately half of the Wizards season ticket holders were in their rookie year last year. You lose those folks, that you have just signed up, by raising prices and you could quickly be back at 5,000 seats sold. It's a tremendous gamble. It may not happen, but I bet some folks are out based on this year's hike. And those are just the people this franchise can afford to lose least.

So after all that ranting, for next season, I'm probably in at the current increased pricing. I've benefitted from lower prices the last few years and I enjoy going to Verizon Center to watch the Wizards play year in and year out. This is admittedly one of the toughest years I've been through because it seemed the team had solved the culture and performance problems of the past. I need to think again on that one.

But going forward is honestly a question. I always envisioned myself as a 30 year season ticket holder. Heck, I've even suggested to the Wizards that they offer me a guaranteed price for multiple years and I'd somehow come up with the cash payment right now. I don't want to walk away just yet, but I also don't want to feel that I am being pushed out with no consideration despite my now almost 16 years of loyalty. I'd like to think that's worth something. I've never really been ticked off about price increases. I've always been pretty understanding and pro-management in this regard. This one ticks me off just a bit.

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