Sports  Fans get priced out of sports

Owners are neglecting their supporters in pursuit of profits

Beers were $9.75.

Most people misinterpret my love for sports as one constituting the same nerdy idolization frequently observed in sports fans. No – I like sports because it affords me the necessary social atmosphere to get piss-liquored and shout at people without the cops being called. But the world of the Bell Centre stands in harsh contrast to my most beloved of pursuits, and pretty much ban thes inebriation of this struggling McGill proletarian.

So, largely because I wanted to see a live hockey game and couldn’t afford to buy tickets to one, I convinced my editor to score a media pass to the Sabres vs. Canadiens game this past Tuesday. Two teams fighting for their playoff lives. And boy was I treated to the works.

The media section is filled with two things: humpty-dumpty male sports writers – basically a pack of ticks Hunter S. Thompson lovingly compared to “pimps and real estate agents” – and stereotypically attractive female sports writers, who, from what I could tell, kept most of the other group of miscreants pretty happy. It was an odd contrast that seemed to bring the misogyny of jock culture up into the weird iron oval media section that hung apart from the rest of the stadium.

There were free hot dogs, chips, and coffee – evidently a popular diet. I took my place at my media position beside a pretty serious dude who seemed to care about the fate of the Sabres. I was immediately suspicious of this odd man.

When the game started the Canadiens played some serious propaganda. They displayed a video montage of children playing hockey, dreaming of one day becoming players like the Canadiens, then they showed the childhood amateur hockey cards of current Canadiens.

The message was palpable: one day this could be you.

But I wonder – when most of these professional players were young, precocious, and dreaming wild dreams of becoming NHLers – could their parents have even afforded to take them to an NHL game? Maybe then, but not now. Not at an average ticket price of $86.44.

The rising costs of sports games

In the past fifteen years, the reported average ticket price has tripled for Canadiens fans, and has also gone up about $30 in the past five years alone. And that number is misleadingly deflated. In 2000-2001, Team Marketing Research – the company that compiles this data every year – dubiously decided to factor out “Premium Seating”. In the 2000-2001 season, the average ticket price for the Colorado Avalanche dropped from $63.11 to $37.36 following their Stanley Cup-winning season. It would be naive to think it was out of appreciation for their fans instead of some manipulative accounting.

In a culture where fans are so deeply devoted to their team, particularly in a city like Montreal, they would pay almost any price for tickets and sell off their first-born child in the process. The Bell Centre has a sell-out streak that dates back to January 2004, despite the astronomical jump in costs.

“In Montreal, hockey is a religion,” said Joe Dimauro, a Montreal-based ticket reseller. “It’s simple economics: The more people want it, they’re willing to pay for it and so a lot of the teams and franchises are getting away with…asking for higher prices.”

Yet Dimauro, as a ticket reseller, represents another element in today’s modern sports entertainment industry that is pricing out working-class fans. Today, many fans turn to ticket resellers and, as a result, have to pay well above face value for their tickets. Dimauro estimated that he charges between 25 and 30 per cent above face value, but clarified that everything is based on market conditions.

“Let’s say the season-ticket holder – their ticket cost them $300. If the market is strong and they decide to sell it to the reseller, me, for $600 …I have to resell it for $700-800. It all depends on the market,” said Dimauro. But if Dimauro sees that the tickets are being sold for more money, he will adjust his price. “If …I see everybody selling tickets at roughly $1,000 each, that’s what I’m going to do… I’m going to be selling at $1,000 no matter what because the market is $1,000 a ticket.”

It is obvious that ticket resellers – who in essence are licensed scalpers – are part of the reason that the games have gotten to the point of simply being unaffordable for many fans. Yet the problem has gotten worse. Dimauro states that in the past 15 years, the internet has been the prime factor in the changes that the reselling industry has experienced. In the past, reselling mostly happened on the street outside the arena, through private ads in newspapers, or through word of mouth. Today, the reselling industry’s main platform is the internet, and this has allowed more people to resell their tickets for profit. “There are more players on the market,” said Dimauro. “Because of the internet, you have more wannabe ticket resellers. … You could get your hands on tickets, put an ad on craigslist, and sell the tickets and make a profit.”

Danny Antoinette, a fan at last week’s Canadiens game, came with his toddler son who could sit on his lap, thus limiting his cost to one ticket at $180. But what happens when he’s all grown up, playing hockey with his own childhood amateur hockey card?

“When I was a kid my Dad used to take me to the Old Forum in the stand-up section,” Antoinette said. “[Tickets] were like $20 to 30 for the two of us. That’s out of the question nowadays.”

Fans getting shut out

Modern sports franchises, which largely employ players coming from the working classes of society and profit from their prolific skills, oddly alienate the common person from purchasing tickets to see their peers play. The paradox is evident. Pro sports were once a bastion for the working man – a place that they could retreat to for entertainment, to avoid the reality of things like war and the Great Depression. Yet since the 2008 recession, the average ticket price in the NHL has gone up each year. Dimauro believes that sports is a recession-proof industry. “In some respects professional sports … is going to continue to sell out because people need an out for their depression.”

As I sat back in my big-shot media chair I could see eye-to-eye with the nose-bleed fan base. They were all standing joyously, shouting and chanting at the players far down below, densely packed together in some sort of workers’ commune. No seat was bare. No person silent.

Below I could see bare patches of seats in the lower bowl.

“There’s a good reason for that,” said Dimauro. “[In] the upper levels … seats are cheaper. Most people in the general public can afford the cheaper seats and not the expensive seats.”

But, because of ticket resellers, getting upper-level tickets is not so easy. “If you can get the [upper level seats], they’re affordable – $40 to 50 – but good luck trying to get them,” said Antoinette. “You got to buy them online and they’re all season tickets and it’s very, very hard to get [them]. … That’s the problem. You just can’t get them.”

The fact that the lower levels are often empty is just a technicality for the Canadiens and their illustrious sell-out streak. All of the tickets are still sold, but whether or not people go is another issue. “It’s not a problem as far as the Bell Centre or the Montreal Canadiens hockey club is concerned because they sold all of their tickets,” said Dimauro. On Tuesday night, Dimauro claimed that many resellers were stuck with the tickets they were unable to sell, but the Canadiens still reported a sell-out crowd. “Whether people go and sit in those seats is inconsequential to the owners of the team.”

In the current market, the Canadiens are selling out their tickets, the resellers are making profits on tickets they get, and the fans are getting righteously screwed. “It’s an open market,” said Dimauro. “We live in a free and open democratic society whether you’re a scalper or … anybody else. We all have access to the internet, we can all buy tickets, we can all do what we want with them, and that’s the bottom line.” But the fans, in essence, are getting punished for their avid support. Owners and resellers recognize that fans will pay high prices to see their beloved teams in action and, because of that, they charge prices that are almost unfathomable. The whole thing is a deal with the devil and the devil is paying your favourite hockey player.

In the press box

The odd man beside me writing feverishly about the Sabres groaned and scowled at the upper section as whistles flew down to the referee. Another penalty against the Canadiens had been called. This was after all a hockey game, not church, so I broke the silence.

“Bad call, eh?”

“Whatever,” he replied.

I could only imagine how boring the conversations were down by the glass, let alone up here in this riveting media atmosphere, with all the pomp and flare of journalistic swagger. I longed to be with the rest of the chanting and drunken lunatics across from me instead of this boring mole.

It was going to be a long night, and I desperately needed a beer.