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OTL: Seats Of Gold
By Wright Thompson
NEW YORK -- I am a man of the people, which is why I generously tipped the guy who shined my shoes in a suite near the home plate of Yankee Stadium. Actually, that's a lie. I didn't tip him. Why should I? He gets to be in the presence of me and my fellow masters of the universe. Maybe he'll catch success by osmosis, and that's tip enough. Someday, if he works hard, he can grow up to be like me: a man who enjoys a beautiful fall day by spending $1,200 of other people's money on a baseball ticket.
I am the American Dream. I drink wildly expensive French wine with my ballpark lunch and give half the bottle to the guys slaving away in the kitchen, because generosity toward the working man is a burden I carry with grace. I order a $60 glass of pregame scotch and throw the last swallow away, because backwash is for proletarian strivers.
I seek refuge in the Legends Suite from everyone's favorite prepositional phrase -- in this economy -- because here, the crash never happened. Look around. This place reeks of a bull market. Here, it is perpetually 2007, and we are all fat and happy (though not as fat and not as happy as we will be in a few innings).
The waiter comes to my seat, which is three rows from the field, right next to the Yankees dugout. I'm close enough to see A-Rod choke. My throat is dry from making small talk with commoners.
"I want a bottle of Dom and a bag of peanuts," I say.
It takes a few minutes, but I wait patiently and soon enough I'm sipping a glass of cold Champagne. I toast my good fortune. I'm not really a fan of either team, or of baseball, for that matter, but I do enjoy food, drink and afternoons of mindless entertainment. I am in lust, not love. A guy in front of me orders sushi. I feel closer to my agrarian roots already.
Hell, yeah. Take me out to the old ballgame.
I spent $1,200 and all I got was this lousy sheet of printer paper
OK, OK. I got a little carried away there. There are certain questions that should not -- cannot -- be avoided when you're staring at an empty Champagne bottle in the middle of the afternoon. Like:
What is somebody like me -- a humble sportswriter -- doing here?
How did any of this happen?
Well, it began with a photograph. You've seen it. The new Yankee Stadium. The House Next To The House That Ruth Built. The picture showed the most expensive seats empty, with the rest of the stadium packed. Here, in a single image, was a hopeful sign that a better America would rise from the ashes of our most recent economic fiasco. Greed, it warned, had consequences.
The empty seats were called the Legends Suite. One ticket for one game cost up to $2,500. Of course, for that kind of cash, you got more than just a baseball game: Patrons received concierge service, plus a lavish pregame spread. They'd be protected from the leering hoi polloi by The Moat -- not a metaphorical divide between the haves and have-nots but an actual wall that separates the Legends from the losers. Kids without the proper tickets, the team pointed out proudly, would not be allowed down there to beg for autographs. Two weeks into the season, the Yankees slashed prices. Now the best seats were going for only $1,250, which helped a little, but there are still empty seats. Executives from companies that received government bailout money could buy the seats, but couldn't risk being photographed in them. At the end of the year, the team shrunk the Legends Suite by a quarter.
What had happened? And what did it mean? I wanted to see it for myself, so I went to StubHub and searched until I found a single. Yankees-Red Sox. Late September. Section 14B, Row 4, Seat 12. The seat, including service charges, cost more than my monthly mortgage payment.
I printed the magic "ticket." Actually, there was no ticket, nothing to tear, nothing to save for years afterward to show my kids.
For $1,200, I got an 8-by-11-inch piece of printer paper.
The slow death of loyalty
The ticket to the first game at the original Yankee Stadium is small and yellow, about the length of a pack of cigarettes. There's a No. 1 inside a circle, but no date. The price is $1.10, and the ad on the back says "Drink Canada Dry." The woman who brought me into this conference room at the National Baseball Hall of Fame slides it out of the case and hands it to me. It feels like a butterfly in my hands. There's no logo. Not even the name of the team. Just "American League Baseball Club of New York."
She pulls out other famous tickets. There's one that looks nearly the same, from July 4, 1939. Lou Gehrig Day. A young man once owned that ticket. He put it in his wallet after the game, after he heard Gehrig call himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, and he kept it there. For 50 years. When he died, his children found it still tucked away, remarkably preserved. Most of the Hall's collection of Yankee Stadium tickets comes when people bring huge stacks of them at once: kids cleaning up after the death of a parent, or an elderly person shedding a lifetime of trinkets while getting ready to die. Incredible stories of longevity and loyalty live in these stubs.
Tiny facts are scrawled across the backs: the scores, the winning pitchers, the attendance. Now many fans don't even get tickets to be torn into a stub. I didn't. Maybe it's just as well. Fewer people save tickets. The nicer the tickets got, the less people seemed to want them. Or maybe it was something else: The people most likely to treasure something as simple as a ticket stub weren't the people who could afford to buy a ticket.
The tickets are like rings on a tree, showing the small changes in our culture. A logo appeared stamped on the tickets just after World War II: branding. The words "Opening Day" appearing when the stadium reopened in 1976: marketing. A digital squareness to the letters in the '80s: computers.
There's a final change, an erratic progression, that you notice while thumbing through the tickets. For decades, the price stays mostly the same. In 1991, the most expensive ticket in the stadium was just 11 dollars more than it cost to get into the first game ever, 68 years earlier. Then the prices start climbing, year by year. By 2008, the highest-priced ticket is several hundred dollars more expensive.
The A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center is empty except for a couple searching old newspaper clippings. The woman has a familiar face.
She's Babe Ruth's granddaughter.
I ask her what she thinks of the new stadium.
"I'm the granddaughter," she says, "and I can't afford it."
Is Wall Street the villain? Well, duh
This brings me to another question: What took ticket prices so long to skyrocket?
From the beginning, the Yankees and Wall Street were linked. The bull market that ultimately led to mad speculation and the Great Depression started in October 1923, within days of the team winning its first World Series -- in its first season at Yankee Stadium. Old-money New Yorkers followed the Giants. The dreamers took the subway from Wall Street to the Bronx, the games timed to the close of the market.
Lavish spending was always part of the new-money ethos of the Street. Great seats, especially at Yankees games, impressed potential clients. The secondary market for big games grew outrageous, and, as the team won titles throughout the 1990s, smart fans found they could pay for an entire season by auctioning off a choice game or two to bankers hungry to make a deal. Good Yankees-Red Sox tickets could go for as much as $2,500. Maybe, in hindsight, it seems a little greedy to expect a season of baseball for free. But smart fans were just following the law of supply and demand.
What could be more American?
The Yankees made nothing extra off this ticket scalping. Very uncool. So, in 1998, the team created a new front row, called the seats the Legends Boxes, and started charging $197.50 per game. Each year, fans and corporations happily paid the increase, so the prices kept rising.
The Street couldn't afford to say no.
If you're a middle-class sports fan, the answer will make you sick.
Brought low by a midget
We trust the people managing our mutual funds and 401(k)s with the care of our parents and the education of our children. We work long hours to accumulate enough money to place some of it into the hands of the market. If you're like me, you have no idea what happens next.
Here's a quick Wall Street primer: In one corner are the sell-side brokers; across the ring are the buy-side traders. The traders work for us; the brokers represent companies that want to sell their stock to the traders. The ethical way to do this: Offer a quality product.
This, of course, takes hard work and time and imagination, always in short supply. Luckily, there's a simpler way.
Or, to put it more delicately: The sell-side "entertains" the buy-side. They procure the best theater seats, furnish the best Super Bowl packages, deliver recreational drugs on demand, pay off bookies and, in at least one instance, paid for a wedding. Prospective clients are flown in private jets to Oregon to play golf, to Augusta to watch golf. One manager spent so much time on free golf trips he got the nickname "The Owl" -- as in he was seen as rarely as the spotted owl. The big trips produce big sales. "You're getting laid on the first date there," a trader explained to me.
Inevitably, one group of equity traders -- they worked at Fidelity -- got caught. The thing that finally brought the whole thing to a close was a 2003 bachelor party for one of the traders. Everyone heard about it: private jets to Miami, a yacht, a bag of Ecstasy, a warren of rooms at the uber-exclusive Delano Hotel, some hookers, some strippers, some red meat, medium-rare. Oh, and one midget, named Danny Black, to toss off the boat. All told, $160,000 for a weekend at the beach.
"It wasn't like a three-ring circus," groused the father-in-law of the groom, disgraced Tyco executive Dennis Kozlowski, to the tabloids at the time. "It was a nice party. There was only one dwarf."
When the Securities and Exchange Commission looked into the midget, the hookers, the drugs, they found something less hilarious but more pervasive: the corrupt culture around tickets. This is how it works: A broker wants to sell something, but the trader doesn't want to buy it. So, as happened in May 2002, a broker sends an e-mail: Are you aware of a guy who delivers Yankee tix to your desk faster than me? Seller of good size CSCO [CISCO Systems].
In exchange for tickets, the trader orders whatever the broker is selling. Everybody wins. The broker gets his sale. The trader gets his seat behind the dugout. Well, almost everybody. You, I'm afraid, get screwed with your pants on. Wall Street was not only trifling with our financial future but also driving up ticket prices.
A good limo ride spoiled by guilt
And so, ironically, everyone actually lost because everyone won too much. Wall Street folks wanted tickets to close deals. The fans thought they could use Wall Street greed to get something for nothing. The Yankees figured if someone was making all that money off their product, it should be them. These are the things I'm thinking about in the car to the stadium.
By car, of course, I mean black chauffeur-driven limo. The backseat is comfortable, the air conditioning refreshing and the free bottle of designer water helps wash away my guilt. The last guy in this car was Alec Baldwin.
I scroll through the XM dial and find a 1988 Grateful Dead show from Oakland. Peace and love, my brother. Peace in the backseat of the limo and love for the best seat in the house. I peer through my blacked-out windows at the poor souls who have to walk or crawl underground to take the subway.
I'm snapped from my reverie by a question from my driver. He wants to know what my ticket cost. I'm embarrassed to tell him. Finally, after hemming and hawing, I come out with it, sort of. (I don't include the service fees.)
"$1,200," I say.
His head wheels around. He stares at me. I want to crawl under the seat. I don't know what a driver in New York makes a month, but I bet, after taxes, it's about what I'm spending to see a ballgame. I'm going to have to try to avoid reality checks from now on. My driver doesn't look jealous. He looks … disgusted.
"That is too much," he says. "You can buy food for two months."
What were the Yankees thinking?
In a way, the "ticket" in my pocket is a time machine. It takes us back to 2007, when the Legends Suite seemed genius, when the market looked as if it would rise forever.
Now Wall Street looks a lot different. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers are gone. Flamboyant spending habits are out of style. At a recent charity auction, no one bid on a $50,000 wine dinner. Afterward, several people approached the organizer and asked whether they could buy the dinner. They had wanted it, and had the cash to bid on it, but hadn't wanted to raise their hands in front of 500 peers. A special conference call was arranged to auction the wine.
In the same way, the use of tickets has changed, though it has less to do with the market collapsing and more to do with the Fidelity guys getting busted. You can probably guess what happened next: a proposed SEC rule governing expenses that could forever alter the way Wall Street entertains. To get out front of the SEC, many firms have instituted their own internal controls requiring gifts worth more than $100 to be reported. A computer program has been purchased by more than 200 companies that, for the first time, allows statistics to be kept on ticket use, including how much business each one brings in.
So … just as companies were trying to limit extravagant spending, the Yankees came out with the most extravagant tickets in the history of sports, designed in part for a group of people who could no longer buy them. "They killed the golden goose," a former Bear Stearns guy says. "When the new prices came out, everybody said, 'Are you kidding? We can't even give these to clients.'"
Why? Well, first of all, the sell-side guys now face greater scrutiny about what they can gain by using the tickets. I talked to one Barclays big shot who explained it like this: "The real issue is: Do you want to go to the trouble of taking your client to the Yankee game when you know your boss has an expectation of what's supposed to come out of the game that's different than what the client has. Before, the firm's expectations were low because the investment was low and the client's expectations were low. Now we're laying out eight grand on these tickets and you get paid on a 10 percent rate. That's 80 grand worth of commissions that needs to get done before you get back to even. And 80 grand of commissions at 2 cents a square, in the equity business, what's that, 4 million shares of stock? If this client does 4 million shares of stock with you, then you've made your investment back."
Second, the buy-side now believes the tickets cost so much that they'd feel a quid pro quo. Yankees games went from something small to something like a trip to the Masters. One buy-sider told me: "I've been offered really good seats a couple of times, but I haven't taken tickets from a broker in the new stadium. I'd feel like I owed the guy."
One of each, please
The driver lets me off at Gate 4, and I make my way past four levels of security and two blue smoked-glass walls until I'm standing at the entrance to the Legends Suite. The light inside is warm and comforting, like a childhood blanket. Televisions cover the walls. If one flat screen is good and two is great, imagine a hundred. I love it. Who wouldn't? Of course, therein lies the irony of a populist rant against a place that keeps people out. Do I approve of Augusta National's policies? No. Would I accept a membership? You bet your ass.
There's a cavernous yet somehow cozy dining room to my left. All the food is free.
Should I get the port wine-glazed hanger steak with the sauvignon glaze reduction?
Maybe the whole roasted chicken with poblano salsa?
Also, a side of the crispy pork belly Brie potato bake, please.
And the sausage with the house-made relish and mustard.
Since I believe in moderation, I pass on the Chilean turbot. I pass on the eight soups or salads, and the eggplant parm. Mustn't be gauche.
"A bottle?" asks the waitress.
"Just for you?"
"You treat yourself well," she says. I'm not sure she means that as a compliment.
She comes back and mangles the cork, which seems ridiculous for a $1,200 ticket, but I let her slide. Noblesse oblige. I swirl the wine around in my mouth. The spicy finish goes well with the hot dog. Excuse me, the sausage.
From my table, I can see the masses moving back and forth beyond the glass wall. It feels good to be reminded, in dramatic, unmistakable ways, that you are better than other people. It shouldn't, but it does.
In the downstairs half of the suite, there are all the same food stations -- plus dessert. Ice cream served in little blue Yankees helmets. Or maybe an entire pint for your seat. Pan-sautéed whoopie pies. I get three or four of those and take them to the bar, where I order a $60 glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label (food's free, booze isn't). A house ad airs on the television in front of me. Apparently, I can buy Kobe beef to take home from the stadium. Yes, there's a butcher here. And an art gallery. I can get sushi and lobster rolls and Scottish salmon in another nearby lounge, along with duck pasta. On the first- and third-base side of the room, hidden from common view behind home plate, sit gigantic tables covered with every snack imaginable. There's Cracker Jack and peanuts, Twizzlers and Twix, Skittles and Starburst, plus five or six other kinds of sugar-coated goodness.
I watch a kid, maybe 8 years old, stand in front of the spread. He's paralyzed. His dad is trying not to laugh, and the boy can't figure out what to take. He's never seen anything like this.
The dad finally laughs. "It's all included," he tells his son. "It's like Willy Wonka."
Welcome to the new America, kid. Too bad you can't save a bag of Skittles in your wallet for 50 years. Luckily, you'll never know what you're missing.
'The regular people are in the 400s'
I sip my scotch and wait for the game to begin.
The couple next to me, Ian and Katelyn, are here because he bought her tickets as a birthday present. She's a Red Sox fan. He's a Yankees fan. I explain that I normally have to sit in the press box, so this is a nice change.
"Sit with the regular people," Katelyn says.
She looks around, corrects herself. "These aren't the regular people," she says. "The regular people are in the 400s."
"Those seats have cushions, too," Ian says.
He makes a good point. Much has been said and written about The Moat and how it highlights the divide between the haves and the have-nots. But that's not quite right. There are no have-nots here.
That's not automatically a bad thing; a business should sell its product for as much as it can, as long as it's not putting temporary profit over long-term growth. When a business makes that mistake, longtime pollster Rich Luker calls it harvesting. Starbucks is struggling, he says, because it harvested. Wal-Mart is not because it hasn't.
"The American sports industry is in harvest mode," Luker says. "The industry has lost its regard for human beings."
A recent poll discovered an unsettling trend emerging for the first time. American families whose household income is $75,000 or less now have zero dollars of discretionary income. According to Luker, that means about 75 percent of the country can never responsibly afford to go to a live professional sporting event. Franchises want them to be fans, to buy the gear and pull for their teams and watch the telecasts the leagues are paid billions for. But they don't need them to come to their stadiums. There are, right now, plenty of rich people who love games. The prices reflect that. The reason sporting events cost so much now, Luker's research shows, is because they are designed to be affordable only to those making $150,000 or more a year.
This wasn't always true. Ten years ago, it was cheaper to go to a baseball game than to a movie in half of the big league markets (take away parking at the game, and it was cheaper in every market). Today, there isn't a single city in America where it costs less to go to a major league game than to a movie. Everywhere we turn, we see examples of the collapsing middle class. This is where that issue lives in the world of sports, and it has predictable consequences.
"The lower the income," Luker says, "the less they're enjoying sports."
His August poll discovered a third of Americans are less interested in sports because of the declining economy. That's bad news, made worse by a problem he first noticed in 2004 and which has continued since: For the first time, the largest number of sports fans aren't 12- to 17-year-old boys. The baby boomers are the group that shows the greatest increase in a love of sports, and they'll be dying soon.
Who will replace them?
By excluding 75 percent of the population from experiencing the best part of spectator sports -- actually holding a ticket in your hand -- franchises have created a potentially fatal problem for themselves. Luker predicts the future of sports by looking at the decline of soap operas. Once, there were 30. Now, because the audience changed, there are seven.
"We have the first true sustained evidence of less interest in sports than there was 10 years ago," he says. "It won't happen overnight. It will take a generation. But in general, sports will not be what it is today. We're burning out the love of sports."
Too much of a good thing
Me? I'm burning it at both ends. I grab some free stuff and climb the stairs into Yankee Stadium -- a lovely light. An usher greets me and walks me to my seat, stopping to speak to regulars on the way. There are no drunks cursing, no people getting out of hand. It's … civilized.
I sit down in my $1,200 seat for the first time. "This doesn't suck," I say to the woman next to me.
She and her friends are here for just one game, like me. "Once in a lifetime," she says.
I share my Champagne with the people sitting in front of me. They're fun guys, and one of them slides me a card. Show this to a cop if you get pulled over, he says. He invites me on their annual fishing trip to Canada. This, I think, is what it's like to travel in places that grant access only to the rich and powerful. Just by sitting here, I'm pre-vetted. I'm already in the club. We make the New York City cop stationed nearby laugh, and he jokingly waves his handcuffs at us. Police officers are nice to rich people.
Suddenly, I have this bizarre thought: I'm ruined. I can't imagine ever sitting in regular seats again.
Even the heavy hitters are opting out
The game is amazing up close. I'd never noticed how much the first baseman jokes with the baserunner before. I can see the players' faces, feel the speed of the ball off the bat.
I find myself wondering who sat in this seat in the old stadium. Later, I'd find out.
His name is Louis Gimbel IV, the president of an international hops company, Hopsteiner. He's the fourth generation of his family to run it. The man who founded it, his great-grandfather S.S. Steiner, loved the Yankees, which is why he stuck with the team through the Depression. Many people couldn't go to games anymore. Attendance fell from 1.1 million in '27 to 650,000 in '35. Through it all, the Yankees refused to lower their prices. Owner Jacob Ruppert's reasoning made a certain sense: He had never raised prices during the boom of the 1920s.
By 1934, Steiner was one of only two season-ticket holders left. After the other man -- who invented the safety razor -- died, his heirs let the seats go. But Steiner passed his down. Steiner's son wound up with the seats, and when he was killed during World War II, the family took his son to the 1941 World Series immediately after the funeral to try to get his mind off losing his daddy. That little boy was Louis Gimbel's father.
As recently as last year, Gimbel still sat in the same spot. Now he's gone. He finally said no. Lots of his friends did, too. The Yankees wanted too much, pushed too hard.
Last year, during a game, a Yankees employee called Gimbel up to a luxury suite and put on the hard sell for the new stadium's ticket packages. Gimbel had to sign now, he was told. Tickets were going fast. Oh, and his cost would go from $225 a ticket to $900 a ticket, and he wouldn't be sitting in the same place. He couldn't believe the tone of the guy. "I've been in a lot of tough negotiations with big companies," Gimbel says, "and I've never disrespected someone as much as that guy."
Later, he toured the new stadium. He has photos on his cell phone of himself in the hard hat. The salesman pushed again.
He said: The food's free, which Gimbel pointed out wasn't exactly true.
He said,: You won't be bothered by any "riffraff."
Gimbel couldn't believe what he was hearing. He's the president of a large New York company, with historical ties to the team and modern ties to huge sponsors of Major League Baseball, and his family members have been premium ticket holders for 85 years. If they're treating him like this, how must they be treating someone sitting in the upper deck? All of New York was in a financial panic, and he was in a half-built stadium, getting a full-on shakedown for thousand-dollar baseball tickets.
"Do you know what just happened to Bear Stearns?" Gimbel asked the guy.
The salesman either didn't know or didn't care.
Gimbel said no. Not because he didn't have the money but because a bond had been broken. On Opening Day, Gimbel took photos of his old spot. He didn't recognize any of the people. "There were some heavy hitters sitting around us," he says. "There are none of them left sitting there."
Now there's just us.
Some of us bought the tickets on the Internet. Some got them for free. Baseball insiders I spoke with say for the "normal" games, the team is giving seats away so the stands won't look so barren on television. The Yankees decline to comment on anything about the seats. Looking around, I can tell which people sit here every game. They try to dress down, but the shiny watches and expensive shoes give it away. The men have on polos and pullovers from fancy golf and yacht clubs. The women wear oversize designer sunglasses. If they purchased their seats before the team slashed prices, they didn't get money back; they got twice as many tickets. Maybe we're all sitting in their unwanted extras.
Blowing up a vital lifeline
Before I leave, I look at my empty seat, try to imagine it in black and white, with C.K.G. Billings in a coat and bowler hat. He sat right next to the Yankees' dugout in the 1920s. Once he was one of the five richest men in the nation. I read a story about him not long ago. In 1903, flush with money, he got the finest ballroom in New York to cover its floors with dirt so he and his friends could dine on horseback. They drank Champagne from straws connected to saddlebags. Everything he did was over the top. His home was literally a castle. Today, it's Fort Tryon Park, up on the Hudson, and if you walk through the brush, you can find overgrown ruins. I tracked down his relatives, now living on Long Island.
"We can't afford the tickets anymore," a great-grandchild told me.
Rich and powerful people come and go, their houses rise and fall, but the greed that made them never goes away. There will always be a tycoon who can spend more on an afternoon of meaningless joy than a coal miner makes in a month. Conspicuous consumption might be in hibernation, but it will awaken. Wall Street firms will figure out how to entertain lavishly -- one source said he was offered a skybox from J.P Morgan for Game 1 and from Barclays for Game 2 -- and people will burn money in ludicrous ways, be it eating on horseback or tossing midgets. That's not what this is about. The Yankees almost certainly will break financial records this year, though their attendance is down 13 percent, a warning sign amid the ringing cash registers. And problems from the past already are working their way into the future: potential ALCS tickets behind the Yankees' dugout are going on StubHub for about $10,000; selling a few games can, once again, give a fan an entire season of baseball for free. There are still people with both money and the desire to pay whatever it costs.
But what if Luker is right and the connection between sports and fans has been broken? How many people did the Legends Suite experiment make finally let go of whatever nostalgia kept them close to the Yankees?
I think of all the people who will never go inside the stadium as kids -- 75 percent of families can never afford to attend a live pro sporting event -- and wonder how many of them might grow up to become wealthy and totally uninterested in baseball tickets. Think about it. If you were born before 1984, when you were a first-grader, the best seat in Yankee Stadium cost less than $12. You and your dad could sit by the field for $25. People pay fortunes chasing that feeling.
What about the kids in first grade now?
I look at my empty seat, try to imagine the people who sat there in the old stadium. Gimbel still likes the Yankees, but something's different. At some point, business intrudes on people's love for sports. When a ticket isn't just a piece of paper granting admission but rather a commodity, we feel differently about it. For many, that happened years ago. For some, like Gimbel, it happened with the invention of the Legends Suite. His family made it through the Great Depression but not the tripling of ticket prices in a bad economy. Everybody has a threshold.
I stand outside the stadium before returning to the black limo. I'm already making plans for the evening. I'm not a fan, just someone with the ability to buy that ticket. All the things I ate and drank gave me physical pleasure, but there's no emotional afterglow. Something important was lost in the transfer of money for services. The game happened. I loved it. Now it's over. People file out of every exit, disappearing into the night. They walk to subway stations, to cabs, to parked cars. Some of us won't ever come back.
the original article has the photos of the new stadium and its bells and whistles.