Sunday, June 21, 2009

$1.5 Billion Can't Buy Me Love

As promised, Richie is now posting here, too.

One-and-a-half billion dollars can buy a lot of stuff these days. For the Yankees, it can buy the fanciest stadium in the world, complete with padded, high-back seats with unbeatable views and all-you-can-eat food (for those who can afford them); the largest high-definition jumbotron screen in the known world; an impressive Great Hall (which would be even more impressive if it were called the "Grand Concourse" in homage to its neighborhood); 8 large elevators to whisk spectators to their seats with the minimum of physical exertion; not one, but two, stores packed with Yankee clothing and memorabilia, and several others devoted specifically to art, expensive collectibles, and hats; and dozens of folks carrying round signs announcing that they're here to help you make sense of it all.

But one and a half billion dollars can, apparently, also buy you a bad attitude problem. From the physical layout of the stadium, to the decisions the team has made about pricing and staffing, the Yankees are making a clear statement that money comes first and fans--with the exception of those willing to blow at least 4 figures on a ticket--come last.

Most obviously, there's the ticket prices. A lot has been made of the outrageous prices downstairs, which, as it turns out, were so outrageous that even ridiculously wealthy people balked at paying them. Less has been made of the fact that the new stadium has dramatically fewer "cheap seats" than the old one, that the "cheap seats" cost dramatically more than they used to, and that once you eliminate partial view seats from the equation (over 1,000 bleacher seats blocked by a large club to which they're not granted access), the available number is even fewer. The Yankees built this stadium for the rich, and even though, based on record-breaking ticket sales at the old stadium, the Yankees could have built an even bigger stadium, selling more seats to more fans at similar prices (fans who will, in turn, buy more food and souvenirs), the Yankees decided to build a smaller oner, excluding as many "low margin" fans as possible with the seating layout and pricing structure at the new stadium. Perhaps the only silver lining on the current recession is that it might force the Yankees to price some tickets more reasonably next year.

Second, guards. Yankee Stadium has become the new Alcatraz, only in this case, getting in is the impossible feat. So concerned are the Yankees that a member of the poor, huddled masses from the 400s level might attempt to set foot (nay, ass) at 300 or--daren't I say it--below, that they have devoted a tremendous amount of money and manpower to the explicit purpose of keeping the poor folks away. Whereas in the old Yankee stadium, only the finest, most expensive seats were closely guarded, in the new stadium--owing to the fact that 80% of the seats arguably qualify as outrageously expensive--nearly every section within the troposphere has one or more guards to keep the riff-raff out. Well before the first pitch has been thrown, tiptoeing up to get a closer look is strictly verboten. And once the game is well underway, and thousands of overpriced seats remain vacant, guards nonetheless are told to remain vigilant, lest an undesirable choose to evoke adverse possession upon some neglected property, or a few friends desire to relocate within shouting range. Though I can perhaps understand the argument that those who paid much will find it unfair to sit next to those who paid little (then again, ever been on an airplane?), there's quite a bit of wiggle room for a common sense compromise: Make more good seats more affordable for more people, and then there'll be almost no vacancies left to fill. (And, to be frank, it's the cheap seats which are subject to the most variable pricing. As I've learned, our $20 "discounted" 12-game package consists mostly of "$23" seats at non-premium games that are sold for $5 as single-game tickets to our neighbors.) I have never seen a fan so crass as to fail to cede a seat to its rightful owner, but the unwritten rules of stadium etiquette dictate that an empty seat is fair game.

Third, there's many reasons to celebrate at the new stadium when it comes to improved cuisine, but price is not one of them. From sushi to sandwiches to seriously massive buckets of popcorn, the food at the new stadium is both more varied and, from what I hear, more delicious. But it's also way more expensive. And I don't just mean more expensive than the old Yankee Stadium. I mean more expensive than food anywhere, at any time, ever. The Yankees have obviously decided that having the most expensive tickets in professional sports is not enough; they also want to make the most ancillary revenue of any team, ever. Unfortunately, I think the strategy works. Once in a stadium, as members of a captive audience, fans resign themselves to paying outrageous sums for food.

Fourth, there's the little touches that say, "Screw you, poor people" (Or, more acccurately, "Screw you, everyone but the filthy rich"). From the Great Hall, there's plenty of ways to get to your seats, including the aforementioned elevators, and stairs, and ramps. There's also a few escalators. Oddly, however, on my many stadium visits, I've yet to find an escalator that goes all the way up to the top concourse. I don't imagine it would have taken an extreme feat of modern engineering, or a great additional expense, to make escalators go to the cheap seats, but for some reason, the Yankees decided it wasn't worth the effort. Same goes for the bathrooms: Those downstairs have automatic sinks and dividers between the urinals; upstairs, they opted for old school sinks and skipped the dividers, saving crucial pennies in their quest to build a lean, mean, waste-free one and a half billion dollar palace of excess. Also, while building the most disability-friendly stadium in modern history, the Yanks decided to make the cheapest seats less accessible than ever, up dozens of steps from the top concourse, making each trip for food, facilities, or just a quick stretch of the legs (after all, unlike the more expensive seats, the cheap ones are hard, plastic, and entirely free of padding) a multi-story stair-climbing event. Can't climb stairs? No problem, sort of. There's only about 100 or so accessible seats offered for the same price; Once those sell-out, the Yankees are happy to charge you more. And the new stadium is full of (supposedly) wonderful, climate-controlled indoor lounging and eating spaces (Mohegan Sun Club, Audi Club, Jim Beam Club, Delta Club, Legends Club, H&R Block Club, and private suites) great places to escape to during a cold, wet rain delay or a scorching 100-degree midsummer game--unless, of course, you happen to be sitting in the bleachers or the upper deck, with a ticket that will not grant you access to a single one of those places. While I accept that going to a baseball game is an outdoor experience, complete with all sorts of weather surprises, if the Yankees think that a pleasant retreat is good enough for rich people, couldn't they have at least considered building a nice communal space inside for the less fortunate? Or maybe just throw a bunch of picnic tables in the Great Hall?

But mostly it's just the general feeling of disrespect that regular old fans receive from the team. Here are a few of my experiences this season:

First, as a multi-year partial-season ticket holder with only an 8-game package and the cheapest seats (though we always pick up a few premium games and, when applicable, postseason ones), I was kept in the dark about ticket availability until just weeks before the season began, relegated to "don't call us, we'll call you" status throughout the winter months, while the Yankees were busy courting "premium" people for "premium" seats (in the past, I've been sent an invoice in January with my seat assignment for the season, a price, and a payment deadline). When I finally got the call in late March, I was upsold to a 12-ticket package (our 8-game package had been discontinued, the 11-game one sold-out, this was a take-it-or-leave-it-on-the-spot deal), and the price of my tickets in effectively the same (well, slightly worse) seats nearly doubled from $12 to $20 per seat. Mostly for the ability to buy post-season tickets, I willingly acquiesced to paying much more (honestly, I was just pretty excited to get the call after months of anticipation). The next day, after having stated and re-confirmed the exact sum to be authorized, I was surprised to find an extra $25 charged to my credit card. In response to a polite email inquiry about the mysterious extra charge, the team first offered to refund this undisclosed 'shipping' fee, but then replied a few minutes later that they had changed their minds (The Yankees: Building a new stadium, one unauthorized credit card charge at a time).

A few weeks later, several friends and I attended a Red Sox-Yankees game in the pouring rain. Predicting a sell-out crowd and all the traffic associated with it, we showed up early--and then it started raining. Rain delays are as much a part of the sport as home runs are, so there's no point in complaining about the weather. But as we sat there cold and wet for several hours, it would have been nice if the team updated us on the projected status of the game. We contemplated leaving several times, assuming that the bad weather would continue and the game would be canceled, but nearly two-and-a-half hours after the game's scheduled start, our indecisiveness paid off: the game started. By that time, however, we were all so cold and wet and tired that we left after an inning anyway. Other fans in the cheap seats, tired of huddling in the concourses to stay dry, left the stadium in search of warm, dry bars nearby. Upon their return at the start of the game, the Yanks rewarded their dedication by refusing them readmittance to the stadium. In the past, the Yankees would have at least shown their gratitude by offering all the fans at that game seats to another one. This year, even with an unexpectedly large number of empty seats, no such offer was extended. Several years ago, after JetBlue stranded hundreds of passengers on planes for hours during bad weather, they issued a public apology and instituted a Passengers' Bill of Rights. Perhaps the Yankees, after keeping fans completely uninformed for several hours, and offering contradictory messages about their re-entry policy, should institute a similar Fans' Bill of Rights. In short: You pay for a ticket, the Yankees treat you with a little respect.

And lastly, though my outward appearance might belie it, I've got the knees of an old man. Climbing long flights of stairs is very painful and difficult for me. I'll admit, buying the seats I was offered might not have been the smartest decision I've made recently, but I didn't want to lose the chance to retain our partial season package, and I hoped at the time that it was just a few steps up, and that on days that my knees were particularly sensitive, I'd simply move to another nearby seat a little lower down. In the old stadium, the uppermost deck (Tier Reserved) had no steps leading up to it. In the new one, however, it's about 15 steps up just to get to the first row of the equivalent seats (Grandstand). I was unaware of this fact at the time I made my purchase. Upon discovering this problem at the first game I attended this season, I figured I'd work around it as best as I could, moving to lower seats whenever possible. Well, the guard situation effectively put the kibosh on that strategy. But given the extremely limited number of accessible seats in the same price category, and the fact that I share my tickets with family and don't necessarily attend every single game, I resisted requesting seats in a wheelchair accessible section. After several painful games, I decided I had to do something about it. Then, adding injury to injury, my father recently underwent back surgery, and was given doctor's orders to get up and walk around often, but not to overexert himself, a feat made challenging by the dozens of stairs up and down from our seats. So, I called the head of disability services at the stadium and left a message. A day later, I received a call back from a friendly employee who told me not to bother reticketing our whole package, but simply to show up at the same day ticketing window, where there would be plenty of tickets available for no additional charge in equivalent accessible sections. (This should have been a red-flag. I was probably being discouraged from bothering our ticket agent, who has more important people to deal with.) Dutifully, dad and I showed up at the same-day ticket window as instructed, and dutifully we stood in a long line. Upon presenting our current seats and asking for an accessible replacement, the agent punched a few keys on his keyboard and then told us there were none available, but that we could pay more money to get seats that did not require stair-climbing. This was in stark contrast to the information I was given over the phone, so we asked to speak to a manager. The ticket agent disappeared for a few minutes and, having spoken to a supervisor, was apparently ready to help us. Rather than offer us accessible seats for no extra charge, as promised, he began, essentially, to bargain with us, offering to upgrade us for only $9. Then $5. By this time, the game had started, and we'd lost the willpower to argue. We paid a $5 upgrade per seat for accessible seats, and hurried to them, missing most of the first inning. We were also told that we should have called our ticket agent, and we were given his direct extension in order to reticket for the rest of the season. The next day, I called our ticket agent. Though he agreed to reissue us accessible seats for the rest of the season at no additional charge, he told us that none were available in a similar section, and has proceeded to move us from the 3rd base line all the way out to the left field foul pole. He also made me mail back our existing tickets, even though the Yankees possess the technology to immediately invalidate the barcode on our existing tickets and issue new ones--a technology which they are happy to deploy for $2 per ticket if we'd like to send them to a friend, and for a 15% seller's fee and a $4.99 buyer's fee, if we'd like to pass them on to someone else on StubHub.

I hate to sound too needy, or to have unrealistic expectations of a sports team that is, at its core, a business like any other, with the mission of making a profit. But all of this taken together makes me feel like the Yankees have just stopped caring much about fans who don't have a lot--and I mean, A LOT--of money to offer them in return. Sure, $1.5 billion dollars has certainly bought them a beautiful new ballpark, but it hasn't bought them a lot of compassion for their fans. If they're not interested in me, I'd be happy to give my loyalty to a team that is. Hey, Oakland, you still have $2 Wednesdays?


Jared Alessandroni said...

These are people who make their money charging you money to watch grown men chase a ball around - you can't apply ethical or moral concepts within a few miles of them with a straight face. As for the people who pay the people who charge to watch grown men in tight pants running around a small field and, well, we all get what we pay for. That is to say, isn't this a beast you created?

Librarianliz said...


Why don't you and your Dad just stay home at your lovely Berkshire getaway? You can watch in comfort with a great view of the game. Losing two great Yankee fans in the stands is their loss.
Librarian Liz