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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Original High Def Sure Has Gotten Pricey

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For a longtime sports fan, a special joy occurs when a game stirs memories of past fun and a sport's timeless beauty. Then there are events that show how much things can change, when the old-timer feels like Dorothy after the tornado: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." One of the Observers had both experiences at the same time last week.

Frank: Did you catch me on TV the other night?

Artie: How'd you get on TV?

Frank: It was a cameo role. I had a courtside seat when the Bucks beat New Orleans.

Artie: And how the hell did you score that?

Frank: My friend Michele, whom you know from Brewer games, won two tickets in a raffle. We were just behind the north basket.

Artie: Geez, what do those tickets go for?

Frank: The next night at my beloved Paddy's Pub I asked for guesses. They ranged from $90 to $180.

Artie: And the winner is...?

Frank: Here's the ticket.

Artie: F-F-FOUR HUNDRED AND SIX? American dollars?

Frank: So it says. If you buy for the whole season, maybe there's a discount.

Artie: What, like all the way down to $375, maybe?

Frank: The $406 can't be the highest price; mid-court seats on the floor must be higher, although the Bucks' Web site doesn't list courtside prices. They're probably below what Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee pays, anyway.

Artie: But still, it's getting to the point where only NBA players can afford to attend NBA games. Joe Schmo will have to win the Megabucks to get in.

Frank: I have some historical perspective. During the Bucks' first season, 1968-69, I was a freshman at Marquette. The night before I flew back to New York for Christmas, the Arena hosted an old-fashioned NBA double-header—Chicago vs. Baltimore and the Bucks vs. Seattle.

Artie: And the winners?

Frank: The Bullets, 125-102, and the Bucks, 100-92. I did have to look up the scores. Anyway, I bought my ticket the day of the game, and I was in the first row behind the south basket—separated by a walkway, but as close as you could get then.

Artie: And the price that night was...

Frank: Microfilm confirmed my memory. That first season the Bucks had three prices: Five twenty-five, four twenty-five and three twenty-five.

Artie: Those numbers had decimal points, ain'a?

Frank: Indeed. Maybe it was seven or eight bucks for the double-header, but that seat went for $5.25 for a single game.

Artie: To be fair, which I hate, you've gotta consider inflation over 42 years.

Frank: I checked the Consumer Price Index figures. In December 1968 the CPI stood at 34.8; in December 2009 it was 214.5. That's a bit over a six-fold increase. So a $5.25 ticket was the equivalent of $32 now.

Artie: Which would put you upstairs at the Bradley Center.

Frank: Again, to be fair, I'm not comparing the $5.25 then to the $406 now, because I was only a few feet from the court last week. But a comparable seat today, in the first row of the "end zone," goes for $100 on a single-game basis, according to the Bucks' Web site. That's a 19-fold increase over $5.25, or three times what the price would be going strictly by inflation.

Artie: I daresay the average fan isn't making 19 times what folks made in ’68.

Frank: But NBA players sure are. I couldn't find precise stats on NBA salaries in the late ’60s. On the players' union site there's a statement that in 1976 the average salary was "approaching $200,000." I figure that in December ’68 it was under $100,000.

Artie: Well under, I'd say.

Frank: Census Bureau data show the median U.S. household income in 1968 was $8,600. If the median NBA salary—half the players above, half below—was, say, $40,000, it would have been roughly five times higher. Today the median U.S. income is in the $50,000 range, but the median NBA salary is more than $3 million, or 60 times higher. Not that the NBA has the only ridiculous salaries in sports. But why should pro athletes be immune from tough economic times?

Artie: Any league that either thinks it can have $406 and higher tickets, or has to have them, is way out of touch with reality. Yet David Stern says the NBA will lose $400 million this season. Maybe those prices aren't high enough!

Frank: Here's more context. The Packers just raised ticket prices an average of $9, to a range of $67 to $83. The Brewers' top price is $100, with the cheapest seats in the first tier going for $40. The Bucks' lower-level prices—the ones they list, anyway—go from $50 to $130 for single games.

Artie: And upstairs?

Frank: For the Bucks, the higher seats go for $10 to $36. At Miller Park, the fourth tier ranges from $6 to $21. Now, I'm sure the Bucks say the huge courtside prices let them hold the line upstairs...

Artie: You mean the seats that are mostly empty at many games.

Frank: Including the Hornets game. Plus, we always hear the TV announcers hawking discount packages for certain games. But doesn't all that discounting say something about the original pricing structure?

Artie: The Bucks are fighting technology. With all the big-screen and high-definition TVs now, unless you're pretty dang close you can see the game a lot better sitting at home or in a bar.

Frank: Speaking of the recession, one wonders who's buying the courtside seats on a season basis.

Artie: Gotta be companies. Hundreds of dollars times 41 home games is a fast break or two beyond the dough of even most lawyers and doctors—I hope.

Frank: Whoever's sitting courtside, they're seeing a great show. Talk about high def! I hadn't been that close since I covered some games for the Journal in the early ’90s. Everything is so amazingly fast; end-to-end in like three seconds. The dribbling and driving are so hard, and then they stop in a flash, give the tiniest little wrist flick, and swish. It really is fantastic!

Artie: For those who can afford to get close. Hey, does the $406 ticket come with any amenities?

Frank: It gets you into the Palermo's Courtside Club, under the west stands. Kind of a Vegas lounge, low lighting and long curving bar, lots of tables. The usual arena food, plus a nice buffet line—casseroles, hand-carved meat—and lots of dessert selections.

Artie: So you loaded up?

Frank: Hardly. I asked a waitress, "Is anything here free?" She smiled and said, "No." The beer prices aren't any higher, but yikes, not even a bag of popcorn or a bottle of water for $406? They do hand you a program and some game notes. Oh, and the men's room offers an array of grooming products, including hairspray—hairspray!

Artie: What, no tanning booth?

Frank: During the game there was one more freebie—but it was really a dilemma.

Artie: How so?

Frank: Some of the Energee! dancers parked themselves right in front of us. Now, I try not to objectify women and I'm old enough to be their grandfather, but I'm still a guy. And during the timeouts, the nice young ladies in go-go boots and skimpy outfits were doing their wiggling about 4 feet away. Where does one look, especially when one's eyes are at, um, midriff level?

Artie: A gentleman would excuse himself and cool his heels in the concourse until the burlesque show was over. Well, you'll never have that problem again, unless Michele wins another raffle. But hey, in 20 years we'll look back fondly on a $406 ticket like it was 30-cent gasoline.

Frank: Most courtside seats were filled last week, but not all. Here's an idea for the Bucks: At halftime, find a family or two in the upper deck and bring them down to the unfilled seats.

Artie: And give ’em a shot at the dessert cart.

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