The Minnesota Twins announced Tuesday that they would charge $15 for special "early batting practice" tickets for up to 60 fans, allowing them to watch the home team at work before the gates traditionally open. Then they unannounced it. After only a few hours of fan response -- at a rough estimate, about 40% outraged, 40% baffled and 20% indifferent -- they backtracked that very afternoon, saying that the release had been sent without proper vetting and that the team would not, in fact, be offering those tickets. The plan, if it ever really was the plan, had only a fleeting and brutal life, and is now in the limbo of "under discussion."
As a business-of-sports story, the idea of charging for early BP was not particularly significant -- possibly announced prematurely, definitely retracted, and in any case involving a relatively small number of fans and a relatively small amount of money. And while it seemed to me like a strange thing to do, it turns out the tickets would not quite have been the only ones of their kind in the majors. (The Astros, of all people, charge $45 a head for "VIP Batting Practice," but unlike the Twins' plan, that at least puts you on the field, as does the Braves' similar $60 offer).
What does seem significant, however, is the anger this provoked in Twins fans. Not all of them, of course, but certainly many of them, online and on the radio (although admittedly people calling in to sports talk shows are almost always angry). These new BP tickets wouldn't have affected most people at all, but the idea seems to have tapped into deeper resentment and concerns about fan treatment, the cost of games, and, I would argue, the increasing class division at a lot of stadiums -- even in Minnesota, which offers one of the fan-friendlier experiences in the game. And while the BP tickets themselves don't matter much, that anger is something teams should be paying attention to.
Some of the fan resentment seemed to come from a misunderstanding -- people thought that they would be charged to attend regular batting practice, the kind that is traditionally always free with a ticket. That wasn't the case. Instead the Twins would have opened up the park earlier than usual to a select group of the willing-to-pay. Early bird fans know that as it now stands at most ballparks, when the gates open the home team has finished or is finishing BP, and the visitors are starting. Under the scrapped plan, if you wanted to watch the Twins too, you could pay extra to do so, and hopefully get a shot at some home run balls.
You are now thinking, "you want me to pay to watch this Twins team try to hit?," and probably that was another part of the anger: the team was not good last year, it is not going to be good this year, and frankly next year might not be so hot either. So this maybe isn't the time to start charging for extras, especially since decent tickets -- for whole games, not just BP -- are currently going on StubHub for about $7.50.
Beyond that, though, is a feeling that I believe most sports fans these days can relate to, the sense of generally being gouged. It's not just baseball, of course - this is at least as prevalent among football and basketball fans. Overpriced parking. Overpriced beer. Overpriced hot dogs. Overpriced souvenirs. We've heard complaints about the price of taking your family to a game for so many years that the words are almost meaningless now, but it's truer than ever: for a lot of people, a baseball game with all the trappings, even when "all the trappings" just means a couple of beers or a few snacks, has become something of a luxury. Even though the Twins' new policy was only a completely optional add-on, in that context it still felt like overload. There isn't a fan in the country who has recently thought, "teams should charge me for more things."
Even that, though, is only part of it. Target Field is a beautiful new stadium, but like most of the beautiful new stadiums, it comes with much more built-in class separation than most ballparks used to have. The Twins are generally very good about fan outreach, and compared to the stadiums I visit most often, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, the ballpark is affordable and democratic. Even so, there are more than a few additional luxury seats and suites and clubs than there used to be. Increasingly, ballgames feel like airlines: they have a clearly defined caste system. People willing to pay extra get an entirely different experience than the rest of us. And that context makes a relatively harmless offer like early BP tickets feel more ominous: just one more perk for the fans with money, one more thing they get that we don't. There are a lot of those moments in life, of course, and this is way, way down on the list of important ones. Still, it would be nice to get a bit of a break from all that at a ball game.
My one visit to Target Field, several years ago, was nothing but fantastic. I love the ballpark, and this is certainly nothing the Twins can't recover from. I love going to baseball games in New York, too, but there's no denying that this phenomenon is stronger here than it is anywhere else I've been. The new Yankee Stadium is renowned for it: Premium This, Luxury That, Platinum The Other, ludicrous prices that leave the seats closest to the field half-empty at all times but still extremely profitable. The Jim Beam Suite, near my usual seats in the upper deck, has now expanded to include nice upholstered furniture and tables in the concourse, separated from the riffraff by velvet ropes. It's started to feel like the fans in my area are just there to provide local color for the high-rollers, and the bleachers are a lonely oasis, a very loud museum exhibit preserving pre-2009 fan specimens.
The Twins, of all innocent small-market entities, are certainly not responsible for the sins of the Yankees. But it is telling that, even there, fans feel bled dry.
The most puzzling part of the early BP ticket mess, to me, is the relatively small financial benefit to the Twins this plan would have offered in the first place. They were supposedly going to cap the number of early BP tickets sold at 60 per game, which means they could have made, at most, $72,900 over the course of the whole season. Now, that is a lot of money to me and probably to you, but the Twins pay Joe Mauer more than that every three innings. By MLB standards, this is chicken scratch, not even a sixth of the major-league minimum salary. Every little bit helps, maybe, but it hardly seems worth alienating your fanbase, especially in a season when the action on the field will likely be alienating enough itself.
Teams are, obviously, within their rights to try and make money any way they see fit. But there is a price to be paid in good will, and that reduced good will is in turn, eventually, bound to show up in the profits. Fans are supposed to stick with their teams through the hard times, and indeed that is part of what makes the fan experience deep and ultimately, at least you hope, rewarding. But it's a lot harder to do when it becomes starkly clear that team ownership is not going to help you through the hard times. And I find it hard to believe that, in the long run, empty expensive seats are more valuable to these teams than cheap but full ones.
The Twins misstep was, in the scale of things, a very minor one. It is not their fault that professional sports in general have become such a price gouge or that luxury suites are spreading like kudzu. And they are far from the worst offenders. But I think what we're seeing is a fan climate angry enough over those larger issues to lash out over relatively small ones. The real question is whether that fan anger will be strong enough, eventually, to force any real change.