Every year, right around Opening Day of the baseball season, Team Marketing Report releases its "Fan Cost Index." Even if you don't know it by name, you're probably at least familiar with how it works. In order to calculate the "cost of attendance for a family of four" (their words), TMR adds up the prices of the following: two adult average-price tickets, two children's average-price tickets, four small soft drinks, two small beers, four hot dogs, two programs, parking and two adult-size caps.
And every year, the details of the index get picked up by various media outlets; this year, the Arizona Diamondbacks even issued a press release to boast that they had the lowest Fan Cost Index in the majors for the eighth straight year, more than $80 below the industry average. To quote that press release: "The Fan Cost Index is a representative look at the costs for a family of four to attend a MLB game."
But it's rather silly to say that the dollar amount TMR comes up with is the actual cost of attending a baseball game. An upper deck seat, for instance, will cost a family less than the stadium average -- by quite a bit in some cases. Parents don't really need to buy themselves both a beer and a soft drink. (And for that matter, you don't need to eat inside the stadium, though I'll grant that can be hard to explain to a child.) And who buys two caps every time they go to a game? (Some parents these are, by the way, buying hats for themselves but not for their kids.)
Even worse, though, is the that index obscures the fact that attending a Major League Baseball game is, even in 2014, a good bargain.
The White Sox, for instance, are just below the league average on the Fan Cost Index. Tickets for Saturday's game against the division rival Indians start at just $7. That's not a price on the secondary market, by the way, where some desperate season-ticket holder is hoping to get whatever he or she can in return for tickets that would otherwise go unused. That's the face value of the ticket, from the team's box office. (Sometimes tickets are even cheaper: The White Sox use dynamic pricing, in which the price varies depending on a number of factors. The following day, tickets are available for just $5.) In either case, you can get into U.S. Cellular Field this weekend for less than the cost of a movie ticket.
Even the Yankees, who rank second on the Fan Cost Index and play in a city where everything is notoriously expensive, sell some tickets for a reasonable price. (Individual tickets start at $18.) That's long been the case: When I was a high schooler with limited funds, I could still afford to attend a handful of games at Yankee Stadium with my friends each summer, always sitting in the bleachers or the upper deck. (The phrase "half-price student tickets on Wednesdays" was music to this 15-year-old's ears.)
The everyday-ness of baseball is one of the things that make it great: It's something you can follow day in and day out, all summer long. And if you're lucky enough to live near a ballpark, it's something you can see in person on a regular basis if you so choose. Going to a ballgame isn't an event that needs to be planned for weeks and saved up for, despite what the Fan Cost Index suggests. Or at least, it's not as long as you and your family don't have expensive tastes.
Saying it costs $337.20 to take a family of four to a Yankees game is more than a little misleading. It's more accurate, really, to say that the cost of attending a game depends largely on how much you're willing to spend. You can buy the sodas and hot dogs and programs and hats and sit in decent seats. You can buy the priciest food in the house and authentic jerseys for the kids and sit in the first row behind the dugout. Or you can buy tickets in the nosebleeds and eat before entering the stadium gates. (Shout out to the diner on 161st and Walton!)
This isn't to say that parts of the Fan Cost Index aren't worth paying attention to -- or that it couldn't be useful if presented in a more responsible way. I do want to know which teams have the highest average ticket prices, and TMR provides a valuable service by calculating that. And it's fine to show the relative cost of the ballpark experience in one city compared to all the others. It's even worth tracking how the cost of that experience changes over time -- a sort of baseball-only Consumer Price Index. But that's not how the Fan Cost Index, which counts things in twos and fours to put it in terms of a family heading out to the ballpark, frames it. The Fan Cost Index claims to tell the cost of attending a game, but the dollar figure -- the one the media invariably spreads around -- is misleadingly high.
TMR releases these reports for sports other than baseball, but baseball especially doesn't deserve the bad rap for being expensive. Attending a baseball game is still a pretty good bargain, as long as you don't insist on sitting within spitting distance of home plate and don't go overboard at the concession stands. Don't let the Fan Cost Index tell you otherwise.