By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The modern evolution of American professional sports has seen the industry grow into one that generates astounding profits. And while a significant portion of those profits comes from television deals, the high price of life as a sports fan continues to grow more costly seemingly every year.
In Boston, one need not look far to see how expensive life can be for fans who love their local sports teams. The average price of a Patriots ticket is $122, which means if someone wants to take his wife and kid to a game, it’s going to cost over $400 with parking and without even talking about concessions. Considering it’s an all-day affair, it’s easily at least a $500 price tag to see the team play. That’s obviously a rather high price, especially considering that family may be shelling out that cash to watch a former rugby player dropkick an onside kick while the miserable Philadelphia Eagles unexpectedly stomp all over the home team.
There’s really no cheap ticket in town anymore, and that’s been true for quite some time over at Fenway Park. It costs an average of $52 to see the Red Sox in person, and if you want to actually make out the players’ faces, it’s going to cost you a lot more. It’s balanced, somewhat, by numerous improvements made by the current ownership group, from the revitalization of the 100-year-old park, to the end of the 86-year championship drought, to the truckloads of money that are spent on players. One thing fans can never call the ownership group is cheap. For better (David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia) but mostly worse (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carl Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, Rick Porcello, J.D. Drew, John Lackey, Josh Beckett), the current ownership group has never been shy to pull out the old checkbook.
For many reasons, it’s nice to be a Red Sox fan, and that comes with a price.
But then … there is the fact that they went four seasons (2009-12) without winning a single playoff game. There’s the fact that they followed up their 2013 World Series win with two straight seasons in last place. There’s the nonsense about “not needing an ace” or the brilliant idea to sign Hanley Ramirez to play a position he’s never played before, and above all else, there is Bob Valentine.
After the owners forced Bob Valentine on you for a full season, they should be paying you to attend games for the next five years. (Congrats to Bobby for building that fence, though.)
But, that’s life as a fan in modern day America. You love your team, and so you open your wallet. There’s not much you can do about it.
But … what if you can?
The fine folks over in Liverpool have shown us this week that fans do have a voice. It’s just a matter of having the guts to express it.
In case you missed it, Liverpool supporters left last weekend’s game en masse as a protest against the team’s £77 ticket. (£77 comes out to about $111 in the U.S.) They left in droves in the 77th minute of the game, with Liverpool leading Sunderland 2-0 at the time.
The difference between Liverpool fans and, say, Red Sox fans is that Liverpool fans have bite. They take the idea that they are all part of a family to heart, and they know that they are bigger than any team owner, any club manager, or any player. They are Liverpool as much as anybody else involved with the club. In our cynical, jaded, industrial sports world, such an idea seems far-fetched. But out there in England? It’s legitimate.
So when they know that an owner is crossing a line and taking too much money out of their pockets, they do something about it.
And, lo and behold, it worked. Henry backed down. The most expensive ticket now remains £59, with some tickets going for as low as £9. Also, the implementation of a tiered ticket system (as in, it costs more to see the Red Sox play the Yankees than it does to see the Red Sox play the Rays) has been dropped. Ticket prices will remain flat all year long in Liverpool.
“The three of us have been particularly troubled by the perception that we don’t care about our supporters, that we are greedy, and that we are attempting to extract personal profits at the club’s expense,” Henry wrote of himself, Tom Werner and Mike Gordon. “Quite the opposite is true.”
Yeah … no. Owners don’t raise ticket prices in order to serve “as custodians of this incredible institution,” which is a phrase Henry and/or his fellow owners actually wrote. They raise ticket prices to increase revenue. They certainly did it here at Fenway Park, where ticket prices have certainly risen faster than inflation since 2002.
The difference is that in Boston, instead of leaving early, tens of thousands of people stick around for the only reason they showed up to the ballpark in the first place.
They stay to sing “Sweet Caroline.”
And that’s after they spent time on a sidewalk in February listening to Dick Flavin recite horrifically corny poetry about weather and baseball.
That’s not a knock on the Fenway experience, necessarily. If that’s how masses of people choose to spend their time and money for enjoyment, then that’s their life. And if the owners can profit off those people, then that’s America. Capitalism rules the day.
But the hardcore baseball fan who takes a step back in the midst of an 18-3 Rangers thumping of the Red Sox, the one who deals with Wally (and now Tessie!), the one who has seen Fenway Park, long a bastion of baseball purity, turn into the sports equivalent of Disneyland. He has to look around and wonder if the product is worth the investment.
The difference in attitudes between the fan base here and the one in Liverpool was clear in one interview conducted outside of Anfield following the fan walkout. The fan, who flew from Dublin for the match but nevertheless walked out of the stadium with his fellow fans, provided his perspective on the movement:
Even if it was [expletive] one-nil to Sunderland, me myself, looking at a city like Liverpool, it’s a working-class city, you can’t be charging 77 pounds a ticket. I’m sorry. But you can’t. For the football that is especially being played at the minute? See ya later. I’m sorry. You can’t do it. You can’t do it anymore, man. It’s [expletive] ridiculous.
It’s [expletive] disgraceful, the way these people have to pay [expletive] 77 pounds a ticket. Are ya mad? Are ya crazy? What the [expletive]?
This is modern Liverpool. This is like football, man. This is crazy [expletive]. It’s crazy, man. Seventy-seven pounds. To watch THAT?! Are ya [expletive] mad?! James Milner?! What the [expletive]?! Are ya mad? Jordan Henderson is your captain?! [Expletive] off! Honestly. Honestly. Would you pay 77 pound to see [expletive] Jordan Henderson kick a ball against the wall? No. [Expletive] off.
Honestly, pal. Swear to God. It actually does me brain in.
(With the obvious warning for some foul language, the full interview is here.)
Strong, strong stuff from the unnamed Irish fellow.
It does me brain in.
That is the rambling of a somewhat mad man, sure, but it’s also the voice of a man who got the owner to back down.
Could it ever happen here, in any sport? Orioles fans staged a walkout in 2006 because they were mad at the owner, but there were only 1,000 fans involved, and the Orioles were only filling Camden Yards at 55 percent capacity that year. Peter Angelos is still the owner.
Last year, when Tom Brady was facing an absurd suspension for allegedly having committed a minor infraction, talks bubbled up of fans protesting the NFL’s season-opening game in New England, or at least showing up late, or leaving early. But even if that suspension had been enforced, there was no chance of 68,000 people passing up the opportunity to attend such an event. Even the people “organizing” the protest would admit as much.
Bruins fans put on an unofficial walkout on Tuesday night, as the majority of the crowd headed home early as the Kings steamrolled the home team 9-2. But those fans will assuredly be back in the building to pay the fourth-highest U.S. NHL ticket prices when the Bruins return on Feb. 22.
A movement on the scale of what the folks in Liverpool did is just not in our American sports DNA. We may complain and protest and shout from the rooftops, but as long as we keep punching in our credit card numbers and CVV codes on Ticketmaster, it all amounts to a whole lot of nothing.
But maybe we all can learn something from Liverpool. If you read through all of John Henry’s open letter, you’ll see that it’s clear that the owner was shaken by the protest. He was … scared. Being an American, he’s always been seen by fans as an “outsider” since acquiring the club, and seeing the visual of thousands of fans angrily storming out of the stadium had to resonate with him as being something that could cause irreparable damages. And so, quite swiftly, Henry sought to repair them.
“Message received,” he wrote.
It’s a lesson that for as helpless as the average American sports fan might be, the masses can always speak loudest. And occasionally, the collective voice might actually be heard.