March 24, 2009

The Era of the Super(ficial) Fan

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We are beginning to see them at every sporting event. They are the worst. Unfortunately, they are becoming the rule, not the exception. Next time the cameraman turns for a shot of the crowd, take a close look and you will see them. They are everywhere, usually in business casual attire, checking email on their blackberry while the rest of the crowd holds its collective breath until the final seconds wind off the clock.
I have become all too familiar with this fan. I despise this fan. It used to be just the Super Bowl or any L.A. Laker home game. Now, it’s Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and front row alongside Spike Lee at Madison Square Garden. This is the business person, who was handed free tickets by his or her company. They enter the turnstiles with no true allegiance. They always sit in field boxes, or worse yet, in lavish suites. They have never endured the heartache after a playoff loss. They are just there to woo the next client or close the next deal.
I am not saying they should be forbidden from attending ballgames, but this is an unpleasant direction sports are heading in. As cliché as it may sound, the bottom line is money. In a time when the average fan has been priced out of attending the game, professional sports franchises have long catered to corporate America. These fans do not blink at paying $18 for sushi or $8.25 for a beer. Plus, they never fail to buy the overpriced officially-licensed jersey for their spoiled child.
Nothing is more indicative of this growing trend than the personal seat license phenomenon that accompany the construction of new stadiums.
If season ticket holders would like to purchase seats in a new stadium, often the face value of these tickets is as much as 50 percent higher than the old stadium. However, they must first purchase a personal seat license. So in essence, before they gouge you for the higher ticket price, they practice some form of legal extortion for the privilege. Nearly half of the National Football League franchises will have personal seat license policies before the start of the 2009 season. PSLs for the construction of the new Giants Stadium range from $1,000 to $20,000, and on top of this, the folks in the Meadowlands are guilty of double-dipping, as they shake down both Giants and Jets season ticket holders alike.
Fortunately for the owners of these stadiums, when the faithful fan fails to foot the bill, corporate America is waiting on the doorstep to sweep up whatever tickets are left. I have had the privilege of attending at least one Giants game every year over the last decade. Similar to my family, the group who sits in front of us has had season tickets since the Truman administration. My fondest memory as a little kid going to Giants Stadium was watching their over-exuberance as they threatened head coach Jim Fassel from 32 rows up in section 132 when the Giants surrendered a second-half lead and the game to Randall Cunningham’s Vikings in the 1997 playoffs. Thanks to Giants’ ownership, these fans are being pushed out of the door in favor of “fans” with deeper pockets and less heart.
Across the river, the Yankees and Mets are doing the same thing. New ballparks and a new fan base. However, the tough economic times have impacted the single-game ticket sales for each ballpark, as front office executives scramble to fill seats before opening day. No, not the “affordable” nose-bleed seats and bleacher seats, but the $2,500 field level box seat targeted at the dearly-departed at Lehman Brothers and other “suits” on Wall Street.
On the 4th of July last season, I sat three rows behind home plate at the old Yankee Stadium to watch the Red Sox take on the Bronx Bombers, courtesy of a friend with familial corporate connections. That was the best seat I will ever have in my life (until I am sitting in the dugout as the Yankees’ centerfielder). I was sitting in a $250 seat. I could not believe it. A similar seat at the new Yankee Stadium this year would cost $2,500. I know they landed Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeria, but you cannot tell me the product on the field has increased tenfold. Relax. The seats do include food and soft drinks.
I understand sports are a business. I foolishly believed the Steinbrenner clan might fund the stadium themselves. After all, has not Boss George’s investment of $10 million in 1973 swollen recently to a league-record value of $1.3 billion? Or, how about reasonable ticket price increases? How about not building new stadiums when the old ones are perfectly adequate? There are alternatives other than forcing loyal fans to mortgage their homes or dip into little Johnny’s college fund in order to pay for season tickets.
Some say if you do not like the way something is run, do not support it. This is easier said than done. Anyone who advocates sitting at home and watching on television as opposed to attending the game is not a real sports fan. I do not care how high your definition is. Furthermore, most of the media members who suggest this alternative in columns or on talk shows attend the games for free in the press box.
Call it immoral, call it hypocritical, but I will still attend at least one Giants game next season thanks to my grandfather. I told him I would not love him anymore if he did not buy the tickets.
I admit foregoing the tickets would have been a bolder move by a much bigger person, but I am still sensitive to the plight of the loyal fan no longer permitted in Giants Stadium.