As sports have become more about efficiently maximizing profit in every way necessary both on and off the field, the idea of an “exclusive” fan experience has become central to every team’s business plan … one that’s more important than selling tickets. After all, in a world where most teams are making most of their money off television and licensing deals, the money you get from those diehards in the nosebleed seats is but a mere drop in the bucket, not worth much investment in the first place. (As anyone who has sat in the upper tier of any stadium in the past few years and been unable to get a beer without missing two full innings can attest.) Those Fan Experience surveys that rate stadiums on how well they cater to the average fan are missing the point: Nobody cares about the average fan. Industry estimates show that 70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows, and the industry trend is to limit capacity in order to maximize the money from the premium spots.The rich dudes (and they’re almost always dudes, of course) down low are where the real money is made.
The new Los Angeles football stadium is selling its most exclusive stadium-seat licenses for $100,000 a seat, which gives you access to your own clubhouse that no one else in the stadium can even see inside. The University of Georgia just announced that it will sell alcohol at its football games … but only to fans who give the university $25,000. (Even with that, you can only drink the booze in a specific section that does not have views of the field.) Yankee Stadium was constructed with a concrete moat built in to separate the fat cats from the outer-borough riffraff; the only way to get from the upper deck to those lower-level seats is to jump. The industry term is “social gathering space.” Perhaps inevitably, one team in Australia actually offers the ability to look into a team’s locker room pregame. As Ed Zitron, who sat in the Warriors’ “Mezzanine Club” for Game Four of the finals, a place that costs $22,000 a year just to enter, put it in Deadspin: “It was a sterile, gated-community way to watch a game — a way to be a ‘real fan’ without having to sit next to the proles. It was, to be fair, also a notably nice, relaxed experience; prime rib is delicious. But it was unmistakably a corporate setting. These seats cost about the same as those in the Sideline Club, which made buying these instead akin to saying that you want to be at the NBA Finals, and to say that you were there, without any of the troublesome basketball shit.”
This is inevitably what comes of following the money. Or, as Leitch puts it,
This is to say, sports stadiums are beginning to look like the rest of American culture: The rich get all the good stuff, and the rest of us get to pay to watch them enjoy it.
Because that’s where the money is. At some point — and for some, that realization has come faster than for others — the game plan isn’t going to be focusing on finding the next generation of fans to replace the old guard seat for seat as they fade away over time. It’s going to be to find the sweet spot that maximizes revenues. If that means shrinking seating capacity by a quarter or more, so be it, as long as it can be more than made up for by (1) raising ticket prices due to a manufactured supply crunch; (2) increasing premium seating; and (3) continuing to ratchet up broadcast revenues.
The math will work as long as we continue to value entertainment as we do. Them what can afford it will show up for the live event, ever more pampered. The rest of us will take comfort in our home viewing experience, ironically proclaiming its superiority. The people selling the product will be just fine with that.