Fans Unhappy About Changes by 49ers, A's
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 13, 2006

THE 49ERS and A’s are making significant marketing changes for 2006, and many of their fans are unhappy.

For the 49ers, the change is in pricing tickets, and it’s subject to approval from the San Francisco Department of Parks and Recreation, which sets ticket prices because the 49ers have always played in a city-owned stadium, first at Kezar, now at Candlestick.

Probably for convenience, the Park/Rec people have pegged all game tickets at the same price, $64 for last season, so it cost as much for a fan sitting in the upper deck in the end zone as for a fan sitting on the 50-yard line. The new policy would set variable prices tied to seat location, which would add $20 to the best seats and reduce prices for the worst. Overall, the average ticket price would rise only 19 cents.

Understandably, those with season tickets in the best sections are outraged, reasoning that they’re being hit with more than a 30 per cent price hike for an inferior product. There’s no arguing with that logic, but it’s been absurd that people sitting in the worst seats have to pay as much as those in the best seats. In fact, variable pricing is the norm for all professional sports. In baseball, they’re even applying it to the individual games, with those played against the best draws (Yankees, Red Sox, for instance) priced higher.

The problem for the 49ers is the timing. If they’d done this in the mid-‘90s, when they were in that great stretch where they won five Super Bowls, the last in 1995, they might have gotten complaints but they wouldn’t have had to worry about defections; any season ticket holders who dropped out could have been easily replaced from a waiting list of about 10,000 people who wanted to buy season tickets.

That waiting list has evaporated. The 49ers sold a little more than 54,000 season tickets last year, about 14,000 short of capacity. For at least the last two years, those previously on the waiting list, some for 10 years or more, have been called and told they could now buy season tickets. Those who have already purchased season tickets have been encouraged to add more. The 49ers have placed commercials on TV to sell tickets.

Now, season ticket holders know that they can probably drop their tickets and still have a chance to buy back in when and if the team gets good again, which isn’t exactly on the immediate horizon. The only question would be location. Those on or close to the 50-yard line might be reluctant to give up their tickets because, when they bought back in, they wouldn’t be able to get that kind of location. But for those whose seats are, say, on the goal line, there wouldn’t be much incentive to keep their seats.

So, why would the 49ers do it at this time? Probably for economics. With variable pricing, those buying tickets, whether for the season or individual games, will want the best location posssible, so they’ll be paying the higher prices. The unsold tickets will be the cheaper ones.

The 49ers were not blacked out for home games last season. They’ve admitted to buying up tickets to keep the games on home TV but insist that the tickets were fewer than a thousand for each game. Judging from the empty seats I saw at games, I doubt that, but however many they bought, they had to pay $64 for each one. If they continue that policy for the 2006 season, the tickets they buy back will be cheaper.

THE A’S big change is much more dramatic: They’re closing off the entire third deck of the Coliseum, reducing the seating to a little over 35,000. In a sense, this is a trial run for a new stadium because owner Lew Wolff has proposed a 35,000-seat capacity for a new facility.

The A’s have struggled with their attendance while playing in a facility that could bring in crowds of more than 50,000, if the seats in Mount Davis are utilized. Meanwhile, they had a season ticket base of under 10,000 and some “crowds” which have barely exceeded that. There has been little incentive to buy season tickets because fans have known they could get tickets for even the biggest games. Though it is easy to forget in the heady atmosphere created by PacBell Park, the Giants attendance patterns at Candlestick were almost identical to what the A’s have dealt with lately.

The really big A’s crowds have come on Opening Night, for the $2 Wednesdays and for occasional big games against the Yankees and Giants. The overwhelming majority of crowds would have fit into the 35,000-seat configuration.

Meanwhile, the A’s have led the majors in walkup, with as many as 20,000 for individual games. That creates enormous staffing problems because the team has had difficulty estimating how many ticket sellers or concessions workers would be needed for games. On heavy walkup days, there have been long ticket lines, and some fans haven’t gotten into the game until after it’s started. There have also been long lines at the concession stands.

These long lines won’t be necessary if the season ticket base goes up, which is one of the benefits for fans. The parking lot won’t overflow because there will never be more than about 35,000 fans at the game, and the A’s also have a solid percentage of fans who come on BART. The game atmosphere will be better because fans will be concentrated in a smaller area, instead of spread out through the park. There is always more excitement with big crowds, and now, 35,000 in the new configuration will seem like 50,000 in the old one.

Let’s be realistic: Though the A’s will talk of the benefit to fans from these changes, they’re making these changes primarily to boost their season ticket sales, so they can have a more efficient operation. But I think that, overall, fans will like the changes in the Coliseum.

SPORTS AND teams are continually looking for better ways of marketing their product.

In the ‘70s, multi-purpose stadiums popped up in several cities, but in time, it became obvious that they worked well for football but not at all for baseball. Bigger is not better in baseball. The trend now is for smaller, more intimate parks, with PacBell a shining example. The Coliseum is still a multi-purpose stadium, but the A’s are doing what they can to make it seem like a smaller park.

Meanwhile, the 49ers have finally joined an industry-wide move to variable ticket pricing.

Both teams are getting a backlash from fans, but I think their moves are good ones.

LETTERS: I got a tremendous response to yesterday’s column on Ben Braun, so I’ll be updating “Letters” with a sampling of e-mails on that subject by mid-afternoon today.

HOLIDAY: Because Monday is a holiday, I won’t be posting a column that day. I’ll return Tuesday.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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