Website Future, BB Ticket Prices, John Madden
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 22, 2009

WEBSITE FUTURE: I’ve been writing this column for more than four years and, as much as I’ve enjoyed it, I just haven’t been able to make it pay. That’s important because I’m a professional journalist, not a blogger doing something to get noticed.

So, I have two choices:

1) Go to a pay system in the fall, writing three columns a week for $10 a year, a little more than 6 cents a column, in the same style in which I’ve been writing columns since 1971.

2) Shut the website down.

The decision will be made by you. It will cost me to go to the pay system because changes will have to be made in the website and I’ll have to arrange for a system to collect money. So, in the next two months, I need an indication of how many readers would subscribe. If I hear from enough readers who are willing to pay to make it worth the effort for me, I’ll go to the pay system. Otherwise, I’ll shut down the column and devote my writing energy to my Examiner columns and other types of writing.

Either way, thanks for the memories.

ABOUT 35 years ago, I wrote a column predicting that baseball would have serious problems because of rising ticket prices. Since then, baseball has set attendance records, perhaps triple of the totals when I wrote that column. Nonetheless, it’s time to reprise that column, and this time, I may even be right.

My original column was based on the premise that baseball had always been the family game, more reasonably priced than football and dependent on families being able to afford to come to the games. That led to a generational attachment to the sport in general and individual teams in particular. It was the ultimate blue collar sport.

But MLB teams changed their marketing in subsequent years. Instead of just appealing to baseball fans, with the standard promotions like Bat Day and Fan Appreciation Day at the end of the season, they started marketing to corporations and big time business people. New parks have luxury suites, club seating and many perks for those willing to spend for them. The Giants park in China Basin is an example of that. There is a wide range of food available, a long way from the old hot dogs, popcorn and Cracker Jacks of my youth. There is also a wide range of activities for children, video games and HD TVs throughout the park.

The Giants have done well with their park, even in the last four years when they’ve finished below. 500 and out of contention for the playoffs. With the bad economy, they’re worried about this season, but the early crowds have been respectable.

Football has also gone in this direction; new stadiums all have luxurious luxury suites and club seating, and that money is not shared by visiting teams.

But, there’s a real danger in that approach. Blue collar fans tend to be very loyal to their team; though winning teams draw better than losing teams, there’s not usually a big falloff among blue collar fans when the team loses. You don’t get that kind of loyalty among corporate people. They get their suites to entertain clients, but if the team isn’t entertaining, they walk away.

I warned about that when the Raiders returned from Los Angeles. Their original audience was very much blue collar and very loyal, selling out every game on a season ticket basis for years. But the costs of re-doing the Coliseum made it imperative that the Raiders be marketed to corporate people. It hasn’t worked. The suites are often empty and, because season ticket sales only account for a little more than 50 per cent of capacity, the crowds are mostly composed of people buying single-game tickets. That means few sellouts, though the Raiders, like the 49ers, often buy up tickets so they can claim a sellout and put the game on home TV.

The problem is more acute in baseball, which has so many games. Yet, teams have been building new parks with as many luxury suites and club seats as football stadiums.

The ultimate has occurred this year in New York with the new Yankee Stadium, no surprise given the arrogance of the Steinbrenner family. Tickets behind home plate are a whopping $2,625, and they’re $600-800 a game in other areas of the park. New York has more wealth than any other city in the country, but even for New York, this is wretched excess. No true baseball fans need apply.

I haven’t seen either park, but the new Mets park, which cost only a little more than half of the new Yankee Stadium, sounds much more like a park designed for real fans. It pays homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers past – the Mets have drawn heavily from the old Dodger fan base – and to Jackie Robinson.

Baseball is much more vulnerable to the country’s economic woes than football. NFL season ticket holders are usually reluctant to give up their tickets even if the team is losing because they wouldn’t be able to get them back if the team turned around. With relatively few games, almost all played on Sunday, it’s much easier for fans to plan for the games and make each a big event, complete with tailgate parties before and after.

Baseball is a much more casual game. I see some people tailgating before games at the Coliseum or AT&T Park but not many, certainly nothing like the scene at the Coliseum or Candlestick before football games.

And now, most of the games are on television. In this area, it’s far cheaper to pay for a Comcast package which brings you more than 140 games for both the Giants and A’s than to pay for season tickets for the teams.

So, maybe this is a wakeup call for baseball.

JOHN MADDEN: When Madden announced his retirement from football announcing last week, it brought back a flood of memories for me.

Madden started his pro football coaching career in 1967, as linebackers coach for the Oakland Raiders, the same year I started as the Raiders beat writer for The Chronicle. We were born two months apart and in the same state, Minnesota; he was born in the southern part, while I was born in the frigid north.

The one area where our paths diverged dramatically is in income flow. Sigh.

I’ve often said that the period in which I was a beat writer (five years) was probably the last time it was really fun to do that. We were really close to the players at that time, even traveling with them. In training camp, if we wanted to talk to players, we just stopped by their room. (The Raiders trained at the El Rancho in Santa Rosa then; today, they train at the Marriott in Napa.) Tom Keating had a big room upstairs and, after lunch, there would be several players up there. I often sat in, with the understanding that I would never write anything about those sessions. If I heard something I wanted to follow up on, I would go to the player later and ask him to talk on the record. In the meantime, I learned an awful lot about football in general and the Raiders in particular.

Madden was part of that because he was always very open with writers. After the afternoon practice, he’d come into the room that was used as the writers work room, sit down at a table and talk as long as we had questions.

We had one brief run-in which was amusing. The Raiders would never announce their cuts because Al Davis often put on names of star players – Jim Otto and George Blanda are two examples – to distract clubs when he was trying to sneak a younger player through. He could also take back the stars if they were claimed, of course.

One time, I was kidding Davis about this. Apparently, he wasn’t playing games that time because he said, “You want the names?” –and then gave them to me. I used them for my Chronicle story the next day, and Madden came storming up to me, demanding to know where I’d gotten them. I told him. “Oh,” he said, and walked away.

Madden was loved by his players, who called him “Pinky” – not to his face, of course – because his skin would turn red from the sun, or when he had an outburst of temper.

His temper was mostly a planned thing. He’d “lose it” when he thought his players weren’t working hard enough in practice. He also “lost” his temper one time when an Oakland Tribune photographer came to camp wanting a picture of the all-black defensive backfield, which had been dubbed “The Soul Patrol.” This was a time when race was still a sensitive issue in pro football, and Madden didn’t want that picture taken. He started screaming at the photographer, who decided he didn’t really want that picture, after all.

And his displays of temper on the sidelines of games probably also got the Raiders the benefit of some calls!

Madden hasn’t planned to go into broadcasting, but when he did, he was a natural because it was just an extension of his personality. His broadcasting fame eventually got him into the Hall of Fame as a coach. He deserved it, but he had always operated in the shadow of Davis with the Raiders. It wasn’t until he’d been in broadcasting for many years that people started to look seriously at what he’d accomplished in coaching and gave him his due.

Amazingly, Madden has been involved in a football season every year since he was a freshman in high school in 1950. It’s been a very long run and he’s obviously enjoyed every step of the way.

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