Thu, Feb 05, 2009 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE : Baseball faces recession with low beer prices

BLOOMBERG

The Washington Nationals are banking that a photograph with Ryan Zimmerman, clubhouse tours and the chance to pester executives about personnel decisions will help sell tickets for the worst team in baseball during the worst economy in 26 years.

Almost 4,000 people bundled up in below-freezing temperatures last week for the first “NatsFest” at Nationals Park to get access to private areas of the stadium and autographs from players. Washington is among at least 20 Major League Baseball teams holding promotions to stoke enthusiasm.

“There is no question that this year we need to reach out more than ever,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said overlooking the tarp-covered field. “None of us have ever experienced an economy like this before.”

Baseball clubs are taking unprecedented measures to preserve revenue to combat an economy that has contracted the most since 1982. They’re cutting prices on tickets and concessions including beer and offering interest-free extended payment plans.

Teams are already seeing an effect from the biggest two-quarter drop in consumer spending in at least six decades.

Ticket sales for the Oakland Athletics are down about 10 percent, owner Lew Wolff said in an interview. Even the Boston Red Sox, who came within one win of the World Series and have set attendance records for nine seasons, are seeing a slowdown.

Tickets are selling “a couple of percentage points behind” last year’s pace, said Sam Kennedy, the club’s chief sales officer.

Nationals fan Robert Mostow has already cut back. He signed up for a package of two US$10 seats for 21 games, down from the four US$20 seats for 41 games he bought last year, a savings of US$2,860.

“The losing doesn’t matter,” Mostow, a 55-year-old retired teacher, said after touring the Nationals clubhouse on his way to see the indoor batting cage. “It’s because of the economy.”

Washington general manager Jim Bowden told fans the club is trying to sign Zimmerman, the 24-year-old third baseman, to a long-term contract. For many fans, Zimmerman is the bright spot on the team that hasn’t had a winning year since it moved to Washington from Montreal in 2005.

To keep from losing revenue, teams such as the Nationals, Cleveland Indians and Arizona Diamondbacks began offering no-interest payment plans for tickets. Some fans can pay for seats into June, whereas in previous years they had to be paid in full as early as December.

In Cleveland, Indians president Paul Dolan and general manager Mark Shapiro were among the club executives who spoke with current and former season-ticket holders last month. The team made access to top officials a perk for supporting the club.

Baseball has adapted to lean times before. Teams began playing games at night in 1935 during the Great Depression to boost attendance, said Tim Wiles, director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Red Sox visited all six New England states to promote the coming season and gave out 6,500 coupons allowing fans to purchase tickets before they went on sale on Jan. 24. About half were redeemed, and the club has already sold about 2.2 million tickets, Kennedy said.

In Washington, season-ticket holder Gregg Wiggins, a 53-year-old writer, said he would bring in bottles of soda to avoid paying US$4.50 at the ballpark. He might also stop at the Five Guys Burgers and Fries near Nationals Park for a meal instead of paying twice as much at the Five Guys inside the stadium. The chain has more than 300 locations around the US.

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