Inflation at a Standstill Except in Sports World


These days, the consumer is king. Everywhere, that is, except in sports. There, we’re still being treated like the court jester.

Think about it a minute. Computers cost less every year. Retailers offer big sales before

Christmas. Who’d buy a new car without a fat rebate? McDonald’s recently offered burgers at 1955 prices. What next? Order a Big Mac and get a free cow on a tether?

Every day, the front page discusses the chance of deflation, not inflation. The CEO of America’s biggest company says, “Nobody has pricing power.” Nobody, apparently, except pro teams such as the Baltimore Orioles. They just raised ticket prices 15% after last year’s 19% leap.


So, how do we feel now about Brady Anderson, Mike Mussina, Cal Ripken, Joe Carter and Doug Drabek? The bill just arrived. Who pays their huge new salaries? We do, of course. Happy New Year!

When Camden Yards opened in ‘92, the average ticket was $10.87. Two years ago, that cost had jumped to $13.14. Since then, the Orioles have gone bonkers. Next season, the average Orioles ticket will cost $18.93. That’s an 74% leap in six years.

It matters not where you sit. In five years, the bleachers have gone from $4 to $9 while box seats have rocketed from $13 to $30. The Orioles believe in proportional suffering.

The team’s rationale is fascinating. Their tickets are a bargain compared with pro basketball, football and hockey. There, the average ticket prices last season were $36.32, $38.09 and $40.64, respectively. See, we’re only shaving you half as close.

Baseball may not be the mom-and-pop business it was 30 years ago,” said Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss this week, “yet it remains a sport moms and pops can afford.” Well, Bill Gates’s mom and pop, anyway. A couple can sit in the upper deck in left field all season for just $2,600. Isn’t that what mom and pop used to pay for a mortgage?

Everywhere outside sports, we see price wars. Long distance phone calls cost 10 cents a minute. No, eight cents. No, we’ll fly your relatives in free so you can talk to them in person. Inflation is 1 or 2%, depending on your economist. Is there any American business, except sports, where prices are going to the moon? And where else are people crazy enough to pay such freight?


Unfortunately, we know whom to blame. It’s the person sitting next to us at the park. (No, no, not us.) Recently, a friend at Oriole Park said, “If they don’t re-sign Brady, I’m canceling my tickets. First, Jon Miller leaves, then Davey Johnson. If Brady goes, I go.”

The Orioles heeded the “vox populi” and re-signed Brady Anderson for $31 million. For five years. This guy breaks bones, runs into walls, plays with pain. But he’s now guaranteed $6.25 million when he’s 38. By 2002, Brady may need a walker; but he’s signed! So, let’s celebrate.

Those of us who remain fascinated by pro sports have become part of an insane spiral in salaries and ticket prices. Nobody’s at fault. Yet everybody’s gone nuts.

Players can’t be blamed for seeking high salaries. Owners often are driven toward astronomical budgets both from within and without. Look at Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Everything in him wants to compete, win and then celebrate. Deep down he wants to spend--and he has. His payroll of $73 million is among the top three in baseball--but that’s no guarantee his team will win.

On the other hand, Angelos also is scared of his fans. If they abandon him, what then? The value of his team plummets. That’s how you can lose real money. Teams are bought with borrowed money. And banks have long memories.

Fans can’t be faulted entirely either. Maybe we’re spending all that money we’ve saved on computers and hamburgers to buy tickets to games.


For perspective on our $10 million-a-year athletes, and the obscene ticket prices that go with them, perhaps we should look outside the sports page for an analogy.

Isn’t the entire realm of American pro sports an enormous speculative bubble that’s simply waiting to burst?

How does a sports bubble happen?

Unions demand the best deals they can extract, regardless of the long-term good of the game. Owners extrapolate past revenue gains into the future. They assume that the next TV contract will be bigger. Ticket prices can always be hiked. The stands will stay full. Living in this fiscal fantasy, it’s easy to pay Pedro Martinez $69 million.

Meanwhile, ticket prices keep rising. More and more of us find ourselves taking our children to Maryland lacrosse, Navy football and minor league baseball. And, each year, more and more tickets at Camden Yards, The Redskins’ Big Jack and the Wizards’ MCI Center are bought by corporations as a tax-deductible entertainment gimmick.

Thanks to boom times, we’ve created a sports craze with $100 million salaries, billion-dollar network TV contracts and luxury boxes. Bubbles often lead to excesses that are comical, yet also an offense to common decency. Aren’t we there?