Commentary

Time to address those ticket prices

Updated: January 29, 2009, 2:30 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Since the last time I wrote about NHL ticket prices, the North American economies have become so battered that if this were happening on the ice, the linesmen would have jumped in long ago.

More than ever, I'm convinced that regardless of how the NHL attempts to spin and manipulate the numbers, the league botched the chance coming out of the lockout, and beyond, to address more aggressively the issue of affordability.

And as the crisis continues on both sides of the border, the NHL is going to pay for that lack of foresight, especially in the U.S. markets. It's going to pay for it in virtually all of those markets, both "troubled" and more traditionally supportive.

This is neither an expression of moral outrage nor a presumption that anyone should be able to tell NHL teams what to charge. But we repeatedly argue about what NHL teams should do, whether that's making a deal for a rental defenseman at the deadline or opining that a coach should be fired every time his team loses, so consider this among the realm of what I believe to be the right -- and pragmatic -- thing to do.

Attack ticket prices.

Do it showily.

Holler it from the rooftops.

Chip away at the NHL's reputation as a league that, because of its inordinate reliance on gate receipts, has to charge considerably more for a comparable seat than NBA franchises, and do something about the image of needing a mortgage broker to get involved in any purchase of season tickets.

It's both the right and the smart thing to do in these times.

Some of the effects of the economic malaise are already being felt and reflected in attendance figures, sponsorships and other areas. Yet otherwise, this is as if Kerry Fraser had his arm in the air. It's going to be a delayed penalty.

"The first indications for us as to what next year will look like, and if you're looking for indicia as well, keep an eye on playoff ticket sales," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in Montreal this past weekend.

Maybe. But it goes far beyond the issue of how markets react when their teams make the postseason. It's more about the invoices for next season, for the 41-game schedule that, depending on which conference is involved, might not even include an appearance by Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin or Jarome Iginla or Pavel Datsyuk. And it's about picking out how many games to go to next season, if individual-game tickets are available.

One size or pricing structure doesn't fit all in a league in which the Maple Leafs could charge twice as much and still sell out; the Rangers don't need to package four tickets, four pizzas and four soft drinks for one price; and not all teams need to put together various mini-plans of 14 or some games to get folks in the seats.

Ten franchises are officially at 100 percent of capacity or above for home attendance. But they're exceptional, and the storm clouds are many, because even those in the 90-percent-plus realm have an alarming number of empty seats. Even if they're taking some at face value as "sold" seats -- and that's a risky assumption -- the fact is, this season's empty seats (and many more) represent next season's cuts.

Momentum is cyclical enough when it's based on team performance in a robust or at least "normal" economy. Everything is multiplied, perhaps even exponentially, in this kind of economy, when snowballs turn into avalanches going downhill.

The 42-inch HDTV and televised home games provide more excuses than ever in this age, and that's even before the recent economic shockwaves, including business cutbacks in everything from jobs to corporate ticket purchases to advertising and sponsorships, are factored in.

Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito were coming off a season in which they were 1-2 for the Bruins in league scoring the last time a U.S. president imposed wage and price controls. I'm not necessarily saying Bettman should skip shaving one day, wiggle his jowls, give "V" signs with both hands and imitate Richard Nixon in dealing with NHL ticket prices.

But he should do something.

That "something" shouldn't be continuing to act as if what he and others advanced as one of the major rationalizations for the management hard-line position going into the lockout has ceased to be a major issue.

That "something" shouldn't be repeatedly relying on the by-now-familiar spiel about how what he really said going into the lockout was that the inflationary spiral needed to be arrested -- and then citing statistics to argue that it has been.

What he did say heading into the lockout was that he believed a "majority" of NHL teams would lower prices if the league achieved an "economic opportunity" with what he had been alluding to for months as "cost-certainty."

The adjustments were minimal and certainly not trend-setting.

He went through the familiar pitches again last weekend in Montreal, in response to my question about how Colorado had just drawn its smallest crowd ever during its 13 seasons in Denver; I also alluded to the fact that in addition to the slippage of the on-ice product, the "reason" I hear most often is the Avalanche have staggeringly high ticket prices, among the highest in the league. The same seat in a lower-bowl corner that costs $76 for Nuggets games is $100 for Avalanche games, and both teams are owned by Stan Kroenke.

"Every team sets their own policy," Bettman said. "Every team really has to read its own market in making those judgments. Some teams have increased ticket prices, some teams have reduced ticket prices."

Conceded.

Teams are separate businesses, although they're perfectly willing to gather under one huge umbrella -- not the kind you can buy for $3 from the street vendors outside the NHL's offices when the downpour begins -- and operate under something other than a completely free-market model (e.g., a salary cap and revenue sharing) when it's convenient.

Visionary and astute leadership is needed to nudge teams toward judgments that in the long run will be good for everyone in the league -- a league now using a system in which that salary cap is tied to revenues.

"Average" ticket prices in many instances are a joke, thanks to many teams' declaring a huge number of lower-bowl tickets to be for "premium" seats and thus exempt from the calculations. That stipulation was designed to toss out luxury boxes and other seats that can lead to misleading numbers, because the "average" is supposed to create apples-to-apples comparisons about affordability for the average fan.

The "average" cited now in many cases would be akin to the U.S. Department of Labor excluding anyone making over $75,000 in the previous tax year in unemployment figures.

What Bettman should do is make it clear to owners that he believes not only that the league failed to deliver on an implied promise to make this an important issue coming out of the lockout, but also that it makes good business sense -- both in the short and long run -- to react to the changing conditions.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."