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WSI News - Season Features

First published at WSI in March

First published at WSI in March, 1999.

83 Years and Waiting
The Real Cost of
Comiskey's Upper Deck

by George Bova

Moan.  Moan.  Moan.  Everyone is familiar with the shortcomings of New Comiskey Park.  The home of the Chicago White Sox has been derided as the worst of all the new ballparks built in the 1990's.  Both the spirit and the character of Old Comiskey Park are missing in the new one built across the street.  In the nine seasons since it opened, a non-stop drumbeat from the local and national sports media has denigrated the new park and the handful of Sox fans who bother to attend games there.

Amongst all the negativity surrounding New Comiskey Park, the worst complaints are reserved for the upper decks seats, cited as too high, too steep, and too removed from the action on the field.  While not one of its 10,000 seats has an obstructed view, hardly anyone willingly sits in them.  Among the exceptions are a pack of glory hounds (usually Cubs fans) who find it amusing to sit in the furthest corner of the upper deck -- awash in a sea of empty blue seats, hoping to get their picture on tv or in the newspaper.  These people are just one step above the shirtless wonders rooting for their football team in the sub-zero chill of Wisconsin's winter.  Cheesy indeed!

Everyone complains about Comiskey's upper deck but nothing has been done to correct it.  Nearly everyone has offered a suggestion for fixing Comiskey's mistakes.  These ideas all appear hopelessly beyond the budget and vision of the Sox front office to implement.

Instead of focusing solely upon the cost of fixing it, shouldn't we also consider the cost of leaving it alone?  Make no mistake,  New Comiskey's upper deck is weighing down the fortunes of the team in ways far beyond the fans' complaints and apathy.  This concrete albatross has cost the White Sox millions of dollars in potential revenue.  This must be addressed, too.

Consider the history of ticket prices at Comiskey Park.  Like all types of sports entertainment, White Sox ticket prices have spiraled upward for many years.  The different rate of these increases reveals many disturbing facts and trends.  Sox fans are voting with their wallets and their feet.  Here lie clues to what New Comiskey's upper deck is really costing us.

Stumbling From the Very Start
In New Comiskey's first year (1991), prices reflected what the Sox front office expected fans to want and pay for.   Compared to the old ballpark (closed the previous September), the Sox raised the price of box seats by 42 percent.  While box seats had the best view of the action, the most expensive seats in the new park were the new "club level", priced at $16.00 each.  These seats are half-way up towards the upper deck, sandwiched between the two levels of Diamond Suites.  The view isn't as good as Old Comiskey's upper deck box seats, which were closer to the edge of the playing field.  Rather than offer the park's best view, New Comiskey's club level seats offer the greatest amenities.  Here you get short concession lines, uncrowded washrooms, and waitress service at your seat that includes a dessert cart of decadent sweets.  Club level fans can purchase everything by running a tab on their credit card.  The Sox front office figured the fans would pay a premium for these amenities and forego the ballpark's closest view of the action.  The new club level seats were priced a whopping 68 percent higher than Old Comiskey's highest priced box seats.

Common fans suffered far smaller price increases for the remaining seats around the ballpark.  Reserved seats (all of them in the outfield) were raised just 20 percent in the new lower deck versus Old Comiskey's.  New Comiskey's upper deck reserved seats were priced at $8.00, a 23 percent increase over the old park's.  The Sox front office raised the price on these soon to be notorious seats more than the lower deck on a percentage basis!  Foolishly, the Sox thought these seats along the baselines were worth more than ones closer to the playing field.  They completely missed the significance that these baseline seats were up amongst the clouds.  The Sox soon paid a heavy price for this mistake.

Another unused Sox ticket.

The best value in New Comiskey Park was the bleacher section.  In 1991, a bleacher seat was $6.00, just one dollar more than what you would have paid for a general admission seat (including bleachers) at Old Comiskey the previous year.  For that measly one dollar, the Sox gave you a bleacher seat that had a backrest and no slivers.  Again the Sox wrongly thought we fans would rather sit in the sky-high seats of the upper deck than in the outfield.  It's little wonder why New Comiskey Park's design is so screwed up.  The front office had no clue what Sox fans wanted or what they would pay to get it.  The countless errors they made pricing New Comiskey's seats in '91 reflects their confusion.

Cold Reality for The Front Office
Savvy Sox fans quickly learned where the best seats were.  Many of them swore off the upper deck vowing never to return.  The resulting demand for seats on the lower levels left the Sox front office with the dilemma of how to increase overall ticket revenue but keep the price of a whopping 10,000 upper deck seats relatively unchanged.  Their solution has been to take incredible price increases on the remaining seats on the lower levels.  Check it out...

In 1999, the Sox priced the club level seats at $22.00, a 37 percent increase over the 1991 price.  That sounds steep until you realize the Sox also raised the price of the lower deck's box seats to $22.00, a 69 percent increase versus 1991!  The club level's dessert cart didn't interest fans as much as getting seats close to the action.  The front office learned Sox fans attend games to see the White Sox, not consume caramel pecan turtles.

That's just the tip of the iceberg.  New Comiskey's lower deck reserved seats (all located in the outfield) have increased 88 percent, now $17.00 each.  Bleacher seat prices, the exceptional value of 1991, have been raised four times and now stand at $14.00.  That's 133 percent more than the price eight seasons ago!  Unbelievable!!!

How screwed up are New Comiskey's ticket prices?  Box seats in the upper deck are $15.00 while bleacher seats in the outfield are $14.00.  As you might know, the bleachers are still more popular than the overpriced box seats in the upper deck.  It's only a matter of time before New Comiskey Park becomes the first in the history of mankind to price bleacher seats higher than box seats.  What imbecile designed this joint and why should Sox fans be blamed for not spending money there?

The Ugliest of the Ugly
Which brings us to the nose-bleed upper deck reserved seats.  The top-half of twenty-nine rows pitched on a 35 percent incline, these seats are higher than the loftiest of pop flys, many of them rising higher than the fair poles that stand between them and homeplate.  These are the notorious seats only the exhibitionists bother to sit in.  What is it costing our Sox to maintain this worthless expanse of concrete and plastic?

In 1991, the Sox set the price of these seats at $8.00 each.  Back then the price was 33 percent more than the outfield bleachers.  The price is now $10.00, raised just once in nine seasons for a pathetic 25 percent increase.  Tellingly, the Sox eased into the price increase by offering a special half-price promotion for all games in the middle of the week, just $5.00 per ticket on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.  That was back in 1997.  They repeated the giveaway in 1998 and still had few takers.  Now the entire upper-half of the upper deck is empty.  The people who buy these cheap tickets hide in higher-priced seats they find elsewhere in the great open spaces of sparsely populated New Comiskey Park.

While the front office struggled to find anyone willing to sit in these nose-bleed seats, strong fan demand for the bleacher seats allowed the front office to jack the price 133 percent.  From $6.00 in 1991, they now cost $14.00.  This is a fact and Sox fans today actually pay these increased prices.  If the Sox had been able to price the 10,000 upper deck seats using that same percentage increase, how much more revenue would they gain?  We did the math.  The "potential revenue loss" (that is, the amount possible above the actual increase the Sox made) would total $44 million for the past eight seasons, 1992-1999.  This assumes half of the 10,000 seats are boxes and the other half are reserved.  The potential revenue loss was small at first, just $2.2 million in 1992 and 1993, but has accelerated in the years since.  The potential revenue loss in 1999 was $7.8 million.  There is every reason to believe this trend will continue as the price of tickets escalates and the Sox front office finds it harder and harder to convince anyone to buy seats upstairs inside their concrete fiasco.  Projecting the same rate of price increases across the next ten years, future potential revenue losses will total an incredible $336 million.  By comparison, the entire construction cost of New Comiskey Park was less than $150 million. 

Do you suppose an improved upper deck could be created with this potential new revenue?  Alternately, could the Sox afford the price of acquiring some quality players, too?  Just think how many more Jaime Navarros Ron Schueler could sign!

A Wise Investment?
Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has publicly floated ideas for improving New Comiskey Park.  Part of his plan is to sell the naming rights of the ballpark to a corporate sponsor and use the revenue to create a larger roof with fewer seats in the upper deck.  That's fine, but there are costs if nothing is done, too.  Shouldn't the opportunity cost of a maintaining a lousy upper deck also be considered?  Doesn't the added revenue potential of an improved upper deck count as much as that created from naming the ballpark for a corporation?  Sure, the Sox would have to sell all 10,000 upper deck seats to earn all the potential revenue I've projected, but that is not beyond the realm of possibility.  In 1991, the Sox were a championship caliber club with a brand new ballpark.  Every other team that opened a new ballpark in the 90's has received a sharp increase in attendance.  In a similar circumstance, the Cleveland Indians have sold out all of their games going back to 1994 -- helped in part by a ballpark design the entire city has embraced.  Why couldn't a competitive Sox team with a good ballpark strive for equal success?

Let's say 100 percent sellouts is an unrealistic goal for our Sox.  Big Deal.  If they sold only one-fourth of the upper deck seats, that still constitutes an $84 million windfall for the team.  That should be more than enough to cover the construction costs of needed improvements.

Of course there is one other difference between the Sox and Cleveland.  In the years since Cleveland's taxpayers built their new stadium, the Indians' owner has pursued championship victories rather than labor union ones.  Jerry Reinsdorf rightly believes we Sox fans are too resentful to ever fully reward him for his efforts.  He may have a point, but has only himself to blame.

We Sox fans are always haunted by missed opportunities.  This is just one more to toss onto the pile.  At least our ballpark serves better food.  Some consolation.
 


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