I am a Dodgers fan, and therefore I am guilty of emotional blindness. When the Dodgers were sold for $2.1 billion to a group of very rich men in 2012, I did not consider the consequences. Instead, I rejoiced over the departure of Frank McCourt. Finally, after Fox and McCourt, the Dodgers would be a professionally run, stable franchise. The first thing the new ownership did was to slash parking prices at Dodger Stadium from $15 to $10 per car. These guys know their audience, I thought. They know L.A.
So far everything has gone to plan. The new ownership has demonstrated a willingness to invest not just lavishly, but intelligently. In addition to accumulating a player payroll that will fall somewhere north of $250 million for the 2014 season, the ownership has spent more than $100 on stadium upgrades over the last two offseasons. The team is fun to watch. The farm is improving. The stadium is pulsing with an energy that had disappeared in the last years of the McCourt era. This playoffs feel inevitable. But this is a business, and these things come at a cost. The new-money Dodgers are at risk of abandoning their core constituency: the working class Angelenos who have filled the Reserve Level and the outfield pavilions in Chavez Ravine for decades.
One of the wonderful things about Dodger Stadium is the cross section of people you see at games. It isn’t a perfect reflection of L.A. by any means, but there is something minorly heartwarming when you get 18-year-old kids from Pico Rivera high-fiving with 60-year-old accountants from Beverly Hills. There is something democratic about the fact that Larry King and Larry King’s housecleaner have to sit in the same traffic entering Chavez Ravine, and then again exiting the parking lot.
Which is not to say that the Dodgers of the last ten or twenty or fifty years have been a model of democratic fandom. Anybody who has been to a game at Dodger Stadium knows that it is in many ways a physical manifestation of class divisions: fans in the upper levels are not allowed to move down into the lower levels even just to stroll along the concourse, but fans in the lower levels are allowed to move up. And the cheap outfield pavilions have long been isolated from the rest of the stadium. I spent many childhood nights trying to skirt these rules, running down cavernous cement stairwells, or flashing weeks-old ticket stubs at ushers in order to find my way into the field level.
No, it’s not as if the Dodgers were perfect. But things have gotten worse, and small-seeming changes have major implications for fans. The Dodgers are shifting to a Yankee model of franchise-building: lucrative, all-encompassing cable network; stadium “upgrades” really meant to squeeze pennies out of the wealthiest of fans; the prizing of season ticket holders who are steady sources of income over folks who can only shell out for a couple games a year. They are hoping that the 52,000 people at Chavez Ravine are 52,000 richer people than previously had been attending games.
What about the rest? The Dodgers will bank on the inelasticity of their brand. The idea is that people will go on loving the Dodgers even if the team is inaccessible to them. Fans who cannot spend money on tickets and beer will spend a little on merchandise, and more importantly they will wear that merchandise, and they will continue to get the LA logo tattooed onto their calves. The Lakers have been doing this for years. It works. Like many fans, I’ve never been to a Laker game at Staples Center, and yet I continue rooting for them. The city becomes not just the market but the brand itself, its citizens brand ambassadors.
For the Dodgers, it begins with television. This week marks the launch of the centerpiece of the club’s new gilded image, an all-Dodgers cable network called Sports Net LA. The channel will feature some talk shows, some nostalgia, some old broadcasts, and all 162 Dodger games this season. It will also make the Dodgers less accessible to their fans. Last year, half of the team’s games were shown free locally and half on cable. This year, fans who do not have Time Warner Cable packages (the only provider currently showing Sports Net LA), or the cash to purchase Sports Net LA if/when it eventually finds wider distribution, will have to listen to the radio. That means no games on free local television. In what may be his final year in the booth, it means that for many people, Vin Scully will only be exist on radio in his three nightly innings of simulcast.
The Dodgers also raised the hell out of individual and season ticket prices this offseason. To their credit, the individual ticket price increases are loaded onto the most premium of seats. Although every ticket will be more expensive in 2014, the vast majority will only be a few dollars more expensive. Top notch seats will increase in price by up to $30 per game. It’s obvious that the team sees itself increasingly as a luxury product, catering to the wealthiest of L.A. and relying on the wealthiest for its income.
This is also evident in the season ticket price increases. Season seats in the Reserve level – the largest and most accessible section to fans – have in some cases more than doubled in price per game, from $5 per ticket to $12. There are a lot of people who can afford season tickets at $5 per seat or $810 for two seats over a season who cannot afford them at $12 per seat or $1944 for two seats over a season. The Dodgers say demand is at an all-time high. Magic Johnson claimed the team could have sold 50 thousand season tickets this year. These are not gradual increases. This is a direct statement to fans that loyalty is only as valuable as the size of the accompanying checking account.
Finally, the great insult: The Dodgers walked back their symbolic slashing of parking costs and introduced a new, punitive policy. Fans who buy parking passes online will still spend just $10. But fans who arrive at the stadium without a pass in hand will have to shell out $15. The team is claiming that the policy is meant to ease traffic entering the stadium (never mind that any Dodger fan knows the true traffic problem is exiting). What this really does is punish people who are not season ticket holders and people who might not be able to plan extensively before attending a game. It is a tax on spontaneity.
Then again – and shouldn’t this matter more than anything? – the team is good. They are fun to watch and engaged with the community in other ways, and their payroll is sitting high up in the atmosphere above the L.A. smog. There is a cost to winning, and there is a cost to making state-of-the-art stadium upgrades. But at a certain point, the costs begin to outweigh the benefits.It would be a shame if the only person who could afford to go to games at a renovated Dodger Stadium was Larry King. Dodgers
Dodgers President Stan Kasten has said that Sports Net LA will be “the Cadillac of regional sports networks.” Unfortunately, most people cannot afford a Cadillac. Kasten and the Dodgers ownership know this perfectly well. They just also know that people will spend more than they can afford if there’s something they want badly enough. And that fans who cannot afford to go to Dodger games or even watch on television are still valuable commodities. It is Kasten and company’s prerogative to create a profitable business, to sell the Dodgers product at costs dictated by the market. But sports franchise are not merely products, they are civic institutions – a fact that ownership groups have been happy to leverage to sell tickets and to secure public financing for stadiums. But the flip side is that cities and their residents don’t just owe something to the team: the team owes something to the city as well. Otherwise, the relationship becomes one-sided and toxic.
What, exactly, a franchise owes its city is a matter of perspective. Some people might say nothing. A Seattle Sonics fan might say “not leaving.” Kasten has spoken about world class fan experiences and winning teams. The Lakers, meanwhile, have been content to offer their fans championship caliber teams and unaffordable ticket prices for the last fifteen years. I would argue that the Dodgers and other franchises should keep in mind that a city is more than just a home market. A city is multitudes, and a franchise that wants to be part of the fabric owes as much to the masses as it does to the millionaires. Just because a model works doesn’t mean it is the right or best option.
I realize this sounds naïve and optimistic, but it also makes some business sense. That’s why the first thing the Dodgers ownership did upon taking over the franchise was slash those parking prices. It was a blatantly populist move that won hearts and also made economic sense. With lower parking prices, fans were more willing to come to the park, and more willing to spend once inside. Fans saw a Dodgers franchise that was within their reach, that they could be a part of. The 2014 offseason has undone some of that work. Fans will go on loving the Dodgers, no matter what winning costs and what parking costs. I will. But we should also be aware that the Dodgers organization might not feel the same way about us.