Ticket Pricing: Love and Alienation in Toronto

The Globe & Mail’s piece on season ticket price hikes in Toronto ends on an interesting note for me:

In officially announcing next year’s season-ticket price increases Tuesday, Toronto FC owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has clearly decided to hit the hard-core fans the hardest.

The all-singing, all-dancing denizens of BMO Field’s south section – whose pictures are being used by TFC in its season-ticket promotional material – face a 34-per-cent increase for next year, to $433 from $323. Those season tickets retailed for $200 in the team’s inaugural 2007 season.

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TFC’s season-ticket packages are certainly among the most expensive in MLS. While the Los Angeles Galaxy exceed TFC with a top-price season ticket of $3,750 for next season – in comparison to $1,999 at BMO – those prices are skewed slightly with David Beckham’s $6.5-million salary on their books. A more realistic comparison would be the Chicago Fire, whose top ticket to sit in the stands is $999, which comes with free parking and discounted concessions, as well as the option to pay for the ticket in instalments.

That last comparison to Chicago strikes close to the bone, as I’ve spent much of the past couple of months helping the Fire craft their 2011 season ticket drive in terms of its appeal to “hard-core fans” as defined above. The package we settled on with the Fire for Section 8 (the general admission, standing, singing, stupid crazy supporters’ areas in the north end of Toyota Park) is a phenomenal deal: $200 total cost for 20 games, discounted parking ($6 per game, halved from this year), 12 month payment plan, $25 deposit option, free Section 8 Chicago-designed gift, and more. It’s a very reasonable deal as we look to double the designated standing area in the north end of the stadium from two sections to four and double our number of supporters’ season tickets at the same time.

Meantime, the Toronto supporters lured to the south end of BMO Field with their $200 packages in 2007 are now facing a $433 (prices Canadian) cost for 2011, including the necessary “bonus” ticket to the 2010 MLS Cup final that almost certainly won’t feature Toronto (yeah, nor Chicago). That’s quite a bump in four seasons, especially given Toronto have yet to make the playoffs. It was also awfully convenient that the (deserved) scapegoat for that failure, Mo Johnston, was fired a week before season ticket renewal notices went out with that bump. The bump includes more games, but even then, a higher price per game.

Now, of course, those old laws of supply and demand are in play here. On the face of it, Chicago and Toronto might seem similar: we play in the same league, our stadiums have similar capacities, we both haven’t won anything since 2006. Chicago’s average crowd this year is 15,757, while Toronto’s is 20,665 – not a staggering difference.

Where there is a staggering difference, though, is in the number of season ticket holders each club has. Toronto has 16,000, and is expanding that base to 18,000 this year. Chicago has a little over 3,000, which is less than it had in 1998, its expansion year. Toronto, like many of the recent expansion clubs, kicked off with a huge season ticket holder base when it launched in 2007. That advantage reflected the massive changes to MLS in the near-decade between Chicago and Toronto’s expansion years, with an established league and a more mature adult soccer-loving demographic to sell to on a season ticket basis. That’s why both its top-end and low-end season tickets are being priced up now, while in Chicago, we’re working on that drive to give supporters more value and make them season ticket holders rather than single game attendees.

Toronto Supporters in Chicago, 2007

MLSE, Toronto FC’s owners, are not in this for charitable purposes, obviously. That they are squeezing a base that still has demand in it for more dollars is not exactly surprising. If that demand still exists, they’ll be happy, at least in the short term. And from a league-wide perspective, there should be some long-term concern about where these price rises will take us.

Another Globe and Mail article focuses a lot on a comparison of Toronto FC to Manchester United, whose top price season ticket in the stands is now lower than Toronto’s. Many Premier League fans will also remember the trick of including more games to justify higher prices, and of being priced out in the 1990s.

The Toronto club may be a world away from the 18-time English champions on the pitch, but it beats the Red Devils handily in average cost per game (based on a top-price ticket), with a match at BMO coming in at an average of $90.78 compared to $79 at Manchester’s Theatre of Dreams.

The focus on the highest season ticket price is perhaps less important in the long-run. Having a small number of very expensive seats doesn’t seem like a terrible thing to me. In terms of protecting stadium atmosphere, the most relevant number is surely the lowest season ticket price for the larger designated supporters’ areas (in MLS, where we still have such things as standing areas unlike the Premier League) — though obviously, it’s easier to justify higher prices in one section when there aren’t dirt cheap prices elsewhere.

Lowest priced season tickets at Premier League clubs like Manchester United remain exorbitantly higher than in MLS, even with Toronto’s latest rise to $433 CAN.  Manchester United’s lowest season ticket price is $829 CAN. At present pace, of course, Toronto FC will get there in just a few years. The numbers are heading towards pricing out anyone not earning six figure salaries in terms of what they could outlay for a season ticket, especially in a credit crunch era. That in turn will help kill the atmosphere in the supporters’ sections in Toronto, just as higher pricing across the board (along with the new all-seater stadia) did to England in the 1990s.

MLSE also seems to have handled all this rather pompously and presumptuously. Judging from the negative comments by supporters’ representatives in Canada, Toronto’s supporters groups were not well consulted ahead of the price rise (though I stand to be corrected on that, not knowing the inside story). If MLS wants to keep touting itself as a supporter-friendly league and basing its marketing on the atmosphere it has from that, it’ll need to be careful of alienating its hardcore fans. Toronto might have a season ticket waiting list now, but Manchester United used to as well. A little alienation goes a long way in killing demand, and all of a sudden, supply is plentiful.

Once again, we turn to Germany for a better comparison than the Premier League, where protests against hikes in the very reasonable prices that have given their stadia the reputation as the best to experience a game in across Europe are gathering pace. Hikes on the scale of Toronto’s for supporters’ area season ticket prices at the level of Manchester United’s are just unthinkable in the Bundesliga. Having fan-owned clubs (protected by the 50+1 rule) sure helps, of course.

Supporters in MLS now outside Toronto should watch closely at what happens at BMO Field.

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