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Point/Counterpoint: Baseball Experiences

From the Banana, May 5:

"Some things in life are priceless, but most everything has a price. And if you want to get in on the Diamondbacks' new "Ultimate Baseball Experiences," you might just need a MasterCard. Looking to make some money and provide fans unique opportunities, the Diamondbacks on Wednesday unveiled eight "once in a lifetime" events...

Throw out the first pitch - $4,000
Deliver the lineup - $1,500
VIP tour - $500
On-field wedding ceremony - $4,000 to $6,000
Fantasy broadcast booth - $750
Kids' experience [dugout visit, assist Baxter] - $750
Groundskeeper for the day - $1,000
On-field batting practice - $900"

Is this a good or a bad thing? After I posted the above as a diary, and made my opinion known, Random Fandom's Stefan stepped up to say it didn't bother him too much. He subsequently agreed to go into more detail, so here's both sides of the coin. First, it's Stefan, then there's my case for the prosecution. What do you think?

Being asked to defend a Diamondbacks management decision can be a little dangerous in the blogging world. It's not a public defender representing a criminal accused of a heinous crime, but there is a sense of being asked to "Defend the Indefensible." If we're going to discuss faulty decisions, let's talk about the Russ Ortiz contract, which will take 130 years of "ultimate baseball experiences" to pay off. So, at the risk of sounding like Bart Simpson ("I didn't do it, nobody saw me, you can't prove anything!"), here's my defense of the D-Backs.

1. It's a good thing
The Diamondbacks have debt. Lots of it. And, although baseball is our national pastime, worshipped, and obsessed over, it's also a business. I have no problem with the Diamondbacks trying to maximize their investment. We as consumers have every right to respond accordingly. Even if the Diamondbacks only generate $250,000 per season, that does put a small dent in the debt (or interest) payments.

2. It's not a bad thing
"But what about the Spider-Man controversy?," you say. "You were probably in favor of that, too." Uh, no. Because aside from the whiff of desperation exhibited by baseball in that regard, the Spider-Man proposal would've affected the field of play by covering the bases with an ugly, ugly web covering. Unless little Bobby is actually filling out the lineup card Bob Melvin is giving to the ump ("Gonzo is my favorite player, so I'll bat him fourth... behind the pitcher!"), he's not going to affect the game. Heck, I doubt anybody will even know that any of these events are taking place.

As for the argument that they should be reserved for loyal fans or donated to charity, I agree. But trying to figure out which "loyal fans" will get the experiences probably leads you down the same "money trumps all" argument -- just as those T-shirt gunners rarely hit the upper deck with their shirts, I think randomly-selected loyal fans would be selected from fans paying $2,000+/year for a season ticket. And I suspect that some of these experiences are already being donated to charity. Given the prices ($500 to $15,000) and the expected revenue ($200,000 from, what, 70 remaining home games after the announcement?), it seems like the D-Backs aren't expecting to sell out or have already reserved some of the events for charitable giving.

And how exactly are these experiences any different from getting to sit on top of the Green Monster in Fenway Park, an experiment about which I've heard nothing bad and is generating another pretty penny for the Red Sox, who aren't exactly hurting for money.

3. It could be worse
The Diamondbacks could always do nothing to generate additional revenue. Or they could ramp up the sponsorship and advertising. ("Ladies and gentlemen... please direct your attention to home plate as manager Bob Melvin delivers the Hallmark Lineup Card!") Somehow letting rich fans try to recapture their youth (or create an artificial one for their kids) feels like a fairly harmless thing to do.

The more I think about the Diamondbacks latest money-making scheme, the more it sucks. $750 for "Groundskeeper for the day"? Why not take tickets at the gate? A snip at only $500! Or our special discount: work a concession stand at a game for a mere $250. Is there no level to which the D'backs won't stoop to squeeze every dollar from the fanbase? It's like seeing certain millionaires, charging $20 at North Phoenix Baptist Church for their autographs - it does not reflect well on those involved, and now the actual organization seems to be taking the same approach.

Of course, the truth is two-fold. Firstly, these "experiences" are out of the reach for the vast majority of Diamondback fans: I don't have $1,500 - about three weeks' salary at Go Daddy - to spend on a short walk with Bob Melvin. Save perhaps the wedding package (which is actually kinda cute), they are aimed at the corporate thugs who occupy the best seats mainly as a tax-deductible overhead, and can be seen behind home plate, yakking on their mobile phones and waving at the TV cameras.

It would have been nice - especially after a 111-loss season - if the Diamondbacks had been willing to acknowledge their fans and keep the prices reasonable. Say, $10, and then have a lottery or contest (complete this sentence:"I'm a D'backs fan because...") to decide who gets the first pitch. I'd far rather do that, than give it to some real-estate salesman or his spoiled brat.

Secondly, this is only expected to raise about $200K over the year. That may seem a lot of money, but it won't even pay the major-league minimum to a single rookie, fresh off the Greyhound from Tucson. The overall impact on the bottom line of the team will be absolutely negligible: if I'm any sample by which to judge, the negative impact on the image of the team as a money-hungry bunch of Scrooges, will be far more significant and damaging. Witness this letter in the Banana [May 7]:

"I came as close this morning as I ever have to upchucking my breakfast. What made me sick was the front-page article on the mighty Diamondbacks selling of privileges associated with the club, such as "throwing out the first pitch" for $4,000. What a slap in the face for the loyal fans!...These privileges should be either given to kids - baseball's fans of the future - or raffled off, with no money involved, to the current fans."

No, I didn't write that under a pseudonym. Subsequently, another letter made the suggestion that these will benefit Diamondbacks charities. But I've been listening to the endless promotion and shilling for these during the TV broadcasts, and I have not heard the word "charity" mentioned a single time.

I'm sure the team does a lot in that line already - though given the amount of public money they've received, this should not be touted like the second coming of Mother Teresa. And if these experiences were actually for community causes, I've equally no doubt we'd have heard all about it. I strongly suspect they will benefit charity about as much as their nine-dollar beers.

Instead, just chip away a little more of the illusion that baseball is America's pastime, and reveal some more ugly reality - it's just another business, dedicated to squeezing every last penny from the consumer. The WalMart Diamondbacks will see you now.