#TBT: Why Are Tickets More Expensive? Because It’s All About Being There

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Why Are Tickets More Expensive? Because It’s All About Being There.

A few days ago [April 2010], Duke Law professor Richard Schmalbeck wrote an op-ed for The New York Times whose central thesis I would paraphrase as this: In the past, tickets were much cheaper, and the most important reason they are now expensive is that high-priced skybox tickets are partially deductible by businesses as tax write-offs.

As uninterested as I am in debating whether all, part of none of certain kinds of tickets should be tax deductible (ugh. I’m glad there are people who are interested in debating this stuff and equally glad I don’t have to be one of them), it’s the larger point where I have a quibble.

Well, perhaps more than a quibble.

The professor starts by saying that in the past, bleacher seats for a baseball game cost as little as a dollar, and undoubtedly it is the case that at SOME POINT in the past, that was the price, but I would like to know the last date at which a bleacher seat for a major league baseball game cost $1 as an everyday price. If it was as late as the 1980s, I would be mildly surprised.

But speaking of bleacher seats, many major league parks have them for $10 to $15, and if you buy season packages, I have seen them for as little as $4 to $6 per game. In terms of entertainment value per dollar, these are still pretty darn good.

Professor Schmalbeck also makes the point that the average ticket price for a Chicago Cubs game has increased 265% in the last 20 years, and I don’t doubt it. It comports with every other piece of data I’ve seen across the live entertainment industry that suggests that the value of live entertainment is increasing.

And that’s where I take issue with the good professor’s analysis here. He has more or less ignored the marketplace and the cultural shift that has occurred, which is the real driver of the change in prices: People want live entertainment more than they used to. They value it more because it is has more cultural significance to them than it used to, relative to other forms of entertainment.

Records used to be expensive to buy. Now recorded music is cheap and free if you want to steal it. Television programming used to be scarce and difficult to access; now it’s abundant and available on-demand in a dozen different ways. Radio broadcasts used to be limited to what you could get locally, but nearly all the limits on the amount of available content has been blown away. These things, by being cheap and ubiquitous, have become less valuable. Not that people enjoy them less; they just place a lower monetary value on them.

By contrast, live entertainment has become the mark of quality. Ethan Stock from Zvents says, “Reality is the ultimate luxury good,” and he’s right. You’re not a Radiohead fan because you downloaded the MP3s. You’re a fan because you went to the show. That’s the mark of distinction. Anybody can turn the Lakers game on; but only some people actually make it to Staples Center.

And do you think “Rent Heads” get excited about listening to the original cast recording? No, it’s about being at the show. Again. And Again. And again.

It’s about being there.

Got a comment or question? Join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook.

Sign Up for Emails