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Sunday, August 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

M's pricing hungry fans out of park

Special to The Seattle Times

I love Safeco Field as much as I ever did — the promenade around the park, views of the field, views of the Sound, the buzz of baseball, you know, "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack."

For $7.50, of course, which is more than the cost of the cheapest ticket in the center-field bleachers.

I love beer as much as I do baseball, but, man, I have real problems with $8 for a 20-ounce microbrew at Safeco Field. Or $4 for a 20-ounce bottle of water.

It isn't really any different at Qwest Field, or KeyArena for that matter. Or almost any sports facility in the country.

But it could be.

What bothers me is that the very people the sports franchises should be courting and pampering — their ticket-buying fans — can become hopelessly extorted.

The same five pieces of fish from Ivar's in the ballpark that cost $11 are $7.89 at the Ivar's down next to the Ferry Terminal. The Porter's Place special hot links and pork barbecue sandwich that sells for $9.75 at the stadium is $5.99 in Tacoma.

Prices aren't double, but almost.

Oh, you can bring peanut-butter-and jelly sandwiches into Safeco Field for lunch or dinner, and almost anything but bottles and beer, but what if you knew a pint of good beer there would cost $4.50, like it is at F.X. McRory's up the street, or at Pyramid across the street?

Or that more fish and chips than you could carry would cost less than $8 instead of $11?

Would you come to the ballpark more often, and eat and drink more there when you did?

I think you might.

The Mariners, of course, don't.

"If I did, we'd do it," said team president Chuck Armstrong.

The Mariners view the sale of concessions as a vital revenue stream. They think that because they allow food to be brought into the stadium, they aren't gouging patrons, and that the high cost of beer helps control its consumption, underscoring their desire for a family-friendly atmosphere.

Why they sell 20-ounce beers is a mystery, of course.

To their credit, the Mariners spend almost $4 million a year just keeping Safeco Field clean and updated.

On the field, they have a payroll that is close to $100 million and hope that spending so much will ensure they have a good team. They are running a business.

And there is no question doing business at Safeco is expensive for any concessionaire, opening up 81 days for only four or five hours. And paying considerable rent to the Mariners for the privilege.

But the fan doesn't have to be a victim. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, an equally tough place to do business, has proved there is life after exploitation.

The Port of Seattle has required its new restaurants to charge "street prices" and to give precisely the same product and value that they do back home.

Rather than chafe under the restrictions, Anthony's Restaurant & Fish Bar, as an example, is doing bang-up business.

"People are always remarking how reasonable our prices are compared to most airport food," said Ben Adams, Anthony's general manager. "It takes a lot to get your mind wrapped around a concept like this, that people don't have to be gouged.

"We've been rewarded for taking on the challenges."

Armstrong says the Mariners won't say what percentage they get from the sale of food and beverage at the park, or what they make in a night or a season.

"Our contract with the concessionaire is confidential," he said. "Obviously, it is in our interest to maximize sales, and we are forever trying to keep the prices reasonable to do it."

You wonder how Safeco Field, built for the most part by public money, is any different than Sea-Tac Airport and why the Mariners can be any less forthcoming about concession contracts.

Armstrong works hard at making the park a place to be. He has ushers handing out "yellow cards" to fans who might be bothering other fans.

But there is a disconnect when it comes to concessions. He understands winning is the biggest draw, and beyond that — especially for seasons like this — it is the ambiance of the park.

But he fails to see that appropriately priced food and beverage could not only increase sales, but persuade fans to come more often.

There wouldn't be the hordes of fans across the street at the Pyramid Alehouse before the game if they could get the same priced beer in the stadium. There might not be as many empty seats as there are come September.

The fans would surely come earlier, if not stay later.

They'd plan to eat at the stadium, not carry in tired food from home.

Lamenting that salaries are just too darn high goes against the our capitalistic heritage, I guess. But finding a way to get customers to enjoy themselves more by spending more isn't.

E-mail comments for Blaine Newnham: sports@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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