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Friday, March 9, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.
Mariners launch new approach for fans to buy tickets
By Larry Stone
Seattle Times staff reporter
When the Mariners put single-game tickets on sale Saturday morning, fans may not notice a lot different from previous seasons. Pick a seat, get out your credit card and lock in your purchase.
In fact, a lot has changed. Fans may buy the same ticket a week later and pay more. Or less.
Welcome to "dynamic pricing," the next big thing in the sports industry.
That system, also known as demand-based pricing, has been used for years in the airline and hotel industries. Buy a plane ticket early and you might pay less, and if you're flexible on dates, you might save even more.
For the Mariners, the price of each game ticket throughout the season can fluctuate based on how attractive fans perceive it to be. Call it a new form of "Moneyball," in which the amount of money being paid to watch a game is determined partly by computer analysis.
Since 2008, the Mariners had been using what's called variable pricing, charging more for games that were perceived to be more alluring. But those prices were locked in. The new system is "much more refined," said Rebecca Hale, the Mariners' director of public information.
"This gives us the ability to basically re-price the entire ballpark and create a pricing structure we think is more a reflection of the perceived value of each game," Hale said. "We know not every game is created equal."
The San Francisco Giants were Major League Baseball's pioneers of dynamic pricing in 2009, when they tested it on 2,000 seats.
They used it on all seats the past two years, and were joined last year by the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros. This year, Hale said, 20 out of 30 teams will be using dynamic pricing in some fashion. The Mariners are one of seven clubs that will use it on all tickets, including those purchased online, by phone and in person at the ballpark.
"It's very much the way things are going to go in the sports industry," said Patrick Riche, director of Sportsimpacts, a national sports consulting firm, and associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis.
"It's so much more efficient to price tickets this way. I expect to see it take off, because teams who already use it have shown increases in revenue. Why would other teams not copy it?"
Hale said the best bargains will come to those who purchase early, because prices are expected to be at their lowest to start out.
"That's not to say every ticket will increase; that's not the case with other teams that have done this," Hale said. "There are games that don't justify an adjustment of price, and they'll stay the same. For other games with increased demand, those seats could see a price adjustment."
Seventy percent of all Mariners tickets for 2012 will be priced at or below 2011 prices when they go on sale Saturday. Hale stressed that no dynamic-priced ticket will sell for less than the season-ticket price in the immediate seating area.
There are new wrinkles: All home games will be divided into four categories, based on their perceived value. There are nine "single" games, which are lowest priced, 20 "double," 33 "triple" and 19 "home run" (the most expensive) games. The "single" games take place midweek in April and September, when kids are in school and the weather can be cold and rainy. The "home-run" games tend to be on summer weekends, and against such marquee foes as the Yankees and Red Sox.
Also, for the first time, tickets within broad seating areas such as field, box and view can have different prices based on how close they are to the field.
The price you see now, however, is not necessarily what you'll see next month.
"With dynamic pricing, we have the opportunity to adjust pricing over the course of the season," Hale said.
In the past, teams didn't have the mechanisms to change ticket prices. They set the prices before the season and were stuck with them all year. But advances in technology have changed all that.
"It used to be very arduous, but now clubs can do it in minutes," said Doug Mitarotonda, director of pricing for Qcue, a Texas company that is the industry leader in dynamic-pricing software and is being used by the Mariners.
Mitarotonda said that the rate of price alteration varies, though his company will process sales data every day for the Mariners.
"We have teams that are more or less aggressive on how they will change prices," he said. "Some change multiple times per week, some every week. It's up to the individual team."
Hale said the Mariners don't know yet how often they'll readjust their prices.
"We'll revisit every week at the beginning," she said. "That doesn't mean we'll adjust the ticket prices every week. We'll take a look at demand, and we could make an adjustment. As the season approaches, there could be adjustments made on a daily basis leading up to a game."
Dan Meehan, director of pricing and operations at Qcue, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently that increases are much more common than decreases. Teams initially set prices "more conservatively" if they have the flexibility to raise them, he said.
According to Qcue's research of MLB teams using dynamic pricing last year, the average price change per seat was an increase of $1.55, and the average percentage change was a 3 percent increase. When tickets went up in price, it was an average increase of $3.27. When they went down, the average decrease was $13.63.
Hale noted that "if prices are adjusted, it wouldn't necessarily be a whole ballpark adjustment. Maybe it's only a handful of seats in select areas that would be affected. Fans shouldn't expect that all prices are going to be all over the place every single day like the stock market."
The Mariners are the only local team using dynamic pricing. A survey of the Seahawks, Storm, Sounders and Huskies revealed that none use this method.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry
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