The Price of Success

This afternoon, I came home to find a big envelope with information about renewing my season tickets for the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season and last I’ve been paying $5 a ticket for my two seats, which are in the upper level at about half court. With this lockout shortened season, I’m not entirely sure exactly what my total bill is, but last year it was about $410. What they’re asking me to pay for those same two seats next year is $1,978, or roughly $24.12 per ticket.

The accompanying letter is as gently worded as any break-up letter I ever received in high school. After talking about how they’ve worked hard to build a loyal fanbase and “a true ‘Home Court Advantage’” through “unparalleled discounts and enhanced value,” Sr. Vice President of Ticket Sales and Premium Seating Ryan Tanke gets to the real meat of it: “As you review your membership options … you will see prices beginning to reflect the expiration of these discounts.” Oh boy: am I ever seeing the expiration of those discounts.

Let me explain how I got involved in this whole thing. Last year, after buying a couple of three-game packs at discounts the previous season, I decided to take the plunge with the Pay-the-Pick promotion. Basically, the Timberwolves had a good chance of landing the #1 pick in the draft lottery, and if they did, I would be paying $1 per ticket for the whole season. Great deal, right? If they only got the #2 pick, I’d pay $2. As it turned out, we got the #4 pick and I was slated to spend $4 a seat for some not very good seats. My first ticket rep, the awesome Oliver Maron, hooked me up, though. Since $4 was very nearly the same as the $5 that upper level seats cost generally at the time, he let me pick new seats on a personal tour of my upper level options. Oliver was a good dude, hailing from the Pacific Northwest, and we talked about music and basketball as he showed me the seats he felt certain I would pick, a pair of half-court beauties. He was right.

Last season might have ultimately been a horrific one for the Wolves, but I enjoyed my seats and kept reminding myself that this was live entertainment for less than the cost of a movie ticket. When the time came, I re-upped on my seats for this season at the same price and have been rewarded with some tremendously exciting basketball at the hands of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and the rest of the team.

And so it’s with a heavy heart that I say I’m not going to renew my tickets for next year at almost five times the price I’m paying this year. Not every season ticket holder is going to experience the same exponential increase as I am. According to Tanke, they’ve also “reevaluate[d their] price level segmentation.” As it so happens, I’m right in some prime real estate. Other season ticket holders may only see their prices double.

I’m not precisely angry about this. On the cover of my glossy “Renewal Guide” is an action shot of Ricky Rubio and I know that the success that he and Adelman have brought to the Timberwolves is in large part why they feel they can start charging more now for my tickets. But if it’s just math for them, it’s just math for me as well. As much as NBA League Pass costs, it’s still less than a tenth as much as my tickets will cost next season. A subscription to Synergy Sports is less than a twentieth.

Now that you can get dozens of games on your high definition television or streamed to your computer or iPhone, I wonder if it’s such a smart idea to be pricing people out of the live experience. What kind of value is the team really adding to that live experience? Klondike Bar challenges? T-shirts shot out of cannons? Inevitably, the Season Ticket Holder of the Game—that lucky fan who gets to sit courtside—is always someone from the lower level, so maybe it’s no surprise that my season ticket dollars—the ones they got when the team was abysmal—aren’t being valued now.

Just the other day I was listening, for no particular reason, to “Thinking About You” by Radiohead. It’s just about the only song from their first album that I still put on, mostly because it’s such a sharp dissection of the resigned bitterness left behind when you get tossed over for someone much glitzier.

All the things you got,
all the things you need,
Who bought you cigarettes?
Who bribed the company to come and 
see you, honey?

You can invest a lot in things that will turn around and burn you later. I don’t begrudge the Timberwolves the right to up their prices once they feel that the quality of the team is going to put asses in the seats. Maybe the Timberwolves’ market research is sound and when I step aside, there will be someone willing to step in and pay $24 per ticket for those seats. The guy I sit next to in Section 231 has been a season ticket holder for 20 years. He told me this during an early game in December, while B-Wright was telling us about that night’s lucky courtside guest, a man who’d been a season ticket holder for two years. I wonder if my neighbor’s going to be there next season.

Steve McPherson

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