With the recent spate of contract extensions and big name free agent signings, more than a handful of fans have expressed concern that deals signed by the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado will drive up ticket prices. Research on the subject is scarce, but both pieces of research I found — by Jon Morgan at The Baltimore Sun in 1998 and Nate Silver at Baseball Prospectus in 2003 — found very little correlation between the two variables.
In Morgan’s article, he cited Allen Sanderson, an economist from the University of Chicago who said, “They are either independent of each other or the causality is reversed.” Causality, in layman’s terms, is one variable explaining the other. If the data showed a high degree of correlation, we could determine that, for example, an increase in player salaries does also result in an increase in ticket prices. But that wasn’t found.
Silver compared year-to-year changes in average ticket price and total player payroll from 2002 to ’03 and found essentially no correlation as well. The reason for this is manyfold, starting with the basic observation that the equation for an owner to set team prices is dependent many more factors than just his player payroll. Things like the team’s current competitiveness and general popularity, the presence of impactful marketable players, the area in which the team resides, and the general place on the expendable income ladder most of the city’s residents stand can all impact the price, arguably much more than player salaries.
As Rob Arthur noted in his column for Baseball Prospectus today, it is also important to consider that Major League Baseball’s business model has changed substantially. Teams used to be much more reliant on fans going through the turnstiles, which results in concession and merchandise sales, as well as other ticket sales. However, with revenue sharing and the league’s lucrative broadcasting deals with the likes of ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports, a team needn’t sell out most of its home games to turn a profit. MLB’s spin-off of MLB Advanced Media, BAMTech, has also proved bountiful. Nearly three years ago, The Walt Disney Company acquired a one-third stake in BAMTech at the cost of $1 billion. Disney then bought a majority stake at another $1.58 billion in 2017. A large portion of that $2.58 billion was distributed among the league’s 30 owners, a windfall that could easily put an otherwise struggling team into the green. (The players, by the way, don’t get a cut of this directly.)