by James Hanley
In an Inequality Symposium post titled “How Inequality Harms,” author M.A. writes,
The issue is that inordinate financial wealth prices the lower classes out of any non-pervasive good, service, or recreational activity…. In sports, it gives rise to skyboxes, private booths, and “private sections” as well as ticket price inflation. The sport of professional basketball in the USA is an instructive case… the “cheap seats”, up in the nosebleed section, start at $65 and then prices ascend from there.
M.A.’s post was generally good, but this snippet demonstrates one of the reasons why I find it difficult to take the inequality worries seriously. Anyone who thinks pro basketball is worth watching at any price simply cannot be allowed into serious debate. OK, not that exactly (although I’m pretty sure that’s true). But there is a fundamental mistake in thinking that the price of entry a top-level professional sporting event indicates a real problem in inequality.
I don’t make that claim because I think sports are a frivolous luxury entertainment (even though they obviously are), but because casual observation of the middle class entertainment options, even considering only sports, are vast.
I’ve been to relatively few top-level league games in my life. I’ve been to 4 NHL games, 1 NFL game, approximately 8 MLB games, and exactly 0 NBA games (I’m serious about the lack of value there, folks). About half of those I only went to because I got a free ticket. And yet I’ve been to more sporting events than I can easily recall, because there’s so much more out there.
I grew up going to minor league hockey games; the Fort Wayne Komets of the (once again) defunct International Hockey League. Back then, upper arena seats cost $3. I’ve been extremely lucky in the past few years–the Komets have won 4 League championships in 4 of their last 5 years, and I’ve managed to make it to 3 of the championship winning games. Ticket cost this year? $10. I doubt any of the 9,000 people in attendance were thinking, “Gee, I wish I had had $70 to spend on an NHL playoff game tonight.” We were all having the time of our lives.
At lunch today, a friend visiting from Idaho told me he saw my home town’s NBA developmental league basketball team (the Mad Ants, and yes that name actually means something) play in Boise last winter. I’m not sure what tickets cost, but I bet it’s less than a ticket to an Indianapolis Pacers game.
There’s also college sports. The only season tickets I’ve ever had or am likely to ever have is to my college’s hockey games (both men and women). It’s only DIII–we have a frickin’ blast. Seats run $10, but if that’s too rich for your blood, you can stand around the glass at the ends of the rink for free. I have trouble getting friends to come sit with me, even when I offer them my extra ticket–they’re all standing around the glass because, dammit, it’s fun as hell to stand by the glass for the whole damn game! I’ve been lucky here, too. Our men’s team won the conference championship in its first 4 seasons and this year lost the championship game in overtime, and because the previous year’s winner hosts the tournament, I’ve been able to watch 4 of those games. We take the kids frequently. So do lots of other people who are well outside of America’s elite.
I’ve been to more minor league baseball games than major league ones. In grad school I used to watch the Eugene Emeralds. Back in the ’90s they offered 15 ticket packages for $30. Prices have increased, unfortunately, and now a 10 game package will cost you $80–$2 bucks less per game than my DIII hockey tickets. My family is getting together to go to a minor league baseball game in Fort Wayne this year (the Tincaps, and that name also actually means something), and writing this post reminds me that I owe my aunt $45 for our 5 tickets (you do the math). If I wanted, I could go see the Toledo Mud Hens in what is widely considered to be the most beautiful stadium in minor league baseball, for $9 a ticket.
Last weekend I went to the Indy Racing League’s race at Belle Isle in Detroit. The ticket cost $25–my kids got in free. This weekend NASCAR races at Michigan International Speedway, 20 miles from my house’ tickets start at $30. They return in August for another race; tickets for that one start at $25.
So the middle class can’t afford an NBA game, and that’s a harm from inequality? When they have countless other sporting entertainment options to choose from at affordable prices?
I know that wasn’t M.A.’s major point, and it’s not the primary concern for those who think inequality (or increasing inequality, or too much inequality–I’m not trying to strawman there) is a real problem. But just bringing it up radically trivializes the concern. If the non-elite having to settle for minor league sports with their entertainment dollar is actually worth bringing up, then I don’t think there’s much of a case for the inequality is harmful thesis.