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Low Cardinals ticket prices are a good thing

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Chicago Cubs fans paid a small fortune for playoff tickets last weekend. St. Louis Cardinals fans should not apologize for paying less.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v St Louis Cardinals - Game Four Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Last Friday night, Wrigley Field hosted its first World Series game since five days before Jim Palmer was born. A vast majority of Chicago Cubs fans had never experienced their favorite team in a World Series game, and unsurprisingly, demand for tickets was through the roof.

The median price for a ticket on StubHub for Friday’s game was $3,000. The median price for Game 4 on Saturday was $3,650, and the median price for Sunday’s game was $3,500. These, of course, were the median prices—you could get into Wrigley for Game 4 for as little as $2,295 and get the privilege of sitting behind a giant pole. Though, in fairness, since it’s at the venerable second-oldest stadium in baseball, it’s a historic giant pole.

While some, particularly St. Louis Cardinals fans, have taken the recent rise of the Chicago Cubs as an occasion to discuss Cubs fans as front-running bandwagoners, this is largely inaccurate—while there is certainly a bandwagon element to any fashionable, suddenly successful sports team, the Cubs have historically fared well by attendance, even through some of their leaner years. In 2012, when the Cubs lost 101 games, the team still ranked 5th of 16 National League teams in attendance despite one of baseball’s smaller stadiums.

The convergence of factors which led to this extreme ticket pricing was something of a perfect storm—a large fan base from which nobody under the age of 80 had vivid memories of a World Series appearance, weekend games in a hip, cosmopolitan area, and baseball’s best regular season team since the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals with a chance to break a 108-year title drought. The excitement can be intoxicating and it was reflected in the ticket market.

Tickets to St. Louis Cardinals postseason games, from which there have been plenty of options in recent years, have not had a comparable buzz. Last year, when the Cubs faced the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, it was a reasonable economic suggestion for Cubs fans to drive to St. Louis and pay, on average, more than $300 less for the average ticket for Game 1 at Busch Stadium than Game 3 at Wrigley Field.

And this was a relatively in-demand St. Louis ticket. Third-party prices for games such as 2014’s rain-soaked 2014 NLCS game against the San Francisco Giants sunk far into double-digit dollar amounts. A combination of factors, not the least of which is that this was the 27th postseason game to be played at Busch Stadium since 2011, suppressed prices to a level which, while not nothing, were not in the same stratosphere as what tickets at Wrigley Field last weekend cost.

This has been used as an argument against St. Louis. But these people are wrong, and living in a city and rooting for a team in which playoff tickets are affordable for most fans is a good and awesome thing, and St. Louisans need not apologize for this.

The prices which sports teams charge for tickets are tied in with the fundamental notion of sports franchises not as private entities, owned by and for the benefit of mostly faceless billionaires, but as public trusts. Bill DeWitt Jr. might get to say a few words on the Busch Stadium infield after the Cardinals add another World Series flag to the stadium scoreboard, but he isn’t really the owner of the Cardinals. The fans are.

Owners have all of the incentive in the world to perpetuate the illusion of fan ownership, a concept which in its literal form exists only with the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers (and NFL rules now stipulate that at least one entity must own at least a 30% share of each franchise, with the Packers’ current ownership structure continuing to exist thanks to a grandfather clause). Purchase of tickets, concessions, and merchandise is viewed not as an entertainment expenditure (which, by any rational evaluation, it is) but as an investment of capital into a business interest. The former is an unnecessary frivolity; the latter is a required part of your fandom.

This kind of branding is hardly uncommon—companies such as Nike or Apple promote themselves not merely as makers of quality consumer products, but as sellers of experiences and a lifestyle and an idea. But with sports, there is a sense of obligation attached. People do not need to buy closets full of Nikes—they do it because they enjoy them and most people have fairly impractical things they like to buy and this is as good of a pick as any. But if they decide to stop buying Nikes, it’s their personal decision and it’s fine and nobody cares. But to not buy, say, tickets to sporting events, becomes framed as a moral failing.

Not by the teams, mind you; at least not directly. But by other fans. It continuously perpetuates itself. For years, Los Angeles Dodgers fans have been mocked for arriving late and leaving early to and from games, a form of mockery mostly preying on the city’s reputation for bourgeois apathetics.

Fans of blue-blood sports franchises, including the Cardinals, have been guilty for generations of scoffing at relatively empty stadiums of other, usually less successful teams. It is what compels over 24,000 people to follow @EmptySeatPics, a Twitter account devoted to showing crowds at sparsely attended sporting events. And it is what compels @BestFansStLouis, a Twitter account with over 32,000 followers formerly devoted to shaming Cardinals fans for making racist or homophobic comments which now focuses mostly on shaming middle schoolers for calling Yadier Molina the best baseball player ever, to regularly post screenshots of StubHub prices for Cardinals games.

Even if you ignore the undertones of classism—these posts tend to be met with commentary about how $6 baseball tickets are a problematic thing because, I don’t know, people who can’t afford tickets more expensive than that going to games is a bad thing or something—the implied problem is that fans are not fulfilling their sacred obligation to give money to billionaires. But if there is one city in one point in time which has the right to refute the notion that giving money to a sports team is a way of solidifying a fan/ownership relationship, it is St. Louis.

This is preying on fear as much as it is allowing fans in other cities to avoid considering the reality of sports business—the Cardinals will almost certainly not be leaving St. Louis any time soon, but the implication that this would be a deserved outcome allows fans in cities where team relocation history and threats are mostly non-existent, such as Chicago, to feel as though they are part of their team’s success—in this case, their team’s ability to make a lot of money.

But while it is considered impolite for Cardinals fans to brag about their (negligible) role in eleven World Series championships, at its core there is an understanding that team success is unrelated to fan passion; the notion that St. Louis lost its football team (or that Atlanta lost its hockey team, or that Seattle lost its basketball team, or that Montreal lost its baseball team) as a referendum on a lack of fan appreciation rather than extraordinarily wealthy men trying to become more wealthy is in turn a way for the many, many more fans who didn’t lose a team to feel that they earned something. And with MLB relocation very rare and probably not on the horizon in the short or medium term, ticket prices become a proxy for passion.

I, as a non-wealthy St. Louis sports fan, enjoy living where things like postseason baseball tickets are affordable. I enjoy, during World Series games, being able to go to a local bar or restaurant to watch the Cardinals at little cost, rather than forking over hundreds of dollars just to get in the door.

This isn’t even intended to be shade at Chicago—certainly, Cubs fans take pride in their team and fan culture, and they not only have every right to do so, it’s for the best for everybody remotely involved with baseball for them to do so. But this does not make St. Louis bad or wrong; it makes St. Louis different.

St. Louis, like Chicago and like any other major city, has its warts. But cheap sports tickets are not one of them. And Cardinals fans have no reason to apologize for it.