Moshe Lander is a professor of economics at Concordia University in Montreal, specializing in the economics of professional sports.
Growing up in London, Ont., halfway between Toronto and Detroit, the city’s split sports allegiances didn’t really appeal. In hockey, the Detroit “Dead Things” and the Toronto “Maple Laughs” were far from their glory years. The Detroit Tigers played in an arena that was not yet old and beloved – just old – and the Blue Jays played an all-purpose field that was ill-suited for baseball. No thanks, I thought – I’ll throw in my lot with Buffalo’s Sabres and Bills.
Decades of sports disappointments later, I can confidently say that I know how to pick ‘em when it comes to losers. And I recognize that kind of losing mentality among Toronto sports fans right now, outraged over sky-high ticket prices on the secondary market for the Raptors’ NBA Finals series against the Golden State Warriors. Resale prices on websites like StubHub have ranged from around $800 for the cheapest ones to as high as $60,000 for courtside seats. But really, if the city’s sports fans had a winning mentality, they would know that this is really just par for the course.
As an economist, I know that the concept of supply and demand is at the core of our discipline. Producers (in this case, the Raptors) supply a product (game seats) to the consumer. The Raptors set ticket prices for the seats on offer, leaving it up to fans to decide whether to buy them. Done properly, ticket prices would be set so that the number of seats available would equal the number of fans willing to pay for those seats, filling Scotiabank Arena.
But Toronto has not tasted major professional-sports success like this since 1993, when the Blue Jays won their second consecutive World Series.
So it’s little wonder that finals tickets are so expensive. In fact, the team itself arguably set its ticket prices too low. The secondary market, after all, is only a reflection of fans’ desperation for tickets, heightened by this shortage – perceived or otherwise – of the product. The greater the shortage of Finals tickets in general (and these first-ever finals games sold out in 30 minutes), the greater the premium fans are willing to pay. This leaves the black market (ie. scalpers) to correct the Raptors’ mistake around initial pricing to better reflect what the market can bear.
The Raptors’ decision to set reasonable ticket prices is good PR – or at least avoids potential anger that it would price-gouge its fan base. But it also reflects a miscalculation of how obscenely fans would be willing to spend – whether because they ardently love the team, they have money to burn, or they’ve spotted a new bandwagon.
If Toronto fans really want things to change, they need to expect this kind of success will happen again. Sustained success breeds indifference, and indifference is a proven winner in dragging ticket prices to normalcy. When the Warriors made their first of five (and counting) consecutive Finals appearances in 2015, ticket prices in Oakland skyrocketed, too. Tickets back then cost an average of US$1,000; this year, you can find a reasonable seat there for US$500.
In 1991, baseball’s Atlanta Braves went from worst to first, with owner Ted Turner and then-wife Jane Fonda chopping and chanting with 50,000 other exuberant fans. But after a streak of 14 consecutive postseason appearances, with just one championship season, fans grew weary of mere success; by 2005, the stadium was two-thirds empty.
The Chicago Bulls and Detroit Red Wings will tell you the same: sustained winning is great for the fan but potentially unprofitable for the team, as the novelty of winning grows old.
Toronto fans can’t fathom becoming bored with victory, a testament to a sad unfamiliarity with success. But the outrage over pricey tickets ignores the reality that this is entirely demand-driven, and that this is actually a good thing: sky-high ticket prices mean that a positive yet rare thing is happening, and that fans are excited. Instead, Toronto fans’ tendency to overreact to a big sports win like a gift from heaven, to an officiating error like a vendetta against the entire city and to a defeat like the end of the world – behaviour that those of us who cheer for teams outside of Toronto can find exhausting and annoying – has made it hard to see the forest for the trees here.
Sports fans turned off by this kind of behaviour roll their eyes and say, “Act like you’ve been there before.” In this case, doing so might even ease the economics of fandom.
The Globe and Mail