WrestleMania 31 at Levi's Stadium

Wrestling With Our Problems

A record was recently set at Levi’s Stadium. Not by the 49ers; the stadium’s primary tenants are unlikely to set a record anytime soon after this disappointing off-season. No, a facility-record crowd of 76,976 (announced) made their way to Levi’s Stadium on March 29th to witness WrestleMania 31 in all of its hyperkinetic, hyperdramatic yet staged glory.

Many would quibble with calling the WWE’s extravaganza a sports event, and your correspondent sympathizes with that view. Nevertheless, the event took place at a sports venue, and–as reported by my friend and graphic artist colleague Mandeep Jhitta, who attended the event–WrestleMania brought with it many problems known to the rest of the sports-entertainment world, including a total bill for the night that Vince McMahon himself would have had trouble covering.

Which brings us to the question at hand: at what point does ‘so much’ turn into ‘too much’ for the average sports fan?

The DFR: Sports Business WrestleMania generally does not fall within the DFR’s purview, so I have no first-hand knowledge of pro wrestling’s Super Brawl. Fortunately, Mandeep stepped forward and offered some insights into the experience.

First he showed me a photo he took from his seat in the stands. (That’s a copy above in the featured photo slot; a better look at the view can be seen here.) The ring, set up right in the middle of the field (you can just make out the ropes and posts between the staging towers), is barely visible from Mandeep’s seat, which was located just past the end zone in the field’s usual configuration. The imposing figures doing battle on that canvas must have looked somewhat less impressive at such a distance; one can only imagine how they appeared to the souls sitting in the uppermost deck in the top right of the picture.

And what did Mandeep pay for his less than ideal seat? A cool $250. From a friend.

 “…if incomes continue getting more and more unequal, there will come a point where not paying that price will stop being a choice.”

Such a price–for just one seat–should have been a real jaw-dropper, but my surprise was muted by the fact that the WWE hardly has the market cornered when it comes to exorbitant ticket prices. When I received a ticket to a San Jose Sharks game last October as a birthday present, I was deeply moved by the gift, not in the least because my friends spent $100 (face value) for my seat. Surely, if you have attended a pro game anywhere recently, you can supply your own tale of outrageous ticket prices.

It doesn’t stop at the cost of a seat, of course. A man’s got to eat, and Mandeep went to the stadium hungry–a tactical error, as it turned out. “Put it this way,” Mandeep said, somewhat ruefully, “I got pizza, I got a beer, and some stale garlic fries, for a total of about $35.” Ruefully, I say, because Mandeep noted that the hospitality car on the Amtrak train he took to the stadium offered food and drink for riders–a menu that was substantially cheaper and more tasteful than the cardboard pizza and costly beverages for sale at Levi’s. And just to dig the knife in a little further, those stale and expensive garlic fries came, according to Mandeep, with almost no garlic on them–and the concession stand worker argued with him when he pointed out the deficiency. Bad food for ridiculous prices–$10.50 per 8 oz. beer, anyone?–sold with a side of rotten customer service; does that ring any bells with you, sports fans?

Lest you think Mandeep is just a hopeless sucker, he did make a smart decision about transportation. While he was uncertain about the cost of parking at the stadium, he noted that even with his pricey Amtrak ticket, “$35 round trip from Berkeley is still cheaper than the cost of gas and parking over there [i.e., driving to the stadium].” That estimate is surely accurate; plus his carriage delivered him just a short, quick walk away from the stadium–an ease of access that must have made the car-bound jealous as they fought their way through the still-new stadium’s already notorious access problems.

Mandeep’s total bill for his night out with the WWE? A cool $320. Wrestle mania, indeed.

The point of this report is not have a laugh at the expense of WWE aficionados; quite the opposite. March’s event marked WrestleMania’s first ever Bay Area appearance. Mandeep’s total bill for an eyewitness experience at WWE’s showcase event–one that a Berkeley wrestling fan is unlikely to have again without traveling–was almost certainly worth it, given that it might turn out to be a once in a lifetime adventure.

But how about the rest of us sports fans? Are we getting good value for our dollars when we go out to watch a baseball/football/basketball/hockey/whatever game? Does it make sense for us to pay those high ticket prices for a Thursday night Giants vs. Braves game? A Broncos vs. Texans contest? Even Blackhawks vs. Kings in the Western Conference finals?

Sport has become the business sector where, like a compass in the Bermuda Triangle, economics seems to stop working. Ticket prices never go down, at least if we’re talking face value. (The secondary market is another matter.) Merchandise sales are another backbone for franchises, and fans keep buying the branded jerseys, shirts, hats, and assorted others no matter how high the prices climb. Indeed, one need look no further than my nearest pro sports team–the Oakland Athletics–to see the lack of market forces in action. The Coliseum is the home of $17 parking (last check; it may have gone up this year) for A’s home games–despite the fact that the stadium’s parking lots are invariably only half-full. Any inclination to drop those prices to get more paying customers driving up to the gates? Not so far. We fans are expected simply to pay, no matter what the cost.

But is that a sustainable model? If you pay any attention to the news lately, you’re bound to have heard about the troubling problem of income inequality. The rich keep getting richer, and the rest of us are getting poorer. And this has been reflected in sports no less than the rest of society. Not only are team and league revenues, as well as player salaries, up into the stratosphere, but corporate considerations (which is to say, rich people) get first priority when teams seek to attract more income. Any new stadium or arena must make maximizing luxury boxes a major part of the plan. (The aforementioned Levi’s Stadium is already notorious for its luxury suites, which sit on the shady side of the building while the peons sitting in the stands routinely broil in the sun during any daytime event.) Skimping and cutting corners–as attested above by Mandeep’s garlic-less garlic fries–have become de rigueur in sports operations when serving the hoi polloi. Hundred dollar tickets? Just the cost of loving the team you love.

Of course, we always have the choice of not paying those prices. Indeed, their need for our dollars is the strongest weapon we wield; our choices as consumers still have the power to make or break any business enterprise–even one as coddled, connected, advantaged, and protected as big-time sports. As noted on the Chris Borland episode, these businesses need growth to thrive; even a small fall-off in revenues can cause major disruptions. We are not powerless in the face of the expensive slings and arrows we are asked to suffer.

The problem is, if incomes continue getting more and more unequal, there will come a point where not paying that price will stop being a choice. If the stewards of our games continue to try to extract every penny they can get from us, they may find–sooner rather than later–that their presumed inexhaustible wells have run dry. After all, you can’t get blood from a stone–nor pennies from the pockets of the penniless. And if that day does come, I doubt even Seth Rollins, WrestleMania’s main event winner, will have to skill to wrestle with the problems that eventuality will bring.

Photo courtesy Mandeep Jhitta.


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