Loyalty or luxury? Tightening economy is ticket to tough choices for area sports fans


WHEN Bob Mulfinger comes home from a Blast game, his wallet is considerably lighter. Try up to $88.07 lighter.

Mulfinger is a season ticket holder. Twenty-six times a year he packs his family into the car at their Westminster home and drives downtown to the Baltimore Arena to watch the Blast play soccer.

The other night, after finishing his job as director of retail operations for The Great Cookie in Owings Mills, he sat down and figured up just what that meant for a season. He added up the cost of gas, four $12 tickets, food and parking for each game.

The grand total for a family of four: $2,290. Add the playoff package, which the Mulfingers do every year, and the total grows to $2,700.

"As long as we can afford to go, we'll go," said Mulfinger. "Who knows how much longer that will be."

It's a fun night out, an escape from daily problems such as the sagging economy. But there really is no escape from the economy, because it's also a costly night out.

It becomes a concern, not only for the fans trying to come up

with the dollars necessary to watch a pro sports event in Maryland, but also for the teams that are trying to get those fans through the doors.

When money is tight, choices are tougher. And whether people are willing to spend their money on sports entertainment, or any entertainment in hard times, is open to debate.

The Blast of the Major Soccer League and the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League both have suffered drops in average attendance. The Skipjacks of the American Hockey League still seem to be benefiting from their association with the Caps and are showing a slight increase in attendance, despite a season-low 1,806 on Tuesday night.

The Washington Bullets, on the other hand, are on a record pace, despite fielding the team with the sixth-worst record in the National Basketball Association. The Bullets (6-14) are averaging thanks to three sellouts of 18,756. It is only the second time, dating to 1963-64, when they were the Chicago Zephyrs, that they have been on a pace to average at least 12,000. The only other time they attracted that many fans was the 1978-79 championship season.

"It is kind of surprising, but there are several reasons for it," said Bullets spokesman Rick Moreland. "First, the NBA is one of the hottest pro leagues going right now. Second, our television package with NBC and TNT and our National Radio package has increased the exposure of the Jordans, Birds, Magics, Isiahs and David Robinsons.

"Fans want to come and see those players. Those players really help a team such as the Bullets, whose won/lost record is not good. And we think the crowds will continue, regardless of our record."

The Blast's record also doesn't appear to be a determining factor. For the past two seasons, the Blast virtually owned first place, but attendance did not reflect the success.

Although it was up 1,000 per game last season compared to 1988, it was down 32 percent from 1983-84, when the team averaged 11,188 fans per game.

"Normally, I can put my finger on the reason for low crowds pretty quick," said Blast general manager John Borozzi. "Normally, you can check your season tickets, advance sales, walk-ups, groups and find a specific area being affected. But right now, we're down about 23 percent and it seems to be a little in all areas."

Mulfinger, who has been bringing his family to games since the 1981-82 season, has his own ideas.

"I think the economy plays a part," said Mulfinger, whose Blast expenditures have been cut a bit this season since his son Jason is a ballboy. "I also think the Christmas season and the gas prices play a part. But I think the biggest reason attendance is down is that a lot of people have a bad taste in their mouths due to the seeming instability of the league.

"However, I think some of that is dissipating."

He cited the MSL's new relationship with the U.S. Soccer Federation that will select the U.S. National Team for the 1992 World Cup and the Blast hosting the '92 MSL All-Star Game.

"I think those things will start to have a positive impact," Mulfinger said.

But they won't put any money back in his wallet.

When Mulfinger first brought his family to Blast games, he paid $4 per ticket for obstructed-view seats. The Blast's cheapest seat this season has been $10. However, $7 obstructed-view seats will be on sale for every game beginning tomorrow.

"The reason we stopped selling them was to try to maintain some seat integrity," said Borozzi. "We had found there weren't enough ushers to see that people who purchased the $7 seats stayed in them. As soon as the national anthem was played, nearly everyone moved [to more expensive seats]. The Arena has promised to staff the area with more ushers, so we are going to begin selling those seats for every game."

While the Blast has raised its season ticket prices $2 across the board this year, season ticket sales have held steady, giving the Blast a 3,200 base, which is not that far removed from the season ticket sales of the Bullets.

Walk-up sales are down, a trend that might affect the Bullets when they host the Philadelphia 76ers at the Arena on Dec. 26. They are counting on a major walk-up sale, which is when fans purchase tickets right before the game. The Bullets hope an Inner Harbor pep rally today will generate more interest in the Dec. 26 game.

Moreland said the Bullets do not try to "sell" every game, and when a season-low crowd of 6,105 showed up for the Nov. 20 Sacramento game it was no surprise.

"We have 41 home games," Moreland said. "Out of those, we pick 20 impact games on which to concentrate our efforts. We look at a Saturday game with a good team and coordinate our give-aways around those. We won't wrap anything around a bad team on a bad night. If we wrap our ad dollars and our give-aways around a good team on a good night, we can do our best."

In the NHL, attendance is down league-wide, as it is in the MSL and AHL. All three claim the reasons are three-fold: the economy, the early-season competition with the World Series and pro football on television, and the traditional view that indoor sports do not draw well until January's frigid temperatures arrive.

However, Caps spokesman Lou Corletto believes the economy is the main culprit league-wide. As for the Caps, he says the team has not been favored with good home dates to this point.

"We're always concerned when attendance is not on par with the year before," Corletto said. "But we have a strong promotion schedule coming up, and believe we'll be much better off once we get to January."

Ironically, while the Caps are down, the Skipjacks are up.

"It's wonderful," said Jim Riggs, the Skipjacks' vice president of marketing. "It seems the longer we're affiliated with the Caps, the better it is for us. Every time they call a player up, we get mentioned. People are hearing that Baltimore has a hockey product.

"But I do think the economy is affecting everybody. Hershey, for example, is Hockey Town USA and their attendance is down 880 per game -- that's unheard of in any economy."

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