The Portland Timbers and me: A personal case study in opportunity costs and conscious spending
Saturday night, Kim and I joined 25,216 other soccer fans to watch the Portland Timbers defeat the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-1 during a crazy rare August rainstorm. (Portland gets a lot of rain…but not in early August.) The match was a lot of fun, with three terrific goals.
I've owned Timbers season tickets since 2010, the year before they made the leap to the top league in the U.S. — but I've been a fan since 1975, when I was six years old. My earliest sports memories are listening to Timbers games on a transistor radio, cheering for the likes of Clive Charles, John Bain, and (especially) goalkeeper Mick Poole. I wanted to be Mick Poole.
Each year in August, I get my Timbers renewal letter. If I want season tickets again, it's time to purchase them.
For the first few years, this was an easy decision. Tickets were cheap. In 2011, they cost me $41.91 per seat per game. Even in 2016, the cost seemed reasonable at $54.00 per ticket per game. Over the past few years, though, ticket prices have skyrocketed. If I want to renew for 2020, I have to be willing to pay $79.12 per ticket per game.
As much as I love the Portland Timbers, they might have found my limit. This price point tests my patience and my pocketbook. I'm not alone.
The High Price of Fun
I own two seats near the top of section 118, which straddles the midfield line in the old part of our stadium. (As a frame of reference, if you watch the highlight video at the start of this article, that view is basically from our seats. We sit six feet in front of the television camera.)
I was very deliberate when I chose these seats. I don't need to sit in the new section; I'd rather look at it. Our seats are never in the sun, and they're sheltered from the prevailing weather pattern, which is important when you get as much rain as we do here in Portland. (Saturday, for instance, we were completely dry. The folks across the way in the expensive seats got drenched. Many retreated to watch from other parts of the stadium.)
If I renew for 2020, each season ticket will cost me $1325. That's a total of $2650 — plus a bullshit $40 service charge.
Now, $2690 isn't the end of the world. Sure, it'd be expensive if I were still deep in debt and struggling to get by. But I'm not. Today, I'm financially independent. I can afford some indulgences.
But here's the thing. Games cost more than just the ticket price. It costs money to get downtown. If costs money to park. It costs money to eat and drink, whether we do it at the stadium or at a nearby restaurant. It costs money for Timbers gear. Sure, many of these expenses are completely optional. But for us — and for most sports fans I know — the ticket price is just part of the expense of going to games.
I'm sure we spend an additional $50 per match. And it might be closer to $100!
Let's consider Saturday as typical. We paid $8 for parking in a “secret” garage an eight-minute walk from the stadium. At the game, Kim and I each had two $10.50 beers (for a total of $42) and a $6 slice of pizza (for a total of $12). So, we spent $62 (plus gas) in addition to two $69 tickets. Our grand total for the evening? Exactly $200.
And that's for one of seventeen home games!
I calculate that our annual expenses for the Portland Timbers are at least $3500 — and they're probably closer to $4000.
I'm sure you'll agree that $4000 is a lot of money. That's a nice trip to Europe, for instance, like the one I made in May with my cousin Duane. That's a substantial portion of a new Mini Cooper. It'd fund an entire year of HelloFresh for two people, four nights a week.
I love the Portland Timbers. But do I love them this much?
Crunching the Numbers
Each year when it's time to renew my Timbers tickets, I go to Kim. “I'm not sure that I should do this,” I say. “I mean, I want to, but I don't like how much it costs.”
Usually, she says the same thing: “Are you kidding me? You love the Timbers! Yes, you should do it. You'd regret if you gave up your seats.”
This year, though, she said something different: “Yeah, the games are expensive. Plus, they're getting to be a hassle. And I don't like all of the weeknight games. Those are tough. Maybe you could find somebody to split the tickets with? Only, this time make sure they pay you in advance.”
Note: When we were on our RV trip in 2015, we split ticket costs with a friend. I didn't ask for money in advance, though, and the friend never paid. Lesson learned.
Yesterday, I crunched some numbers. That's what money nerds do, right? I dug through my email to find pricing information from past seasons. I was able to recreate pasts costs for every year but one.
Although I've included what I paid in 2010, it's not directly applicable. Those were general admission seats in the “Timbers Army”, the rabble-rousing group at the north end of the stadium. Plus, the team wasn't yet a part of Major League Soccer; we were in a lower league.
I bought my current seats in 2011. As you can see, ticket prices have rapidly outstripped inflation. My tickets for 2020 would cost 91% more than they did for the Timbers' first season nine years ago. They'd cost 47% more than they did four years ago. And for the 2020 season, there'll be a 15% price increase over this year.
Looking at inflation data, general prices have increased 16% since 2011 — not 91%. They've increased 8% since 2016 — not 47%.
How can the team justify charging so much for tickets? Especially when the quality of the game experience has declined (rather than improved) during the past few years? Basic economics. Right now, the supply of Portland Timbers tickets falls far below demand. The front office can boost ticket prices until they've found a point of equilibrium. They haven't reached that point yet.
But they may have found my limit.
Conscious Spending in Action
Before the game started Saturday, we chatted with the folks who sit behind us, Gabby and David. They have seasons tickets for both the Portland Timbers and the Portland Thorns (our professional women's team, which is one of the most popular women's pro teams in the world).
Gabby and David have already renewed their tickets for next year — but it may be the last time they do so.
“It's so expensive,” Gabby said. “We save money by trying not buy food and drink at the stadium. We like to go to happy hour somewhere close by first.” I motioned to the two beers David held in his hands. They laughed.
“But we don't want to give our seats up,” David said. “It used to be that you could own your seats and just sell the tickets to other people for the year. Now, though, with electronic ticketing, I think they're trying to catch people who do that.”
Neither we nor they could decide. Do we renew? Do we not renew?
On the drive home, Kim and I tried to brainstorm our options. There are many. We could:
- Simply renew the tickets for 2020 and defer the decision about canceling one more year.
- Renew the tickets, then decide what to do with them in the spring.
- Renew the tickets and split the cost with somebody else.
- Renew, but move our tickets to another part of the stadium. This is a tough one for both of us. We like our seats. Like I said earlier, they're basically the “TV” seats. That's our view.
- Renew our tickets, but make the deliberate decision to not purchase anything at the stadium. (Right. There's like a zero percent chance we could pull this off.)
- Cancel the tickets and enjoy the $4000 “windfall” over the next year (and years to come).
- Cancel the tickets and divert the $4000 we would have spent to other goals — like purchasing a new car.
- Cancel tickets and buy season tickets to the Portland Thorns (which cost much less).
I'm sure there are other options, as well.
What I find interesting is that this is a personal case study in opportunity costs and conscious spending.
I am doing my best to make a deliberate decision about these tickets. I want for this to be a conscious choice, not a knee-jerk reaction, not something I do out of inertia. I don't want to buy the tickets simply because I've bought them in the past. I want to be mindful about my wants and needs.
And I'm trying to consider the opportunity costs of this choice. Every purchase is a trade-off. If I do buy these tickets, what am I giving up? If I give up the tickets, what do I gain? What is it that I really want? I've cut a lot of smaller expenses this year. This seems like a big expense that I could cut.
The cost for my tickets to the Portland Timbers has increased at an average rate of 7.44% per year. U.S. inflation has averaged below 2% during that period. It's as if the Timbers soccer club has invested in me and other season ticket holders, and they're earning a 5.5% real (inflation-adjusted) return on our business.
I love my Timbers and I want to support them, but I don't like making myself a commodity for somebody else's profit.
Will I renew my tickets this year? Maybe. I have a month to decide. But if I do, I suspect this will be the final season I indulge in this luxury.
True story: While researching past ticket prices in my gmail account, I came across some notes that I mailed myself on 25 September 2013. They pretty much cover this exact same subject! This is a question I wrestle with every year. And every year — so far — I come to the same conclusion: This is something I value.
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