In Many NBA Arenas, the Cheap Seats Are Truly Cheap This Season

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It’s feast or famine in NBA arenas around the country. While teams like the world champion Miami Heat are adding pricey perks to cater to VIP clientele, lackluster franchises such as the Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, and Detroit Pistons are resorting to blue-light specials on ticket packages to attract fans — often starting under $10 per seat.

In big-time sports today, venues must provide high rollers with a high-end, exclusive experience in order to justify the exorbitant prices charged for premium seats and private boxes. The latest example of the VIP perk race comes from American Airlines Arena, host of back-to-back NBA champions the Miami Heat. The Miami Herald recently attended a preview of the arena’s Flagship Lounges, which after a $3.5 million renovation not only feature glitzy new décor but also a dramatically improved gourmet scene for foodies. On the menu: “saffron-spiked lobster paella, tomahawk rib-eye steaks garnished with local microgreens and blood-orange flan,” among other choices. Occasionally, local celebrity chefs — the kind who run establishments where it’s hard to get a table — create special menus for the guests who may or may not be aware that a basketball game is being played nearby.

Only Flagship ticket-holders are granted access to these VIP lounges. Season tickets go for $61,252 — and they’re currently sold out. That price, mind you, doesn’t include the food mentioned above. Dinner at the Flagship Lounge ranges from $64 to $105. That price doesn’t come with alcohol or waiter service; it’s a buffet. “Sort of makes $20 for a beer and a slice of pizza sound affordable,” the Herald observes.

(MORE: NBA Teams Struggle to Fill Arenas Even When Cheap Seats Are $1 — or Free)

What may come as a surprise to some fans, however, is that while arenas are pushing top-shelf amenities and over-the-top services in exorbitantly priced VIP seating areas, there’s a parallel trend aimed at the low end of the market. Some NBA teams have loads of tickets that they’re happy to sell for around the cost of a beer at the game.

On the one hand, popular, big-market teams are commanding top dollar for tickets. One of the least expensive ticket packages for the newly revamped Brooklyn Nets is a 10-pack of games starting at $60 per seat—or $600. Other franchises are getting particularly aggressive with ticket promotions to fill seats that are otherwise likely to remain empty, or that the teams may later be forced to sell at even cheaper prices. As the season goes by, ticket giveaways and $1 seat promotions have been known to pop up for NBA games that are less than half sold out.

The Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, and Milwaukee Bucks are among the teams advertising ticket packages in which admission runs $10 or less this season. A 10-pack of Pistons tickets starts for as little as $76, and the Bucks were offering free seats to the home opener for fans who bought tickets to 10 other games, starting at $9 apiece.

Several franchises are also pumping up the fact that they’ve dropped ticket prices this year. The New Orleans Pelicans, for instance, announced that for the 2013–14 season, 80% of seats have had their prices reduced. The Milwaukee Bucks have knocked 10% to 20% off more than 9,000 seats in their home area, the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

But such announcements don’t necessarily mean that prices are cheaper for all games. Many sports and music venues are moving to dynamic or variable pricing systems in which seat prices are determined by demand. This is how things work in the secondary ticket market, whether we’re talking about StubHub and other online sellers or scalpers outside the arena. Lately, professional sports franchises have been catching on and playing the same game.

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In the case of the NBA, pricing is typically based on the matchup. Teams that regularly struggle to put fans in seats have a much easier time selling tickets when the league’s superstars show up in town. The Detroit Pistons illustrate the NBA’s up–down pricing trend particularly well. Last year, Crain’s Detroit Business reports, “the Pistons in 2012–13 were 28th in the 30-team NBA with an average per-game attendance of 14,782, which is 67 percent of capacity at The Palace.” To boost attendance at certain low-interest matchups (dubbed “Value” games), the Pistons have tripled the number of single-game admissions selling for $10. On the other hand, in high-demand “Elite” games, versus the popular Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, prices for most seats have increased this year, with the best seats going for $275, up from $250 a season ago.

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