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The 'Moneyball' of baseball ticket pricing

Citi Field seats are now priced more dynamically, like airline tickets. A hot pitcher on the mound, or a rainy forecast, could change the price significantly.

Leigh Castergine is the VP of ticket sales for the New York Mets. Baseball teams used to set prices at the beginning of the season, and hope they were right. Today, the Mets see what's selling and what's not, and then tweak prices on the fly.

Kai Ryssdal: Baseball's All-Star Game is tomorrow, that means we're about halfway through the season and also halfway through an experiment in how teams sell and how we buy sports tickets. Dynamic pricing is the technical phrase. If you've ever sat next to somebody an airplane who paid half of what you did, I think you get where I'm going with this.

Dan Bobkoff has the story.


Dan Bobkoff: Tuesday was a good night for New York Mets fans at Citi Field. It was fireworks night, the cherry on top after the Mets trounced the Phillies 11 to 1.  A few hours before the game, up in the front office, things were going well for Leigh Castergine too.

Leigh Castergine: Do we have anything? Are we sold out?

She's the Mets Vice President of Ticket Sales and she's looking over her colleague's shoulder as he pulls up charts and graphs on his computer.

Castergine: It's a very good night.

Actually, it was Citi Field's biggest crowd ever. Her strategy appears to be working. Castergine joined the Mets a year and a half ago. And, she's part of a new guard changing the ticket selling business.

Castergine: We just are infused with data.

Years ago, running a ticket office wasn't that hard. You'd set prices at the beginning of the season, and hope you got them right. Today, Castergine and her team see what's selling and what's not, and then tweak prices on the fly.

Castergine: I changed 15 ticket prices today.

It's called dynamic pricing, and this is its breakout year. After the San Francisco Giants showed it works last season, dozens of teams are now on board.

Eric Fisher is with Sports Business Journal.

Eric Fisher: There's no question that the landscape for buying and selling tickets is moving faster and changing faster than we've ever seen.

Moneyball has come to the ticket office.

Fisher: We've seen more folks with mathematics backgrounds, analytics backgrounds. People are coming from outside the traditional sports background or traditional sales background. 

Why do teams like the Mets want all this brain power? In a word: StubHub. Since it came on the scene more than a decade ago, StubHub and its competitors gave fans an easy way to buy and sell tickets to each other. Tickets for unpopular games often sell below face value. And, that makes teams angry. So, this year, ticket offices are fighting back.

A whole slew of tech companies has sprung up to help teams compete directly against StubHub. One company baseball teams have turned to is called Qcue. Barry Kahn is its founder.

Barry Kahn: I think StubHub sort of opened some doors in terms of pricing being dynamic and a company like ours was able to come in and drive analytics in the industry.

The company writes algorithms that take everything into account. Hot weather is bad for ticket sales. Hot pitching is good. And, of course, the software also keeps tabs on what fans are paying over on StubHub.

Kahn: Previously, there's just not a ton of data out there.

Teams are snatching it up. Qcue signed up half of Major League Baseball in just the last three years and works with other sports as well.

Back at Citi Field, Leigh Castergine of the Mets has some other tricks up her sleeve to get people to skip StubHub. She can give fans perks that you just can't get on the secondary market, like free t-shirts or food.

Castergine: They want to be able to purchase a ticket that includes their soda and crinkle cut french fries from Nathan's and their hot dog.

It worked on Larry Ferguson.

Larry Ferguson: I've got a nice little meal that was included. So, that was great. It's fantastic.

But some tickets will always be cheaper on StubHub. Most teams won't lower prices below face value. Joellen Ferrer is a spokesperson at StubHub, and she says it hasn't seen any real impact from the teams' efforts.

Joellen Ferrer: Despite dynamic pricing, fans are continuously buying and selling tickets on StubHub.

Or maybe this is all just a test of the power of a free hot dog.

In New York, I'm Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

Leigh Castergine is the VP of ticket sales for the New York Mets. Baseball teams used to set prices at the beginning of the season, and hope they were right. Today, the Mets see what's selling and what's not, and then tweak prices on the fly.

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