LOS ANGELES — When it comes to affordable sports tickets, baseball is still king.
That doesn't mean fans should expect lower prices as Major League Baseball's 2012 season gets under way this week. On average, ticket prices have increased the past two years, albeit slightly.
For the most part, baseball teams have kept big increases at bay, recognizing that many consumers are just starting to spend more as the economy and job market strengthen. Many are also setting aside seats to sell as premium tickets, with extras like food or other perks that entice fans to pay a little more.
Even so, sports fans have many options for finding tickets for well below retail prices. And on the occasion when a star-studded matchup justifies spending a bit more, even a sold-out game can be within reach.
"It's really a buyers' market, there's so many options now," said Jon Greenberg, executive editor of Team Marketing Report, which tracks ticket prices. "You can get some great value for bad seats, even good seats at bad teams."
The average ticket price for an NFL game this past season was $77.34. For NHL games it's $57.39, and in the NBA it's $48.48, according to Team Marketing Report data.
By comparison, the average price of a MLB ticket last season was $26.91.
That's still up 47 percent from 2002, when the average price was just $18.31. Only the NFL's average ticket price increased more in that same period.
For perspective, the government's Consumer Price Index, a gauge of prices paid by consumers, rose 25 percent between 2002 and 2011, the last full year of data. And median weekly earnings for full-time U.S. employees grew about 24 percent in the same period.
Several factors can drive ticket prices higher, but generally it comes down to the size of the market. Winning championships can help rally a fan base to sell out games, but it's not a given. And even a team with a long history of losing can still command higher prices. Just ask the Cubs or Maple Leafs.
"You look at the top five ticket prices in the NBA — Knicks, Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Heat," Greenberg said. "Knicks aren't always competitive, but Celtics have won it, Lakers have won it, the Heat are up there, but those are all big cities."
Another big factor: the number of games in a season.
It's no coincidence that baseball tickets are cheaper, on average, than other professional sports. MLB teams have a 162-game regular season, versus just 16 in the NFL. The NBA and NHL each have 82-game seasons.
Among MLB teams, the Red Sox had the costliest average ticket price last year at $53.38. The Yankees were close behind with an average price of $51.83. The Cubs, White Sox and Mets rounded out the top five.
The Diamondbacks had the least expensive ticket, on average, at $15.74, followed by the Padres, Pirates, Angels and Rays.
These figures don't include premium tickets, which sell for a lot more money. Not to mention luxury boxes and other high-end packages, such as the Cubs' Audi Legends Suite. This perch at Wrigley Field runs as much as $12,000, but houses as many as 14 people during a game and can include a visit with a former Cubs Hall-of-Famer, in addition to other perks.
Fans looking for a far more modest option, however, have no shortage of places to look.
Some of the biggest discounts can be found on a bevy of ticket websites, proving the teams often are not the best game in town when it comes to landing an affordable ticket.
"Very rarely are events truly sold out," said Adam Kanner, co-founder and CEO of ScoreBig.com.
THE TICKET HUNT
There are three main options for buying tickets to a sporting event: Directly from the team, commonly through Ticketmaster.com; from websites like ScoreBig.com that obtain swaths of tickets from brokers, corporations and promoters or other sources; and, from fans reselling tickets on StubHub.com or similar sites.
Each source has its advantages and drawbacks.
For example, buying from the team is the most direct way to get exactly what you want, but you're paying retail. Why do that if you can avoid it?
Buying from individuals can be a good way to bypass a game sellout or get a good price on extra tickets the seller no longer needs. That could mean a lower price, but prepare to pay a lot more than retail for a hot ticket.
That can help give you an idea of the kinds of tickets that might be available for a given game and how much everyone from resellers to brokers are asking.
The middleman sites mining tickets from brokers offer perhaps the most tantalizing prospect for big discounts.
Brokers often buy season tickets and make a killing from selling seats to highly anticipated games, say a matchup between the Lakers and Celtics. But less coveted games typically get sold at a discount.
"So many brokers are sitting on so much inventory that they're willing to take a loss," said Justin Cener, founder and CEO of Crowdseats.com.