In his 17 seasons as the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, Frank Burke has witnessed a lot of change.
The Lookouts moved from historic Engel Stadium to the downtown AT&T Field after the 1999 season, and they switched their player development partnership from the Cincinnati Reds to the Los Angeles Dodgers following the 2008 season. Players have come and gone by the year, month and week, but one thing has remained constant.
A general-admission seat cost $4 in 1995, and it costs $4 today.
"I'm proud of the fact we've been able to do what we've done without charging people a lot of money," Burke said. "We make our money on people who come back, not people who come once, so encouraging them to come back and making it economically easy for them to come back is our goal."
The most inexpensive seats at the other nine Southern League facilities range from $6 to $10. When asked if fellow league owners discuss his minuscule general-admission fee, Burke laughed and said, "Except to call me a moron, they really don't comment on it."
Calvin Powell certainly appreciates the value.
A 64-year-old retired truck driver from Polk County, Powell started attending Lookouts games at Engel and has averaged 20-25 appearances each season at AT&T. He sits in general admission, which was costing him $4 a game until he started qualifying for the $2 senior discount.
"I sure can't think of a better bargain," Powell said. "I like baseball, and it's well worth the time and the money to go see them for that price."
Burke, who bought the team with his father, Daniel, and third partner Charles Eshbach, said it was never part of the plan in 1995 to raise general-admission seating. Nor was it given thought in the spring of 2000, when the $10.2 million, privately funded facility known then as BellSouth Park opened.
"We had raised the cost of season tickets, and the lower-box seats went up by a dollar," Burke said. "The people here had really supported the concept of a new stadium, and we were looking at it from a longer-term perspective than just right then."
A Lookouts general-admission ticket now costs less than a bag of apples, a family-sized bag of Lay's potato chips or a gallon of Mayfield milk. The price of unleaded gasoline in Chattanooga got as high as $3.98 in September 2008, and the premium grades were higher than $4 for much of this year.
So there have been times when attending a Lookouts game is cheaper than getting to and from one.
"It's an optional thing, and for a lot of people, something like milk is not optional," said Burke, who is looking to sell the storied Class AA franchise and does not expect to own the team next season. "Milk is part of what you need in theory to stay healthy, but a baseball game is a discretionary thing. It's interesting when things like that are pointed out, but I've never looked at it that way.
"The economic ease of it is one of the reasons to come. Fireworks are a reason and the Chicken and stuff like that, but ultimately I think the most compelling reason to come to a Lookouts game is to see fun entertainment."