SPORTS: Some stop paying, start playing when money's tight

September 29, 2008

Goodness knows, I'm not an economist. One look at my checking account would confirm that.

So as my wife and I gather in front of the evening news and try to digest the ups and downs of the stock market along with our dinner, we, like most Americans, can only hope and trust (?) that our wiser (?) government and financial leaders will find a way out of the morass.

We're luckier than many. Our children are raised and college is (mostly) paid for. We have a mortgage we can manage. We both have jobs; in my case, several of them.

But like others, we see our retirement investments shrinking and worry where it all is headed. At the very least, if things do not improve, we may have to take a serious look at our discretionary spending, deciding between wants and needs.

That's where sports come in.

America has suffered economic downturns before. We've all ridden the roller coaster of the stock market.

Yet, in my lifetime, sports has gone in only one direction. Up. Higher costs, payrolls and concessions. More expensive stadiums with more bells and whistles. For that I "blame" no one except those of us who are consumers, for the suppliers have merely reacted to our demand. Sports is the opiate of the masses and we are more than willing to pay for our fix.

Yours truly included.

Back to the economy, of which I've already admitted I know little. As an optimist who believes in the fundamental strength of our country and institutions, I am hopeful we will survive this mess.

But if we don't, in the short term, it would seem the sports/entertainment industry would be among those entities first in line to suffer the effects of an economy gone south.

It's happened before.

Curiosity about the fate of sports during the Great Depression sent me to the allknowing Internet looking for some answers. That led me to a book published in 1988, authored by William J. Baker and titled, "Sports in the Western World."

It included a lengthy chapter about sports after the stock market crash in 1929.

"Stadium turnstiles rusted from inactivity," Baker wrote. "Numerous private golf and tennis clubs folded."

The two most popular team sports at that time were Major League Baseball and college football. Both felt the crunch.

Baker writes that baseball gate receipts fell from an all-time high of $17 million in 1929 to $11 million in 1933. Average salaries dropped from $7,000 to $4,500. Even the immortal Babe Ruth absorbed a huge pay cut, going from $80,000 in 1930 to $35,000 in 1934.

Major college gate receipts dropped 30 percent to 40 percent. Baker cited an Associated Press survey showing that four of five colleges cut back on scholarships, equipment and training aids.

But not all the news was bad. Americans turned to sports in which they could participate. Youth sports began to flourish with the help of service organizations, such as the YMCA, YWCA, Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary, American Legion, CYO and Golden Gloves.

And as the nation began to recover, sports and sports heroes (Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Lou Gehrig, Babe Didrickson Zaharias) provided a healing salve. Many of the first public works projects were "municipal" stadiums and arenas.

"In the end," Baker wrote, "the depression had a contradictory effect [on sports]. On the one hand, it made people cautious and tight with their money. Yet it also set in motion the tendency to pay for excitement and physical activity.

"Out of work, people learned to play, and they took delight in watching other people play. Sports and recreation were a new kind of investment, perhaps a better one than the stock market."

Again, I'm not smart enough to venture a guess as to what point the economy would have to suffer enough that it would affect sports. Locally, my guess is that if the Colts' season-ticket waiting list shrinks anytime soon, it will have more to do with their losses than the economy.

Then again, this has to be a challenging time to be trying to sell Pacers tickets. Even with the bad actors gone and better days (we hope) ahead, nothing short of winning-and more winning-is likely to fill Conseco Fieldhouse again.

In the meantime, I'm suffering through my own great depression: the Colts' 1-2 start and Indiana University's dismal loss to a clearly superior Ball State University team.

Brother, can you spare me a first down?

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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