Other Entertainment Options Lapping Pro Sports

Everyone who works in sports right now is blaming the alarming drop in NBA, MLB, NASCAR and NHL attendance on the economy.

Pro Spectator Sports Golden Years Are Officially Over

(Sorry, no ‘plz support your team!’ piece by your local cheerleading columnist)

But look at other entertainment options, like movies, video games, and concerts. Those businesses are doing quite well, and in many cases have seen little-to-no dropoff in popularity. So why has attendance for *major league* sports fallen off a cliff while millions still flock to the next cheeseball Will Ferrell vehicle?

Besides NFL, is interest in pro sports in permanent decline?

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Answer: Besides the NFL, sports as entertainment is in permanent decline. The economic meltdown only sped up the inevitable.

I worked in sports for over a decade, for teams and in the main media. I was a play-by-play announcer in MLB, worked the minor leagues for many years in baseball and hockey, was a national talk show host at Fox Sports Radio and anchored Ohio State and USC football coverage for multiple years. But I’m 5+ years removed from the main media sports biz now, so I’ve got a completely different perspective on where the spectator sports industry is going.

Kids, the golden years are behind us.

Besides reams of bogus, “tickets-sold” game attendance stats, there’s mountains of anecdotal evidence that the pro sports bargain is no more for many ordinary folks making a typical wage. Even worse, those who previously paid for seats to games are staying away in droves. Saturday, I was at the Angels-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium. Gorgeous weather. Memorial Day weekend. Dodgers have best record in baseball and the Angels are in town. And what did we get? A half-empty ballpark - with many of the empties no-shows.

10,000+ no-shows for the best team in baseball playing a rival on a perfect Memorial Day holiday? Ominous, to say the least.

Of course, pro teams and leagues have long known its business model is increasingly vulnerable. Since the early ’90s, which saw the beginning of a sports venue construction boom, sports execs have tried to reverse the tide by building ballparks to more resemble amusement parks. With that trend, one can infer that the folks running those venues apparently don’t put a lot of stock into the product on the field/court keeping people’s attention.

Earlier this season, Yankees management blamed an avalanche of empty seats during games not on abhorrently high ticket prices and a mediocre team, but on fans wandering around their new stadium, paying attention to everything but the game.

All the new ballparks and arenas now at worst feature restaurants, pickup bars, kiddie play areas, museums. And some even include mini-malls with merchants selling products that have nothing to do with the host team, or sports for that matter. So I guess the Yankees brass probably did have a point. But again, what does that all tell you?

All of the above does not apply to the NFL, though.

Because of the smallish number of games, league parity and insane media hype, the NFL has evolved into the perfect spectator sport beast. Like MLB, NBA and the other so-called major league sports, NFL ticket prices are laughably high. But bloodsport, especially in restrained, equal doses, now outsells stick and ball sports.

And wouldn’t you think that the NFL’s competitors for sports-based dollars would figure out that less is more? And that league parity is the linchpin to keep fans interested? (You don’t need to answer that.)

As I’ve been saying in this space for many months now, what you are going to see in the next five years is a spate of consolidation in the NHL, NBA and perhaps even MLB. I expect a handful of teams to relocate, and a few others to cease operation. (Not every franchise will have a benefactor like Jim Balsillie.)

Warm-weather NHL markets are obviously the most vulnerable financially, but the NBA has plenty of problem children, too. And that will not change, save one of those cratered franchises making a championship run that could extend its shelf-life.

For those not in the affected markets, that consolidation will be good news for the sports industry. There’s too many teams, too many games, too much dilution to keep the typical person interested. (Yes commenters, there are exceptions!)

I would love to be able to say that pro sports will soon make a comeback and you will see sold-out stadia and TV ratings through the roof in the very near future. But the facts support that sports as a major investment in people’s lives, like so many other things in our culture, is being lapped every day by advancing technology.

On the bright side, thank goodness smartphones, laptops and iPods weren’t around when Chris Chambliss did this to me in 1976:


Saved me alotta replacement loot.

By the way, here’s a link to the pic you’ve been looking for. If it comes up in the comments, someone please lend a hand.

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