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Entertaining the Masses.
December 17, 2008 3:41 PM   Subscribe

In the last Depression, professional sports were a cheap source of entertainment. With today's contracts, can teams survive?
posted by gman (42 comments total)

 
As long as they can influence and corrupt politicians, sure.

YANKEES SUCK
posted by xmutex at 3:43 PM on December 17, 2008


Meant to include - List of largest sports contracts.
posted by gman at 3:45 PM on December 17, 2008


Do dance marathons count as professional sports?
posted by Joe Beese at 3:50 PM on December 17, 2008


Maybe it could lead to player owned teams?
posted by R. Mutt at 3:51 PM on December 17, 2008


On a related topic, Chrysler has just announced that at the end of this Friday's shift, all manufacturing facilities will be closed until January 19, 2009.
posted by ornate insect at 3:55 PM on December 17, 2008


Sports programming drives up cable rates. Supposedly.
posted by woodway at 3:56 PM on December 17, 2008


Attending professional sports events is for a somewhat odd sort of person.
I think they are referred to as 'fans'. Which I think is short for 'fanatics'. Which I am positive will get me in dutch with the Mefite community.
posted by notreally at 3:59 PM on December 17, 2008


I guess we'll just have to content ourselves with the internet?
posted by LogicalDash at 4:04 PM on December 17, 2008


Maybe finally people will actually get outside and PLAY some of these games.
posted by salishsea at 4:05 PM on December 17, 2008


Sporting events are overly costly affairs? Get outta here!

I, as a relatively uninterested bystander, am looking forward to the potential for this economic downturn to shift the focus from high-paid sports stars to more local teams. It's not likely, but I can hope. If more teams became like Gaelic football, I would be happy. All-amateur, games played on the weekend or holidays, and still people turn out in droves. Mind, I went to a few games in Ireland a few years back, so I don't have a lot of knowledge of the sport, but it was fantastic when I was there.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:07 PM on December 17, 2008


Did anyone else see the Chrysler headline and think of Little Orphan Annie? Just me? Oh well, back to sports entertaining the masses.
posted by woodway at 4:08 PM on December 17, 2008


ornateinsect is right, this is actually a lot like the automakers' plight, in that their costs are kept up by contracts which were based on (retrospectively crazy) optimism about future sales.
posted by grobstein at 4:15 PM on December 17, 2008


Well I guess Seattle can feel pretty good about telling the Sonics to go stuff themselves.
posted by Artw at 4:21 PM on December 17, 2008


I think the drive to view the limits of human potential and view spectacles won't disappear and I suspect you will have professional sports even in hard economic times - maybe on a smaller scale. Some professional leagues, like the Canadian Football League and Major League Soccer are examples of pro-sports leagues that don't spend loads of money - one can dispute the quality of play in those leagues, but the CFL's championship game drew over 60,000 people this year.

As for fans as "fanatics", well a fan is no more a fanatic (in most cases) than a filthy child is a child covered in shit. Words change meaning over time.

A lot of intellectuals are anti-sport as they generally assume that sports ties in with a lot of concepts that intellectuals generally reject: such as the virtue of physical power, and all the notions of nation, tribe, and territory that get caught up in big sports matches. People often say that (gridiron) football is a metaphor for war, so I don't think the fact that sports are controversial intellectual fodder is going to go away either. Things like stadium deals, tax breaks obviously don't help in this regard.

I've often felt though, that sports and pro-sports can be a force for good. I think that some of the hockey games of the late 80's such as the Czechs vs the Soviet Union, or more recent cricket matches between India and Pakistan gave those tensions a fairly harmless outlet that might have been expressed in riots or battlefields otherwise.
posted by Deep Dish at 4:35 PM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Arena Football League cancels 2009 Season
posted by humanfont at 4:54 PM on December 17, 2008


A lot of intellectuals are anti-sport

What about George Plimpton, George Will, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Frederick Exley, Stephen Jay Gould, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc? There's a whole tradition of American writers and intellectuals waxing rhapsodic about baseball, boxing, etc.
posted by ornate insect at 4:57 PM on December 17, 2008


Seabiscuit!
posted by maxwelton at 5:09 PM on December 17, 2008


What about George Plimpton, George Will, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Frederick Exley, Stephen Jay Gould, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc? There's a whole tradition of American writers and intellectuals waxing rhapsodic about baseball, boxing, etc.

Point taken, but its not a huge leap to go from Karl Marx talking about "religion being the opium of the masses" to "televised pro-sports as opium of the masses" - in fact several people in my various social theory classes did just that. The movements which led to the decline of classical education/the British school system tended to think of sports as too rigid, and disciplined to be good for childhood development, libertarians tend to think that stadiums should not receive public funds..

Broad strokes I guess.
posted by Deep Dish at 5:21 PM on December 17, 2008


But intellectuals love opium!
posted by Artw at 6:14 PM on December 17, 2008


My Hometown Newport Gulls offers 9 innings of entertainment for ten bucks, usually with a free souvenir thrown in, and if you go during Armed Forces Day, you'll almost be guaranteed to see an admiral, two senators and a Kennedy. They have no problems filling the stands.

(The best games are when the European cruise liners stop by... one of the excursions is to go see a gen-u-ine American Baseball game. The stands are beyond packed. They have no idea what to cheer at, so they cheer at everything. Pop-fly: See how high it went? Hoooraaaay! Foul ball: Whoah! He hit it really hard! Hooooraaay! Batter got walked: Someone moved someplace else! Hooooraaay!)

RI also has the PawSox and the Providence Bruins, and Providence College Fryers Basketball and Hockey, and URI basketball, all of which do well enough on the national level. Then there's Ivy League football and hockey, where the Brown Bears try not to get clobbered too badly by Harvard and Yale.

Spectator sports are still good, cheap, wholesome fun - the big leagues are not the end-all, be-all of athletic competition.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:25 PM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


If you watch for deals (at least for the less popular teams) it's not that hard to get cheap tickets (except for, maybe, NFL games). To really save money, the trick is to not drive there and not to eat there.

For me going to see a basketball, hockey, or baseball game is a great way to blow off stress (and create some entirely new, different stress).
posted by drezdn at 6:34 PM on December 17, 2008


joe beese, dance marathons were my first thought. Also, rollerball.
posted by theefixedstars at 6:35 PM on December 17, 2008


I'd say that pro sports will have to adapt to the deflationary pressures that are starting to take effect, if they'd like to survive. Ticket prices will have to come down, if they'd like to continue to sell out venues. Concessions likewise--if they'd like people to do their hotdog-eating and beer-drinking at the venue, that is. And yes, even players will need to renegotiate new contracts for lower salaries, if they'd like to continue playing pro sports.

That is, of course, if we are truly headed for a long-term deflationary depression, which appears to be the case.
posted by spirit72 at 7:00 PM on December 17, 2008


If you watch for deals (at least for the less popular teams) it's not that hard to get cheap tickets (except for, maybe, NFL games).

The NFL has gotten expensive any way you slice it. I'm a Browns fan, unfortunately, and I think the cheapest seats this year were around $40 bucks to watch the Browns blow it all season. That's before TicketBastard fees, of course. Not so bad for a single or couple, maybe...but it used to be somewhat economical to take the family in the 80's, if you did it right and fed the kids beforehand. Not anymore.

Nah, we'll just go to a couple of Indians games next year instead, where you can still get halfway decent seats for under 20 bucks. At least The Tribe wins now and then, anyway.
posted by spirit72 at 7:07 PM on December 17, 2008


At least NASCAR will be having trouble...

I think it would be pretty awesome if MLB went bankrupt and just said, "Hey, no one is going to make more than $250,000. Anyone doesn't like that, fuck off, there is somebody that won't mind that paycheck that doesn't have an ego like a fucking Macy's Day Parade balloon. Now play ball!"
posted by schyler523 at 7:15 PM on December 17, 2008


I guess we'll just have to content ourselves with the internet?

I dunno. I don't think it was that much help during the last one.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:20 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's still an Arena Football League? I thought that died with, like, the XFL.
posted by rokusan at 8:11 PM on December 17, 2008


schyler523: If that includes the team owners, then I agree with you. Otherwise, not so much.
posted by Grimgrin at 8:30 PM on December 17, 2008


What about George Plimpton, George Will, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Frederick Exley, Stephen Jay Gould, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc?

Not to mention Hunter S. Thompson.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:34 PM on December 17, 2008


Grimgrin: yes, that too.
posted by schyler523 at 9:23 PM on December 17, 2008


The big three in the US -- NFL, MLB, NBA -- are going nowhere. I think only the NBA deal will expire during this recession (assuming it ends in 2010). Ratings for all three are still pretty good, but more importantly, people tend to watch sports live and not on TiVo, so commercial time is that much more valuable.

MLS is helped by insanely cheap contracts -- league minimum is a mere $15K -- and the gradual move into team-owned stadiums and away from leasing venues owned by the NFL. I think they'll make it.

NHL is marginal. The Sun Belt teams are struggling, with the exception of Dallas. I think at least one team -- Nashville -- will be back in Canada by next year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Florida or Phoenix head north as well. They're helped by a tight salary cap, but their TV contract is awful, and they lost a third of their fanbase from the idiotic season-long strike a few years ago. If the recession lasts beyond 2010, they probably won't.

NASCAR could really be in trouble. Ford and GM dominate the sport, but if either of them go under, it'll cause chaos in the sport. And the teams are basically run by sponsorship money -- if that dries up, it'll shake the financial base of the circuit. Oh, and they're cars -- if we get a V-shaped recovery and oil's racing towards $200, the costs will squeeze the league in a hurry. IRL is in about the same shape; they're just a lot poorer. F1 has already lost Honda.

WNBA seems fragile. They still haven't turned a profit. The Houston Comets just went under earlier this year. But there are some strong and healthy franchises -- LA, Seattle, Connecticut, New York. There's hope there, but they need to find a road to break-even soon.

Arenaball is only partially toast -- AF2, the junior league of arenaball, didn't rely so heavily on sponsorship and TV money, so they're playing in 2009.

Minor leagues always suffer during downturns -- they've killed multiple basketball leagues and some indy baseball leagues. But for the most part ticket prices remain low for minor league baseball, and they're still farm clubs reliant on the symbiotic relationship with MLB teams.

Major college sports should be fine. The downturn and the new BCS TV contract with ESPN probably kills any likelihood of a college football playoff, and issues with sponsorship and ticket sales will kill off a number of bowls. But honestly, we have too many bowls, and the playoff schemes being proposed won't last five minutes against a lawsuit from the mid-major or lower conferences. College basketball is fine for both men and women, so long as CBS and ESPN remain in business.

Minor college sports ALWAYS suffer during downturns. College baseball and wrestling keep losing teams. Title IX is often blamed, but women's teams suffer just as much.

And then there's golf. It'll survive. The payouts will drop, but Tiger won't notice. The sponsorships will be the big issue -- GM is major sponsor and puts on the Buick Open, and bankings and brokerages seem to be 1/4 of all golf commercials.

Assuming we're talking about a deep 2-3 year recession, I think we'll see one fairly major league come close to collapse, if not collapse entirely (the NHL), one racing league go (IRL), and probably a flattening of MLB/NFL/NBA wages. The WNBA may not survive. But college sports will still be big. As for Europe, I have no idea, but I think premier league wages will probably flatten, and maybe some mid-sized clubs will go into receivership.

And finally, on the Chomskyite assertion that sports are some "new opiate" -- honestly, you can say the same about TV, or potboilers, or video games. It's intellectual snobbery more than anything else.
posted by dw at 9:27 PM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wonder how long it'll take for the pro sports leagues to come groveling for bailout money, too? (Joking, but only a little.)

I'm not entirely happy about how much some professional sports-players get paid, but — excepting stadium / tax deals where they get public money, which are abhorrent but are generally not the players' fault — they're making their filthy lucre fair and square, and I respect them for that. Nobody's putting a gun to anybody else's head and making them buy sports tickets or logo'ed merch. If their unions managed to wrangle them lots of money, well, that seems pretty fair to me, since they seem to be creating most of the value.

If those same contracts cause their league to go bankrupt, well, let that be a warning to others. I don't see that happening, though; the various players' associations have typically demonstrated a fair amount of savvy when it comes to doing what's in their best interest, and causing the demise of their own sport through inflexibility in the face of changing market conditions would definitely count as "not in their best interest."

I think the jury is still out on whether or not we're looking at a long-term deflationary spiral, long-term inflation/stagflation, or neither. But if we do see serious deflation, professional sports will either take their lumps or they will cease to exist — just like everything else. (Everything that can't find a way to suckle on Uncle Sam's teats, that is.) Since it's pretty clear that you can still have professional sports without the colossal excess that's characterized the major leagues of the past decade or so, because they existed that way before, I think they'll take it.

It's the industries that can't survive on leaner margins and have nothing to spare — particularly ones that got going in the rapidly expanding economy of the past few years, and took the continued existence of such conditions on premise — that I would expect to see collapse. But professional sports have existed in various forms probably since time immemorial, and that includes through many busts as well as booms; I don't see why this one will be any different.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:48 PM on December 17, 2008


The basketball league in Australia is looking dodgy as hell. The Sydney Kings, for chrissakes.

A few years back pundits were saying they had to win the championship because it was very important for the survival of the league. They recently won the championship so make of that what you will.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Defunct_Clubs_of_the_NBL_(Australia)

Rugby League players are getting paid absolutely squat compared to the "Rugby League war" of 10-15 years ago. Being paid less than $100K for putting your ass on the line in the world's toughest sport should almost be a crime. But... if that's what young kiddies want to aspire to...

I could go on and on, but this is all due to Australian Rules football being the greatest product in the world. That said, introducing 2 expansion teams is a VERY bad idea.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:46 PM on December 17, 2008


I wonder how long it'll take for the pro sports leagues to come groveling for bailout money

I predict minus twenty-five years from now.
posted by srboisvert at 4:20 AM on December 18, 2008


we'll see one fairly major league come close to collapse, if not collapse entirely (the NHL),

I don't think so. Canada could absorb at least a few more NHL teams without much problem (Quebec, Winnipeg, and a second Toronto team) and I think you could probably place a few others if you really needed to (Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, a Saskatchewan team would sell enough tickets - it would lack corporate sponsorship maybe). Some of these places aren't doing badly economically... and the tv ratings in Canada for games between these clubs would be good.

The NHL has a good fan base in American markets where hockey is part of the tradition - Detroit, New York, Chicago, Boston but the fact that elite hockey is played in Phoenix and Miami and not Winnipeg and Quebec City is an offence to nature. Frankly I think the problems with the NHL all stem from an admistration who's background is "big-time sports" rather than the game itself. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a fan base of about maybe 5 million, and for a team like the Carolina Hurricanes virtually the entire fan base is in the arena on game night, the problems here are obvious and while they involve big money and powerful people - they aren't hard to fix if the people in charge are motivated enough.

All that said, the NHL might be stubborn enough to allow its own collapse but Canada (and some parts of the USA) will not go without elite hockey. Even during the strike, a few millionaires started putting together plans for a new league.
posted by Deep Dish at 7:36 AM on December 18, 2008


DW, are you saying golf will entertain the masses during a recession/depression? Dude. That's harsh.
posted by woodway at 8:40 AM on December 18, 2008


I'm going to be slightly cagey about this, but a couple of years ago I worked for a company hired by one of the big MLB teams, and it was kind of pathetic watching local government officials grovel for the chance to hand them taxpayer money.

As for me, that's just so wrong it defies logical explanation.
posted by lordrunningclam at 10:50 AM on December 18, 2008


I don't think so. Canada could absorb at least a few more NHL teams without much problem (Quebec, Winnipeg, and a second Toronto team) and I think you could probably place a few others if you really needed to (Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, a Saskatchewan team would sell enough tickets - it would lack corporate sponsorship maybe).

OK, first off, there won't be a second Toronto team -- there's no way the Leafs will let them in, and there's no way they'll let them succeed there, either.

Secondly, the lack of corporate sponsorships is a serious problem. Hockey is not a cheap sport; it's reached a point where they need sponsorships to keep teams on the ice.

For a while, there was talk that Vancouver may get moved, because their financial situation was pretty messy and attendance could be better. That talk has died down some, but even putting an NHL team in a major Canadian city doesn't guarantee success.

I think it's fairly certain that Hamilton will get Nashville's team. I am also thinking that the Coyotes will return to being the Winnipeg Jets, if they can get an arena deal. Quebec's chances are questionable since that old arena needs some serious work. After that, you might squeeze a team into the Toronto suburbs, but they will need their own place -- no way the Leafs and the Raptors will share Canada Centre, and the Skydome would be too unwieldy to work with come baseball season. But beyond that, what's left? The smallest Canadian city to have ever supported a modern NHL franchise is Winnipeg, and it's roughly the size of Hamilton. After those two, it's a drop of over 200K to the next largest metro area, London. Only nine Canadian metro areas have more than 500K in them, and only six have a million. Can a city with only 500K in it sell 10,000 season tickets at $CDN4000/seat?

The NHL has a good fan base in American markets where hockey is part of the tradition - Detroit, New York, Chicago, Boston but the fact that elite hockey is played in Phoenix and Miami and not Winnipeg and Quebec City is an offence to nature.

This is a silly statement. It's like saying that places where baseball should only be played where it's part of tradition, i.e. where the original 16 played, while playing baseball in the West is an offense to nature. Colorado and Dallas have solid fan bases; both teams have been in their cities less than 20 years. Nashville's problem is both a shaky financial situation and an owner who wants them in Hamilton yesterday -- before then, their attendance was pretty good until the strike. Columbus has been ill-starred between the girl's death and the team's arena being financed by Nationwide. The Florida Panthers' problem is Miami fans not supporting any team. The Lightning it's all about money. The Hurricanes probably shouldn't have moved, and certainly not to Raleigh. Atlanta has had what, one winning team this decade? And right now, there's really only one option for a major US market to move to -- Seattle. But KeyArena only seats 10,000 for hockey.

Meanwhile, the strike killed American fan interest, and a lack of a decent TV contract has eaten at team revenues. As they are, there's no way they can survive.

the NHL might be stubborn enough to allow its own collapse

It was stubborn enough to burn all its goodwill and momentum on a pointless, season cancelling strike. If Bettman can do that, he's fully capable of driving the NHL over the cliff.

Canada (and some parts of the USA) will not go without elite hockey.

Probably, but you're looking at one poor league. 8-10 teams in Canada, with only CBC and TSN broadcast contracts that are far less than ESPN's. NHL ratings in the US right now are about even with MLS, even with the new crop of wunderkinds like Sidney Crosby. Outside of the truly hockey-mad towns -- Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, maybe Dallas, maybe Boston -- there's not a lot of appeal for hockey anymore.
posted by dw at 6:05 PM on December 18, 2008


DW, are you saying golf will entertain the masses during a recession/depression? Dude. That's harsh.

Golf is fairly recession-proof. The people who watch it are generally upper class, and they generally are in good enough financial shape that they aren't hurt by downturns the way the lower classes are. Country clubs don't often close during recessions.

Maybe it won't "entertain the masses," but it draws a clientele that likes to buy expensive things, and Tiger is still a few years from leaving his prime.
posted by dw at 6:09 PM on December 18, 2008


The rich are not recession-proof. They may not be hurt as much in quality-of-life terms, but they are hurt more in dollar terms. Big luxury items -- "expensive things" -- are relatively elastic, and volumes go way down in bad economic times.
posted by grobstein at 9:51 PM on December 18, 2008


Tiger seriously injured his knee as I'm sure everyone on the thread knows, and commentators have been speculating about how it will fare in the future given the fiercely powerful torque of his swing. Yes, I know he's modified his game before, and he's crazy talented; as with any athlete, however, injury could affect the longevity of his career, and he's been a major draw for the tour.

I agree, most of the top players are doing just fine financially, as are golf fans by and large. My own two cents would be that downsizing culls expensive employees from the top management ranks as well as the regular paper shufflers; there are fewer job opportunities for vice presidents than mid-level managers, and investment portfolios aren't as soft and cushiony as before. Country clubs will weather the downturn, but their membership rosters will probably grow thinner and some will fail.

DW, like you I've noticed that the investment industry and car makers are major PGA advertisers, along with electronics companies touting the latest business toys. It's too late to pull the plug on the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic (Jan 19-25), but I wouldn't be shocked if certain tournaments change sponsors, modify their format (celebrity pro-ams, skins, longest drive, etc.) or get quietly shelved until better times.

I can't believe I've outed myself as someone who watches PGA tournaments. Damn you, MetaFilter, for prying these personal confessions from me.
posted by woodway at 7:31 AM on December 19, 2008


Tiger seriously injured his knee as I'm sure everyone on the thread knows, and commentators have been speculating about how it will fare in the future given the fiercely powerful torque of his swing. Yes, I know he's modified his game before, and he's crazy talented; as with any athlete, however, injury could affect the longevity of his career, and he's been a major draw for the tour.

I wouldn't be that worried, since even at 80% Tiger is still one of the best golfers in the world. I expect 2009 will be a struggle for him, but he'll recover. He usually does.

My own two cents would be that downsizing culls expensive employees from the top management ranks as well as the regular paper shufflers; there are fewer job opportunities for vice presidents than mid-level managers, and investment portfolios aren't as soft and cushiony as before. Country clubs will weather the downturn, but their membership rosters will probably grow thinner and some will fail.

I expect some tournaments, especially mid-sized ones, will fail, due to a lack of sponsorship. Tour stops do change every year due to a lack of sponsors. I don't think the Buick and BMW sponsored tourneys are in trouble, though, and the PGA as a whole is pretty healthy.

Country clubs will suffer as well, but upper-middle to upper class folks will probably stick with the country club, given the status, networking, and lack of wait for tee times. The middle class will be the ones foregoing greens fees at country clubs for the municipal courses.

On the whole, though, golf's in good shape to survive this sharp recession. You can get a decent set of clubs for $100, and you can upgrade a club at a time. Greens fees at munis are still low. Golf on TV has a rich clientele who may substitute but still needs sound financial advice and will eventually need to replace their Lexus. The PGA may lose tourneys but they'll make it. The LPGA looks more fragile, but they've been managing on a shoestring for years.
posted by dw at 7:56 PM on December 22, 2008


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