Canucks and Beyond

The Economy and Sports Fans

10/08/2008 at 3:50pm EDT

Yesterday, Cam Cole at the Vancouver Sunwrote an article on the potential impact that the economy may have on the NHL. In the course of his writing, he happened to speak to Chris Zimmerman, President of the Vancouver Canucks, who had this to say:

“Ticket prices, whether for us or for a U.S. club, are generally a function of demand.[...] We have no illusions that we are immune to the impact [of a recession]. We are a discretionary entertainment value, and ... we recognize that we have to hunker down and work that much harder to justify people spending their discretionary dollars with us…”

Zimmerman understands his job better than most, I think. Rather than simply relying on the fact that he helms the hottest ticket in town, he also knows that the real trick is making it stay that way.

A team like Vancouver is not too many years removed from empty seats and a disinterested fan base, and issues like the struggling economy make the future potentially uncertain. As Cole remarks in his article:

But if ordinary joes and big corporations and banks are suffering and sports isn’t, things are very seriously out of whack. And something tells me that the disconnect between real life and pro sports can’t go on indefinitely.

While he’s right (and Zimmerman is wise to heed that same concern) the issue is a bit more complicated than that as well.

Pro-Sports have proven to be somewhat recession-proof, largely because they’ve spent the last 20 years gradually moving from the Joe-Fan to the more affluent fan. Those luxury boxes are so important now, and it’s that fan that’s become critically important.

In an excellent article in Sports Illustrated today, Pablo S. Torre writes about the changing face of the sports fan, and how it’s part of what makes pro-sports somewhat immune to the current—and coming—tough economic times.

Sports aren’t recession-proof anymore, but all in all, the major pro sports have flourished while other sectors have atrophied. Last season, the multibillion-dollar NFL set an all-time attendance record for the sixth-consecutive year, while baseball also enjoyed its highest spring-training numbers in ‘08. Impressively, MLB and the NBA then followed up their ‘07 figures—the leagues’ third- and fourth-consecutive attendance records, respectively—by effectively holding constant, dipping this past year by statistically insignificant marks of between one and two percent.

“If we look throughout history,” Clemson economist Raymond Sauer said, “the relationship between attendance and the economy does not appear to be cyclical.”

Read the whole article—well worth your time.

I would have to argue though, that the current economic situation might not be the same thing that pro-sports have experienced throughout history. An economic crisis like the current one signficantly affects the affluent as well as the ‘average’ fan, and creates even bigger challenges for men like Chris Zimmerman as he tries to sell those luxury boxes.

After all, consider who buys that expensive and all-important real estate: corporations. And they might have to re-consider their priorities eventually.

A final word from Cole on the possible impact of this changing economy:

Something traumatic enough to make the corporations that buy the private boxes and club seats have to justify their profligacy to shareholders and customers. Something earth-shaking enough to make the shaken banks and money-bleeding car companies and bankruptcy-threatening airlines whose names are plastered on sports arenas rethink the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on vanity plates instead of consumer confidence.

And the idea of such corporations rethinking that wisdom is the last thing that the NHL—or any other pro-sports league—wants to even think about.

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