The changing face of the sports fan
If you're a typical sports fan -- you know, the kind who worries about gas prices, tuition and the trade deadline -- New York's new stadiums might look as if they belong behind a boutique window.
In the Bronx looms the skeleton of Yankee Stadium 2.0, a coliseum with half as many bleacher seats as its predecessor but more than three times the luxury boxes. In Queens, the Mets traded Shea's 20,420-seat hull of an upper deck for Citi Field and its 54 suites, burnished by leases priced firmly in the six figures. Even the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, future home of the Nets, will have 118 luxury suites in a venue designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. And across the Hudson River? The Jets' and Giants' new Meadowlands Stadium, opening in 2010, has incorporated personal seat licensing -- the process by which fans pay somewhere between $1,000 and $25,000 for the sheer right to buy season tickets. (It's an investment opportunity!)
So what about this economic downturn, you ask? How can these teams upgrade their arenas so strikingly amid government bailouts and a subprime mortgage crisis and the declining dollar?
The tough economic times are affecting the different leagues in different ways. The NBA and NHL have been proactive in trying to keep ticket prices affordable. College football fans have remained fiercely loyal to their teams, but schools are taking a hit with higher travel costs. Meanwhile, NASCAR and high school sports have felt the economic downturn the most. (How will the economy affect your sports experience? Weigh in with your thoughts here.)
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."
What makes these milestones even more historic is tickets cost more than ever. Team Marketing Report calculates that it now takes $396.36 for a typical family of four to attend an NFL game, $281.90 for the NBA and $191.92 for MLB -- each mark an all-time high. (Gas not included, naturally.) And economists tell SI.com that the gate will continue to boom.
Why? A rise in popularity is only one reason. Despite today's wilting economy, the reality is that our most popular sports are also climbing the social ladder. Higher-end customers are gladly paying more and more to take middle class consumers' old seats at the game -- and for the time being, at least, they have the disposable income to keep the turnstiles spinning. Said Temple economist Mike Leeds, "Joe Sixpack is becoming a thing of the past."
A look in the stands
If you've recently heard a native Bostonian lament "Fenway isn't Fenway anymore," you're not alone. Though the charming 96-year-old edifice has survived amid rumors of a Yankee Stadium-type reconstruction (and yes, the prospective blueprint, abandoned in 2005, included twice as many luxury boxes), the atmosphere nowadays still seems palpably different from a decade ago. Less authentic, even.
At Fenway -- as elsewhere around the country -- surging ticket prices and the team's success have seemingly drained institutional memory, bringing in wealthier fair-weather fans and ushering out the diehards. The addition of Green Monster seats in 2005 was an endearing gesture, to be sure, but it also created some of the priciest tickets in the house. That's no accident: Ever since Baltimore's Camden Yards ignited the stadium-building revolution in 1992, the architectural designs of arenas have precisely targeted a demographic that wears pinstripes -- and not the ones on a replica jersey.
"If this downturn continues to have less of an impact on sports than previous periods," Leeds said, "it's in part because in terms of gate attendance, the business has hitched its wagon to the higher-end customer."
All of it adds up to a skewing of fans we might have expected to see at games. At law firms and banks, the pro sporting event has become a full-on social and networking experience that signals class and cultural currency. No franchise would eliminate the bleachers altogether, of course; that would be a public relations nightmare. But in replacing the multi-purpose, municipal ballpark with a breed of compact, single-use arenas, teams can raise prices and make cheap seats less plentiful all at once.
Consider the NFL season-ticket holder. For many teams, waiting lists for season tickets stretch for miles, ready to be bequeathed from generation to generation. But thanks to the one-two-three punch of tighter incomes, surging ticket prices and personal seat licenses, lifers like Jim Merritt, 45, now have a decision to make. The 23-year Jets season-ticket holder has been tailgating for decades, but now he wonders if he should buy the one-time PSLs (in his case, a projected $5,000 for each of his three seats) just so he can buy his tickets (for a projected increase to $120 per seat, per game, up from $80 this year) and required parking pass (another $20 per game).
"I'm not affluent -- I mean, I do fine -- but at what cost do I want to see these games?" Merritt said. "At some point, do I want to put that money toward something else? Should my family go to Europe on vacation for a month instead? My conscience may not let me buy these things. And what they're doing is pricing out the people who really care if the team wins or loses."