When Richard E. Snyder, a Chicago economist, recently visited the suburban home of a friend he asked if he might look around the house for sports equipment. The host agreed, and after Snyder finished checking from cellar to attic he had unearthed one complete set of golf clubs, several dozen golf balls, three fishing rods and reels with assorted tackle, four baseball bats, three fielder's gloves, one catcher's mitt, a mask, a chest protector, a pair of shin guards, three baseballs, two basketballs, two footballs, one badminton set, three hockey sticks, four pairs of ice skates, three pairs of roller skates, one set of table tennis equipment and three bicycles.
His host was astounded by the range of booty, but Snyder was not. In a small way, it merely confirmed what he knew to be statistically true about the sporting bent of present-day Americans. No one knows the ways of American sportsmen better than Snyder, who is the leading economist working in sports. Specifically, his specialty is sporting goods. Ever since the end of World War II, he has been adding up the amounts Americans spend for tennis balls and boxing gloves, and for the last 10 years he has served as consulting economist to the National Sporting Goods Association, a trade group that relies upon his annual reports to forecast the shifting tastes of the public. Snyder's reports on past, present and future sporting-goods expenditures have been so accurate and detailed that the U.S. Department of Commerce, which ordinarily supplies figures on any facet of the nation's economy, has conceded this particular field to him.
Among the other things Snyder has found out:
?Sports are largely a family affair, and the more affluent the family, the more likely it is to be involved in sports. Eighty percent of the sporting goods now sold in the U.S. are bought by families who have an income of $7,500 or more and live in a metropolitan area. Snyder's suburban friend, cited above, is typical.
?The sports year, which used to consist primarily of the warmer months, now runs the length of the calendar. Since 1954, sales of winter sports equipment have grown at an annual rate of almost 10%. The ski-and-sled market alone is now valued at $18.5 million annually, 515% more than it was worth in 1929.
?Americans are economically far more involved in participant sports than they are in spectator sports. This year they will spend more than $2 billion on sporting goods and only a relatively measly $300 million on spectator sports. Although these figures would appear to refute the belief that Americans are not physically active or fit, the fact is, most of the participant sports activity is carried on by those affluent metropolitan households, about 10 million families all told. In Snyder's terminology, the members of these families are "multiple sportniks." Instead of concentrating on one sporting activity alone, they go from one to another as the seasons progress.
?Sports, or at least participant sports, are "recessionproof." "When general business activity is softening," Snyder says, "sporting-goods sales tend to rise more than average. It seems that when unemployment is high, people use their unemployment compensation to go to a football game or buy a new golf club." Despite generally erratic business conditions, sporting-goods sales this year will be the highest ever, a record $2.4 billion, up 6% over last year, the previous all-time high.
The sporting-goods industry owes its past immunity from recessions to its youthfulness. According to Snyder, every industry follows a similar economic life cycle, and the sporting-goods industry is no exception. Before World War II it was in its gestation, or introductory, stage, going along at a rate of $200 to $300 million a year. But in the late 1940s the sporting-goods industry entered its vaulting stage—thanks to increased leisure, a rise in real income, changes in its distribution and improvements in technology. Annual sales soared from $754 million in 1946 to $1 billion in 1947 to almost $2.2 billion in 1960. "It wasn't at all like the sporting-goods industry before the war," Snyder says. "It had a new tempo. It had the germ of modern mass production."
In 1960 the industry entered the maturation, or mass-volume, stage. This occurs when an industry reaches approximately 10% of the market, and it is signaled by a sudden slowdown in rate of growth. In 1961 sporting goods grossed only slightly more than in 1960 as increasing competitive pressures were felt from all sides. "The sporting-goods industry hit the first bump of its maturity stage," Snyder says. "Everyone gets on the bandwagon. There were more people selling sporting goods. It's the old American game of trying to get something while the getting is good."
As Snyder sees it the getting is still going to be good—he calculates sporting goods will hit the $3 billion mark by 1966—but a bit more perilous for manufacturers and retailers catering to an increasingly sophisticated public. As the sporting-goods industry moves further through the maturation stage, which can last for a hundred years, consumption eventually will flatten to a growth rate in line with population increases only. When that happens, and not until then, the industry will follow the cyclical swings of the general economy.