The return to school also marks the season of fall sports. Many of us had hoped that we’d be back to enjoying sporting events by now, but it seems increasingly unlikely we’ll see anything like a typical season. What we experienced so far, and what is happening now to athletics of all types is important to think about in the context of the overall economy.
Earlier this year, some winter and all spring sports ended suddenly. This meant the premature end to baseball seasons, swim championships, tennis, track, soccer and golf. Fans of these events were left watching classic games on cable or holding out for re-scheduled events like the Indy 500. But, the sputtering restart to baseball and inevitable cancellation of spectators at the Indy 500 should lower all our expectations about sports.
For many of us, this is a small sacrifice, but for many others it is a heart-wrenching loss. A postponed Olympics means some athletes who would have medaled this year won’t make their national teams, even if we have a 2021 Olympics. Some professional athletes will miss their chance to play and disappear from the sport. Some high school students who expected scholarships based on last season will not go to college. Others have already missed their senior year, which is often the final year to participate in organized sports.
Far more common will be the experience of many kids who looked forward to a team sport but now turn their attention to less savory diversions. Sports provide many Americans an important gateway to adulthood and responsibility. They teach hard work and discipline, and they expose many kids to adults in a different leadership role. Sports fill precisely the same role other ‘non-academic’ pursuits do in the development of young adults. Many will find that the loss of a season or two will linger well into adulthood.
We may not notice the developmental effect on children among the large and expanding economic detritus of this downturn. Still, we should keep a close eye on it, along with what the pandemic might do to the institutions that support sports. At the very least, the loss of a season or more will cause some important youth sports programs to re-adjust. Hopefully we will see some sports clubs merge or consolidate, and emerge from this pandemic stronger and more resilient. But, inevitably, some will fail and close.
The aftermath of the pandemic will be hard for high school and college sports. Many schools have already used this as a chance to cut teams and players. Facilities will suffer and with this, the U.S. risks long-term damage to our Olympic competitiveness. Of course, there is immediate economic damage as well.
By some estimates, Americans spend more than $100 billion per year on sports. That estimate is for tickets, equipment and fees for athletic practices and gyms. I think this estimate is low. It does not include travel to and from events, lodging or meals spent directly in support of viewing a sporting event. However large our spending on sports might be, it faces significant loss in the time of COVID-19.
Athletes themselves will face a heavy financial burden, though most of the star athletes will be only modestly affected. Owners of teams will also face a difficult stretch of time. These are affluent folks, and few will consider their plight important, but that loss is a signal of tightening economic conditions surrounding their teams. The loss of even a few games can be financially difficult to those who work in ball parks or support the event directly with concessions, advertising or other business.
Of course, for the larger events, accommodations, eating and drinking establishments, parking facilities and others who work outside the stadium, natatorium or racecourse face economic hardship. That is why decisions like those made by the Indy 500 organizers are so difficult. Cancelling attendance at the event likely means layoffs to hundreds of workers. Likewise, the cancellation of just a few NFL games means closure of businesses and further extends the economic damage of COVID-19.
The effect of COVID-19 on these high-end sports venues and teams is substantial, but the effects of closings will fall much heavier on local businesses and event staff than on star athletes and owners. They think of the disease, as well as the livelihood of those workers who depend upon these events for employment. We should probably understand that before judging their reluctance to cancel events.
Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.