SBJ/October 29 - November 4, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Numbers track movement of fans from big league stadiums to other sports

Going by the numbers, it seems Americans' tastes in leisure sports are changing, pulling us away from big stadiums and closer to the courts, fields and rinks in our own neighborhoods.

Start with big-league attendance. It's not a pretty picture, no matter what the leagues report. The leagues and their teams count season tickets and personal seat licenses as sold seats, even if those seats are empty.

According to SportsBusiness Journal's Oct. 15 Pro Sports Tracker, Major League Baseball's final regular-season attendance had slipped 0.2 percent from last year's figures. But postseason appeal appears to be weakening. The Oct. 19 National League Championship Series game at Atlanta's Turner Field between the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks had the smallest crowd (41,624 fans) in the 29 NLCS games in which the Braves have played. Two days later, only 35,562 fans showed up.

Through Oct. 15, NFL attendance was down only 0.6 percent from last year. Again, observation tells another story. The winless Dallas Cowboys announced a sellout crowd of more than 63,000 for their Oct. 15 home game against the winless Washington Redskins, but TV showed thousands of empty seats.

Lowered attendance is the first indication that the public is losing interest. Aside from the poor economy, the terrorist attacks and a growing disaffection for arrogant athletes and sweetheart stadium deals that benefit team owners far more than their communities, perhaps a more fundamental change is under way.

Last January, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (through American Sports Data) updated its 13-year study of the leading 103 sports and fitness activities pursued by Americans, ages 6 through adulthood. Do you believe that people watch and attend professional sports events that reflect their amateur recreational preferences? Then buckle up.

Compared with our recreational habits in 1987, 28 percent fewer Americans play baseball and 24 percent fewer Americans play touch football.

Participation is up 16 percent from 1987 in golf and 15 percent in hockey. Over the same 13 years, mountain biking is up 419 percent, snowboarding has risen by 238 percent while the surf's up for wakeboarding (up 59 percent) and surfing (up 50 percent).

What are big-league sponsors doing to enable brands to intercept these young mountain bikers and surfers in the marketplace? Smart sponsors are already looking at high-profile sports that deliver niche, loyal fans and consumers at non-NFL/NBA/NASCAR/NHL/MLB rights fees and media costs. It's better to surf consumer trends now than to drown in a sea of old thinking.

Mel Poole (mp@sponsorlogic.com) is president of SponsorLogic, a consulting management and events agency.

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