Sports recession: It's coming 

Turn on your TV any weekend, and you see full stadium after full stadium, bulging with fans who obviously have spent plenty of money to see their favorite pro and college teams.

Read the news, and you still learn of incredible salaries and offers being tossed at the nation's athletes, and even coaches. They use the term "millions" the way you and I might think of "hundreds."

This past week, ESPN agreed to shell out $125 million a year for the rights to televise four games in college football's Bowl Championship Series likely gambling that, someday, the cable network actually might be able to televise a playoff tournament.

Just skimming the surface, one might wonder if most of the American sports scene somehow has been immune from the worsening economic downturn and growing evidence of a widespread recession.

But the worst is yet to come. In fact, 2009 could turn into a nightmare for college programs and pro sports franchises across the nation.

Why then and not now? Because whether you're talking about the University of Michigan, Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees, much of the money for season tickets, luxury seats and corporate sponsorships/donations was spent well in advance. In other words, months before the economy and stock market went from sluggish to schizophrenic, with jobs disappearing by the thousands.

The sports world is about to start feeling the pain. And the first victims very well might be many of college football's mid-range and lesser bowl games, which depend so much every year on legions of diehard fans digging into their savings and spending thousands on impromptu, full-fare trips.

Fans of a school like Vanderbilt, which will play in a bowl for the first time since 1982 (when it lost to Air Force in the old Hall of Fame Bowl), still might pay the price. And if Air Force winds up within driving distance of its extra game, such as the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque, N.M., we might see large caravans on Interstate 25.

But if the Falcons wind up in San Diego or another destination that requires air travel, it's not realistic to expect a following like that of last year at the Armed Services Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas.

Many observers have assumed that huge markets, such as New York, will get by with an endless supply of high-rollers. But the Yankees are finding out differently as they try to sell tickets and luxury boxes for their new Yankee Stadium.

Next baseball season is just five months away, and the Yankees are having trouble selling their upscale suites, which start at $600,000 a season. As for regular seats, one New York columnist wrote about a longtime fan with season tickets a few rows behind the home dugout. Those individual seats went from $150 a game in 2007 to $250 in 2008 and will grow to $850 in 2009.

Also, anyone with season tickets for the Yankees now has to sign a contract for at least four years and pay one-third of the total amount in advance. So what was $12,150 per seat for the whole 2007 season will now be $91,800 up front, per seat, in 2009. For two seats, that would be $183,600.

Meanwhile, as the Dallas Cowboys move into their palatial new stadium next year, season-ticket holders are balking at being forced to buy "seat licenses" simply for the privilege of continuing to buy season tickets. Fans will have to pay $340 each per game for decent seats plus a one-time seat license of as much as $150,000 per seat. If the Cowboys, considered the NFL's most valuable franchise, have financial troubles in 2009, so will most if not all of the league.

Part of the answer should be cutting ticket prices, and you can expect to see that throughout the sports world, even in motorsports, as NASCAR's crowds already have dwindled.

But it's hard to feel much sympathy. Pro sports and many college programs have been riding the gravy train for years, as the cost for seeing games in person has zoomed out of reach for many middle-class families.

And if it comes down to buying tickets for games or paying the bills, that gravy train might run off the track in 2009.



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