Sports

Sports fans settle into their La-Z-Boys

"Take me out to the ballgame," the old song goes. Americans, however, might have been too busy channel surfing to do that this year.

Television, it turns out, was where Americans turned to satisfy their craving for sports in the recession-plagued year of 2009.

With fewer dollars to spend, many fans resorted to the "cave model," hunkering down at home to watch the game instead of heading to the ballpark.

Buoyed by the Yankees in the World Series, baseball's TV ratings were up. The NFL is still the NFL - there is no slowing America's favorite televised sport. College football ratings increased from 2008, and the NBA enjoyed its best viewership since the days of Michael Jordan. Advertisers could bank on more eyeballs for their buck, though they weren't always so fast to sign on.

"One thing you might see more of in the future is that people are going to take the money they would've invested in tickets and invest in a home theater system, so they can stay home and watch it on TV," said Bill Sutton of University of Central Florida's DeVos business management department. "I call it going back to the cave model."

Through 14 weeks this season, 20 NFL games had been blacked out because they failed to sell out, compared to nine all last season. The league also reported a 3 percent decline in attendance. But games on TV were averaging 16.7 million viewers, the highest average at this point in the season since 1989 - an encouraging statistic for advertisers, though it didn't prevent Pepsi from ending its 23-year run of placing ads on the Super Bowl telecast.

"In 2010, each of our beverage brands has a strategy and marketing platform that will be less about a singular event and more about a movement," spokeswoman Nicole Bradley said.

Indeed, the changing media landscape brought about new business models, while the shrinking economy restricted profits - making it a mixed-bag kind of year for the sports industry.

Baseball attendance decreased by 6.9 percent, to its lowest levels since 2003, though part of the decline could be attributed to the Yankees and Mets moving into smaller ballparks.

The Yankees opened their new stadium and tried to sell front-row tickets for $2,500 but quickly found there was little market at that price and discounted them by $1,000. As the season progressed, they found that the old formula of winning - and being in New York - keeps the turnstiles moving.

A number of NBA teams went on aggressive price-slashing programs, trying to sell affordability - never a hallmark of a league that pays some of its bench players $9 million a season - to fans who were feeling priced out of the game even before the downturn hit.

Many NHL and baseball teams did the same thing. Take out a few exceptions - notably, the Yankees, Mets and Dallas Cowboys, with their inflated prices in new stadiums - and the price of tickets for America's four major sports went down slightly in 2009.

"The term 'downselling' is becoming part of the nomenclature," Sutton said. "If you had a full season-ticket holder, you're trying to keep him connected by selling him half a season. People are moving down. They're going to fewer games. But the teams want them to keep going to some games. The whole idea is to maintain the relationship."

  Comments