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A Long Recession May Help Sports

Already it’s being written that the coming economic slowdown – especially if turns into a severe recession – will be catastrophic for sports. Stories have been written of college athletic departments running out of money, franchises facing scores of empty seats, and fan interest deteriorating as people focus more on the necessities of life.

Maybe. But a look at what happened during the Great Depression of the 1930’s reveals that in times of trouble, people need diversions more than ever.

In fact, the 1930’s were something of a golden era for sports. Sure, sports then didn’t have nearly the pervasive role in our lives that it does now, with only one really major professional league (baseball) and college sports still in its infancy. And all sports faced severe financial problems in the 1930’s, as attendances dropped and receipts with them. Baseball, for example, saw its attendance levels drop to where they had been 25 long years before.

Still, the Depression was the era of Don Budge, Jesse Owens, Knute Rockne, Seabiscuit, Babe Didrikson, and Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling. In the World Series, Babe Ruth called his “shot,” the “Gas House Gang” tore up St. Louis, Joe DiMaggio began to anchor centerfield for the Yankees, and college football introduced the Cotton, Sugar, and Orange bowls. Sports hardly stopped. In fact, it grew.

According to scholars such William and Nancy Young, co-authors of The Great Depression in America: A Cultural Encyclopedia, what the financial crisis forced all sports to do was innovate in an attempt to compensate. In fact, the reason why college football created all those bowl games in the 30’s – as well as introduce the Heisman Trophy and college all-star game (now defunct) – was to create new sources of revenue.

Baseball created its All-Star game in the early 30’s for the same reason and opened the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to increase fan interest too. Meanwhile, horse racing profited from the legalization of gambling on races. Stock car racing began in this period and college basketball innovated and created its first big tournament to attract more fan interest – the NIT in New York.

Even golf – once the game of the wealthy – increased in popularity in the 1930’s because the only way the private clubs that had once housed the game could survive was to open their doors to everyone

With times tough, radio broadcasting of all sorts of events became far more widespread – in part because it was another source of revenue – and by the end of the decade, sports was the second major source of broadcast time on radio behind music. The sports pages and magazines had to scramble to attract readers, too, with new and exciting angles. Thus, it became easier for Joe Louis, a black man, to find his burgeoning boxing career promoted in the press, even in the south, and by some promoters who wouldn’t have considered promoting him before.

The point, of course, is that most sports survive the tough times and, in many ways, benefit from them by adapting in ways that end up increasing the popularity of the sport itself. In economic downturns, certain new sports also spring up – some participatory like miniature golf in the 1930’s, and others more organized (like stock car racing in the 1930’s) that can capture a new type of fan.

If the economic downturn is as severe and as long lasting as some predict, it will be tough on almost everybody. But in an odd way, our sports will likely become more interesting than ever before.

Steven Stark, a former world sports columnist for the Montreal Gazette, writes about world sports for RealClearSports and covered the presidential campaign for the Boston Phoenix. He is the co-author of Starks' Smart Geopolitcal Guide to the 2006 World Cup and can be reached at sds@starkwriting.com.

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