Sports feeling the pinch

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

It's a drag when the real world intrudes on fantasy.

Welcome to the real world sports dudes. There's no escaping a bad stock market, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the stalling car industry, a slumping real estate industry and just about every other economic disaster foisted on us.

Two days ago, the National Football League, the Never Fail League, let go 10 per cent of its staff. This is above and beyond what individual teams are doing. The NFL joins NASCAR, the NBA and Major League Baseball in laying off employees.

The NFL is one of the first major sports leagues to acknowledge what the lousy economy is doing to its patrons by cutting ticket prices to playoff games by about 10 per cent.

Professional sports have often been immune to the ups and downs of the economic climate. People were willing to spend money to forget about the the real world -- the problems they face on a regular basis.

The gravy train is running dry. You'll still find big-time athletes earning big bucks when they sign contracts (see CC Sabathia), but others will face big pay cuts.

When all is said and done, the economic impact on sports will be significant. The more money involved in the sport, the greater the impact. The industry will take a hit.

The London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League are one of the most successful junior hockey franchises in North America. Since their move to the John Labatt Centre, sellout crowds of 9,090 have been the norm, so much so that any other number draws quizzical reactions.

This year, the 9,090 number has been the exception. Six games have drawn fewer then 9,000 fans with the Halloween night game drawing 8,400.

Raising any kind of concern about those numbers is laughable. There isn't an owner anywhere in the league that wouldn't do handstands if they thought they'd get to within a couple of hundred fans a game of selling out every night.

"Most of the seats we don't sell are standing room," Knights general manager Mark Hunter said. "We aren't as affected as professional sports because we don't charge $200 a ticket. With things the way they are, spending that kind of money is hard. You can get a good ticket to watch us for about $15."

But Hunter says he continually monitors ticket prices. He looks at the average cost of a season ticket from around the league to make sure it remains affordable. He said the Knights rank about 14th in the league when it comes to the cost of a season ticket.

While big numbers of fans still turn out on a regular basis, those unsold tickets are a red flag that not everything is as it should be.

The slowing economy will also show up in the money that is spent at the Knights' games . . . eventually.

Hunter only gets a proportion of concession money. Most goes to the JLC. There's also advertising and sponsorship money.

"I follow it really closely. I look at the numbers after every game," said Brian Ohl, regional vice-president for Global Spectrum. "We're right where we've always been. We'll get a better idea in January how much we'll be affected by the economy."

Hunter did say that sales of Knights' souvenirs are down a little, but Christmas is still down the road.

Hunter will get a better look at how much of pinch the Knights will feel, if any, when fans have to shell out for playoff tickets and when season tickets have to be renewed.

"As for sponsorships and advertising, we have that in place for this year already," he said. "We won't know how (the economy) will affect things until next year when we have (to ) do sponsorships again."

Ohl said that entertainment events at the JLC are within projections.

"And people are still having a good time at the JLC," he said.

But despite the OK news so far, there's still a threat of rain.

"So far, so good, but my gut tells me it's coming," Ohl said.


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