Common Cents & Professional Sports on September 11, 2020

Last night, the NFL kicked off its regular season in Kansas City. I didn’t know it was going to do so until yesterday afternoon, and I had forgotten about it by the time I got to the house. As such, I didn’t watch a second of it. In fact, I didn’t turn on the television at all last night, and haven’t since at least Tuesday.

What’s more, I haven’t watched a single pitch or swing of a bat this Major League Baseball season. I don’t know who is in first place in any division, but imagine the Marlins are in last in theirs. Further, I haven’t watched any of the NBA, and I mean none. No dunks, no free throws, no ankle-breaking crossovers, and no jump balls. Nor have I turned on the tube to see anyone hit a drive or sink a putt, let alone serve an ace or put a volley in the net.

The reason is simple: I don’t care anymore. This has nothing to do with anything other than I have found other ways of occupying my time during the pandemic. Previously, I viewed, literally and figuratively, professional sports as time filler. You know, something to do when I had nothing better else to do. The NFL? It was a means to end for me, with the end being a nap on the couch on Sunday afternoons.

I was a Baltimore Oriole fan for most of my life, but they have been lousy for so long it is hard to concern myself with the Birds any longer. I wasn’t a terribly good basketball player when I was a kid, middle of the pack at best, and that mediocrity bleed into my relative lack of interest for the sport. As for football, I still love the college variety, and am looking forward to the season. The NFL? I am a full decade older than the oldest person in the league, most of the players are young enough to be my sons, and we don’t have a team in Birmingham.

Make no two ways about it: I have been an emotionally-detached, casual consumer of professional sports for a while. Now, I am not sure if I am a consumer at all, and am certainly not a meaningful one if I am. Oh, I imagine I will watch the Super Bowl when it rolls around. If the matchup is compelling, I might tune into some of the World Series, but probably not to a, say, Athletics/Padres matchup or a Royals/Brewers one. Shoot, I wouldn’t have watched those previously. The NHL? Have never been a fan. The NBA? Haven’t watched a combined total of 30 minutes since Tim Duncan retired, and even that is a generous estimate. Finally, yes, I will likely tune into CBS on the afternoon of November 15th. That is IF I am familiar with any of the players in contention at the Masters. They seem to get younger and more obscure every year.

As an individual, I am essentially irrelevant to any of the professional sports leagues. If I never turn on another game in my life, let alone buy any merchandise, no one will notice. I am a grain of sand on the beach; a single snowflake in a blizzard, and a drop of water in the ocean. However, how many other fans like me are out there? Who moved on to other things when everything was in lockdown? Enough to matter? If so, is it a short-term thing or something more permanent?

Great questions, and I am sure a lot of people would love to know the answers. Unfortunately, I don’t have them. However, I AM going to throw some numbers at you.

In 2000, it appears the minimum salary for a rookie in the NFL was $212,000. This year, it is $610,000. Rookie Major League Baseball players had a minimum base salary of $200,000 in 2000. In 2020, the floor is $583,000. From what I can tell, the NBA treated its rookies the best in 2000 with a league minimum of $301,875. For the 2019/20 season, this had mushroomed to $898,310. That was the rookie minimum…no experience in the league and likely a lot of time on the bench.

Let’s put these numbers into perspective, shall we? According to the BLS, the ‘median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers’ in the United States was $572 (nominal) for 2Q 2000. That works out to be $29,744 per year, which would have been about, what, around 14-15% of the MINIMUM base salary for rookies in the MLB and NFL, and about 10% when compared to the NBA.

Fast forward to 2Q 2020, and the ‘median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers’ in the United States was $1,006 (nominal) per week, which works out to $52,312 annually. This works out to be 6% of the NBA rookie minimum, 9% of the MLB rookie minimum, and a little under 9% for NFL rookies.

Think about that. The so-called average Joe, the man in the middle, without whom one would imagine professional sports would suffer, makes less than 10% of what bench-riding league rookies make. Less than 10%. Even more frustrating, the average salary in the NBA for the 2019-2020 season was around $6.7 million. In the MLB, it was $4.4 million. By comparison, football players were getting the shaft at around $2.7 million (but there are just more players in the league). All of these estimates from a number of different sources and websites.

How does our average Joe, this man in the middle, maintain an emotional attachment to the millionaires playing the games and owning the teams? When the average price for a draft beer at an NFL game was an estimated $8.49 and a hot dog was $5.34 last year? When two tickets, two hot dogs, two beers, and parking for one game (one) would have set you back an estimated $453.56 in 2019 at Madison Square Garden to watch the lowly Knicks? When two tickets, two dogs, and two beers cost $123.70 at an Astros game last year, on average? Oh yeah, are you going to have just the one beer and the one dog? No peanuts, no sodas, nothing else? Sure.

Intuitively, at some point, the casual fan will become too disconnected to care. Consider this, for the 2018 tax year, a household income of $297,564 would have placed you in the Top 1% here in Alabama. This is about half the league minimum for rookies in the MLB and NFL. Across the country, as a whole, the number was $421,926, or about 50% of the league minimum in the NBA. Wait…what?

Think about that, and then about the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth our society has done over the last decade about growing income inequality in the United States. How the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer? How the Top 1% of income earners aren’t paying their fair share? All of it, and guess what? Guess whom professional sports leagues are asking ‘Joe’ to watch, cheer, and pay handsomely? Obscenely, even. That’s right, the Top 1% (and then some). Conversely, the average salary for a police officer in the United States is between $55-60,000/year, and many people think even that is too much.

Oh, to be entertained and forget about life for a while.

The Roman poet Juvenal noticed the same thing, the same attitude, among the populace in his poem Satire X, around 100 AD. The oft-used quote from this being:

“…if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously

Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed

Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility

Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob

That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,

Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,  Bread and circuses.

‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,

The furnace is huge.’”


He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

In the end, we shall see whether and how the pandemic will impact our consumption of professional sports in the future. Will we continue to be the pushover, the dupe, who continues to fork over whatever the millionaires demand in order to entertain us? To turn on the television and watch for hours, as others do that which we can’t? To have “anxiety for two things only, Bread and circuses.”

Honestly, I don’t know. However, how awesome would it be if more people picked a club, a racquet, an instrument, a book, their running shoes, hiking poles, some paints and a canvass, colored pencils, their knitting needles, or even just talked to their friends and loved ones more? Would that be a positive thing or a negative? I submit more healthy bodies and creative minds would be better for the country than more guacamole and brats (which are, admittedly, pretty awesome).

I guess that all depends how ‘much skin’ you have in the game. As for me? Since the start of the pandemic, I haven’t had any, and I don’t miss it. Oh yeah, I don’t believe I have ever quoted Juvenal previously…think about it.

Have a great weekend, and be great.

John Norris

Chief Economist




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