Teams Lose, Fans Win — Maybe — in the Greatest Depression

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Happy now? Photo: Getty Images

It’s an old axiom that the best way for a sports-franchise owner to make money is to do something besides own a sports franchise. Sports teams make money, but they’re often more of a billionaire's vanity project than a legitimate investment. Owners who have a team as their primary business, like the Buffalo Bills’ Wilson family, are the ones who have the most difficulty keeping their franchises afloat. You might know Mike Ilitch from his association with the Detroit Tigers, but his real money comes from pizza (Little Caesars, specifically).

That is to say: When financial trouble hits a team, it’s often because of troubles trickling down from another business. Today, The Wall Street Journal highlights upcoming woes for teams that owe to struggles in industries like transportation and publishing, not to mention Bernie Madoff. Because fewer people with money means fewer people desiring to buy teams, franchise values stand to drop. Meanwhile, franchises creating viable revenue streams — like the Cubs, for Tribune Co., and the Red Sox, for the New York Times Co. — have their owners looking to sell. It’s an odd reckoning.

None of that matters so much to fans, of course: Ticket prices do. CNBC’s Darren Rovell, writing in The New Republic, says 2009 should be a glorious year for sports fans.

Some ticket prices are just downright stupid. The Colorado Rockies, one season removed from a World Series appearance, are selling centerfield bleacher seats to kids and seniors for $1, while the Pittsburgh Pirates will allow you to pick any ten games you want to go to (except Opening Day and the series against the Cleveland Indians) for as low as $7.20 a game. Even the NFL playoffs will be a steal. In November the league decided to discount the face value of playoff ticket prices by ten percent in the face of the economic challenges ahead.

Rovell’s evidence is mostly anecdotal, but there’s a case to be made that the savvy fan can find value that wasn’t there before. Unless you’re a New York fan, that is. With two new stadiums, a defending Super Bowl champion, a new regime at the Garden, and more demand than anyone could possibly hope for, the sports recession isn’t likely to hit home anytime soon — no matter how much money Fred Wilpon gave to Bernie Madoff.