Sports also paying a price amid struggling economy

Count Kent Haines out when it comes to buying Boston Red Sox or New England Patriots tickets for the foreseeable future.

Those clubs have the highest average ticket prices in Major League Baseball and the National Football League. And because of the economic crisis, the Haines family of North Kingstown, R.I., is cutting spending.

"In this sky-is-falling economy, attending a pro sporting event is last on my list," says Haines, recalling that in May he dropped $250 for tickets, parking, food and a souvenir for himself and his 10-year-old son, Zach, at Fenway Park. "When you combine the cost of the tickets with the effort it takes to get our fannies in the seats, watching on TV with my wife and kids sounds pretty good right now."

Haines' story is echoed by a rising number of fans across the USA, a reflection of how the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression is stretching and even severing the bond between fans and sports teams.

At a time when many professional and college sports teams are expanding stadiums, adding expensive luxury suites and raising ticket prices to increase revenue, the economic crisis is exacerbating a disconnect between the teams and fans who are being priced out of live sports.

The sports industry remains relatively healthy: Fans shelled out a record $32.06 billion on tickets, parking, concessions, premium seats and on-site merchandise sales in 2007, a 4.8% increase from the year before, says David Broughton, research director at Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal.

Average ticket prices for the NFL, MLB and NHL all rose 5% to 10% this year, according to Jon Greenberg, executive editor of Team Marketing Report, which tracks ticket prices.

But even as wealthy teams such as the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and New York Jets are asking season ticketholders to pay thousands of dollars — or even hundreds of thousands — for seats in luxurious new stadiums, there are signs of economic stress throughout sports.

Cash-strapped fans nationwide tell USA TODAY they're buying fewer tickets to sporting events or trying to unload those they have to family, friends and strangers. Some are opting for cheaper seats and spending less on food, drinks and souvenirs. Others are giving up live sports for their high-definition TVs.

Meanwhile, after prosperous years in which teams routinely jacked up prices, some leagues and clubs are signaling to fans that they feel their pain.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Thursday a price cut on some Super Bowl tickets. But 25% of the seats will be priced at an all-time-high $1,000, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

Teams in other sports are cutting prices, offering goodies and retail gimmicks such as "buy now, pay later" to get ticketholders to keep buying.

The specter of empty seats, unsold luxury boxes and bankrupt or vanishing sponsors is striking fear into industry players large and small. Leagues and teams are laying off staffers and taking a hard look at expenses:

•Anticipation of a slowing U.S. economy has led the NBA to lay off 80 employees, or 9% of its domestic work force, Commissioner David Stern said this week.

The Charlotte Bobcats laid off about 35 staff members Sept. 26. Bobcats President Fred Whitfield said the team must become "more efficient as a business in the current economic climate."

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