January 26, 2014

How elite are sports fans these days?

One common received image of sports fans is that they are Average Joes, whether taking their kid to watch a baseball game from the nosebleed seats, or sitting around a sports bar shooting the bull and having a few drinks with da guys.

Another image more recently is that sports fans are thuggish lower-class hooligan types, and that sports are provided (on the taxpayer's dime) as a form of bread and circus to distract and anesthetize the working class or underclass.

As it turns out, though, sports fans are largely members of the elite. From a 2011 article on the demographics of fans of various pro sports:

According to league data, the average household income (HHI) for NHL fans is $104,000, highest of the four major sports with Major League Baseball ($96,200), the NBA ($96,000), and the NFL ($94,500). Sixty-eight percent of NHL fans have attended college, more than the other three sports (ranging 60.4 percent to 63.6 percent). And 64 percent of NHL fans hold full-time jobs, also more than the others (57-58.1 percent).

Household incomes of $95-100K puts them in the top 20-25% of the household income distribution. Mega-earners could be pulling up the average (the median was not reported). Household income also depends on how many earners there are -- and a married couple will earn more than a single-earner household. But those possibilities could not explain their higher rates of having a college degree or a full-time job. Roughly 30% of Americans have a degree, making sports fans more likely to be college-educated. And about 45% of Americans have a full-time job, making sports fans about 30% more likely to be working full-time.

The simplest explanation for all these differences is that sports fans are higher up the class pyramid than working class folks. Well above the median, too, more like what we would call upper-middle class.

How can this picture be reconciled with the two prevailing mainstream views of who sports fans are? There are two different sources of disconnect behind the two views. The "sports fan as honest, salt of the earth type" view dates from the Great Compression, when inequality was low and narrowing. I don't see much of a role for greater income equality per se -- how expensive is it to follow sports? If you've got a TV, newspaper, or a nearby sports bar to hang out at, you're all set.

Instead I think it came from both sides of the class spectrum trying to find common ground and get along, so that working-class men would've adopted some of the norms, hobbies, and cultural interests of the upper-middle class. Beginning in the 1920s and '30s, the elite agreed to rein in their rapaciousness of the Gilded Age and Robber Baron era, making an honest display of this contrition by choking off immigration during the '20s, which prevented a further downward slide of workmen's wages (labor supply down, wages up). And the working class agreed to end their violent labor agitation that reached a fever pitch in the years after World War I.

However, we are now about 35 years into a period of rising inequality and dog-eat-dog status striving, and the fragile trust that held the classes together during the Great Compression has come undone. Why bother trying to ape the interests of the upper-middle class, if they aren't going to accept us? What does being a sports fan mean to them anyway?

They could care less about the sport itself. It's just another source of status striving, trying to lord their team's awesomeness over the fans of other teams. In an effort to please status-striving fans, sportsmanship has unraveled and drugs are now the norm (also due to dog-eat-dog behavior within the sports industry). Whatever it takes to give our fans a team they can brag about in some lame status contest. How the game is played is incidental to "OUR TEAM WON! SUCK IT, BITCHES!"

So what about the disconnect behind the view that sports fans are all mouth-breathing thugs? Well that's good old liberal snobs for ya. Sports fans are not just elites, but Republican-voting elites. Democrat-voting elites don't enjoy sports as much. In the status contest between red-state vs. blue-state elites, the Democrats need a way to put down the sports-loving elites. Well, if the whole point is to jockey for status, then why not simply imply that sports-loving elites are actually just a bunch of proletarian scum? America's version of soccer hooligans.

This would put sports in the same place as religion in the culture wars. Andrew Gelman and colleagues wrote a book about how the culture wars play out by income and by state (Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State). They found that within a state, richer people were more likely to go to church than poor people. However, that difference was flatter in rich states like Connecticut and steeper in poorer states like Mississippi. Liberal political views were the same -- the richer, the more conservative, but this climb is steeper in red states than in blue states.

When you compare classes, though, poor people across all states were pretty similar to each other for religious attendance and liberal voting, while the rich varied a lot across states. Hence, the culture wars are largely fought between elite factions in different states, not between classes.

Sports looks to be part of this general pattern. Working-class folks have totally tuned out of pro sports over the past several decades, while a large gap and bitter culture war has been fought between elite liberals and elite conservatives about whether sports are crucial or pointless to one's group identity, and how much they should count in calculating and comparing one's status level.

"Our football team kicked your football team's ass!"

"Oh yeah, well that's just bread-and-circus fodder for mouth-breathing proles!"

"Please, you're just jealous that you pansies can't throw a spiral!"

"Whatever, you're just jealous that you don't have any world-class museums like we do!"

Et ceteraaaaa..... For someone below the median of the class pyramid, this is all just sound and fury among self-aggrandizing elites.

In a period of rising inequality, such as the Gilded Age or today, lower-class culture drifts toward vice -- saloons, gambling rooms, brothels, sometimes all in the same building. ("That's right gentlemen, step right up to the one-stop shop for all your sinful desires!") We're unaware of how pervasive this culture was in the Gilded Age and early 20th century, but we're indirectly aware of it from our knowledge of the Temperance movement.

Today the saloon is the liquor store, the cigarette vendor, and the drug dealer; the gambling room is a convenience store that sells lottery tickets; and the brothel is a strip club and internet porn. It's a drop-out culture.

Being a sports fan requires too much investment in a community setting, so don't expect drop-outs to show much interest. With the bonds of trust severed between classes, and with the elite pursuing ever-more vainglorious hobbies and group activities, why bother trying to join them? Might as well buy a lottery ticket, rub one out to some internet porn, and smoke a cigarette or two before repeating the process over again tomorrow.


  1. Well, it has to be asked - what are the masses into anyway? If what you're claiming is true, they're not into sports even as they tune out politics.

    Prior to the great compression a section of the working class engaged in labor organizing and left-wing politics. That's gone today. The left is an upper middle class phenomenon and is based upon identity politics, not a now semi-mythical proletariat.

    So, the current period is unique in the modern era in that elites have detached themselves from the rest of society, but the masses have reacted with a collective shrug.

  2. I think we're still in a Gilded Age phase, when there wasn't much labor organizing. That was more pronounced in the Progressive era just after. Also, there was no welfare state back then, so today's lower class doesn't have the incentive to organize for small things either.

    Lower-class people aren't really "into" anything, implying a commitment or interest or membership. It's vices of one sort or another.

  3. From the context of the article, and those numbers, they're talking about people who see games live. Given what's happened to ticket prices in the past 20 - 30 years, those numbers aren't a surprise. Lower-income fans can't afford to go to more than a few games a season for the cheap sports, and season tickets are way out of reach.

    There's probably a story about something there, but it's not about the poor not feeling attached to their sports teams anymore.

  4. I didn't get that impression. But just in case, here's another set of marketing research results on sports fan demos:


    Same qualitative results as the one quoted in the post, just to a lesser degree. It was also an earlier report, so there may be some continued widening in recent years.

    As for how ticket prices fit in, that smell like the elites bidding the prices up because they've seized on pro sports attendance as a status symbol, and compete with one another to out-attend major events. There are a fixed number of seats in any stadium, so rising demand due to status striving cannot be accommodated by expanding the supply of seats, hence prices soar through the roof.

    Was attending the Super Bowl a status trump card back in the '60s or '70s? I don't think so, but couldn't say one way or the other.

  5. A quick history of Super Bowl ticket prices:


    They hold pretty steady for the first 10 to 15 years, and only begin to skyrocket in the early-to-mid '80s, consistent with the inequality trend.

    The graph is nominal rather than real, but on that time scale inflation doesn't explain the soaring prices. In nominal dollars, Super Bowl tickets go for around 100 times as much as they did in 1967, whereas inflation has "only" increased by about 7 times.

  6. It is much more difficult for the working class to afford tickets to games today.

    My father was working class, dropped out of high school and was a teamster -worked in a warehouse unloading Boxcars and Trucks. Yet he and his buddies had season tickets to the Eagles from 1962 to 1982. my father attended almost every home game, and he was a cheap bastard. Not sure what he paid, but was less than $10 a game in 1980 when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl. Today Season ticket holders are also forced to buy 2 pre-season tickets, so season ticket holder pay about $100 per game today.

    I would be considered Upper Middle class, college educated, yet cannot afford season tickets to the Jets or Giants. I also could not afford to take my family to a baseball game, which my father was able to do in the 70s and 80s (even after he lost his Job) Baseball tickets in Philadelphia in the 80s could be bought for $1 , I remember when they were raised to $1.50. Even the real good seats were less than $20.

    Look at the Phillies Stadiums. Veterans Stadium built in 1969 had 72,000 seats and no luxury suits. Citizen Bank Park was built in 2004 and holds just 43,000 seats. The new stadiums build over the last decade have been smaller, with more amenities directed toward the wealthy and corporate sponsors. No Surprise the cost of taking a family of 4 to a game has increased form $5.00 in 1980 to $150 today. Plus in 1980 we could bring in coolers filled with food and beverages, which my Dad insisted on.

    Another big change today, the lower class is composed of a significant number of immigrants today. Back in the 70s the number of foreign born Americans was near all time lows, so they were mostly American born and followed sports more than the typical working class person today, who is more likely to have either been born elsewhere or had immigrant parents so they were not raised as typical Americans following sports

  7. Wow - an entire article about sports fans without ever once using the word "black"! That article may be on the up and up, but when I drive through East Oakland, the amount of Raiders crap I see is amazing. Those guys bleed silver and black. (ok -maybe the silver is the bullets they shoot each other with.) The poesy folks don't have a TV, but I'd bet a lot of those folks don't get captured in marketing surveys.

  8. In 1980 there were 26 million Blacks in America, about 12% of the population.
    In 1980 there were 13 million Hispanics in America, about 6% of the population

    today Blacks are still 12% of the population, but 3% of them are also hispanic.
    but today 17% of the population is hispanic, over 53 million.

    the working class is thus much more hispanic today and less black, less white.
    This is a big reason the working class people as a whole are less likely to be football fans.

    The massive immigration we had in America from 1990 to now has dramatically changed America and will continue to do so, as Hispanics have higher fertility than Blacks or whites.

  9. http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/10458047/next-generation-ticket-holder-concern-students-show-college-football-games

    Is this another symptom of cocooning? I don't have quite the sports fever I once had myself, for various reasons.

  10. From this article, and the numbers, they're relating those people who watch games live. Ticket prices all over the world are increased in last few decades. Fans with lower-income are unable to see things live, but there is a way through which fans can be entitled and find tickets on low rates.

  11. was watching a football game and saw a commercial for a Mercedes Benz


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