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Sports in the US: Year-round madness

From the bracketology of March Madness to ESPN Everything, sports has become one of the most pervasive forces in American culture. Is it a great unifying force or a sign of misplaced priorities?

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What little money she does make all goes to one goal: attending as many Duke University men's basketball games as possible in the year before she heads to law school. While she may be broke, she doesn't regret a single cent that she has spent.

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"To me, the most astonishing and amazing thing is that despite how bad the economy and job market is, students and fans come out to these games to cheer on their beloved teams," Chan says. "For those 40 minutes, everyone is fixated on the sport, maybe as a distraction from all the outside negativity, or maybe it is all the excitement that the team brings."

What she represents is a variant of the "lipstick effect," the spending phenomenon after 9/11, and it's one reason stadiums continue to draw crowds despite a sullen economy. Following the terrorist attacks, consumers cut back on purchases of luxury goods but increased spending on smaller indulgences. They bought fewer designer shoes, for instance, but stocked up on expensive lipstick. Now, according to Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum, an educational institution in Boston, people are cutting back on exotic vacations and instead taking more "staycations" – including trips to the local ballpark and hockey arena.

Even these relatively cheap alternatives for family getaways are still costly, though: The Team Marketing Report, a sports research firm, found that the average cost for a family outing to a Major League Baseball game last season (which includes four tickets, parking, and the inevitable hot dogs and hats) was $196.89. In New England, the cost of being a fan is even higher: At Fenway Park, those accouterments totaled $326.45. The only place more expensive to catch a game is the new $1.3 billion Yankee Stadium, where family fun consumed $410.88.

"If you're going to spend your money somewhere to be entertained, chances are you're more apt to sit in a ballpark for a game than to take a flight to Cancún," Mr. Johnson says.

That rationale probably extends to other "necessities" as well. "I'm sure the sports TV cable package is the last thing that's being canceled by somebody that's unemployed," Johnson adds. "You would probably be maintaining your health insurance, maybe your car payment, but you're certainly not going to lose your sports package on cable."

Officially, the US recession started in December 2007. It's true that attendance at pro sports games, except for National Hockey League games, has gone down since then, but only by a negligible amount. In 2007, an average of 67,755 people turned out for each National Football League game. In 2009, the league's per-game attendance was 67,509, just a 0.4 percent drop. "In terms of the fans, they need their distractions, so sports are a little more insulated [during recessions] than other industries," says Mr. Zimbalist.

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