Investors in these uncertain economic times are looking for stability and predictability. So consider this investing proposition: You have a chance to invest in businesses that have been around since the early 1900s, and sports franchises remain valuable properties today depending on their relative success and level of fandom. These companies have an intensely loyal consumer base. In some areas of the country, there is a waiting list of years to purchase products like season tickets to games. Most rational investors would argue this is a compelling value proposition.
The industry we are referring to is professional sports, particularly its franchises and ancillary businesses. This seems like a slam dunk of an investment theme; however, to quote ESPN football analyst Lee Corso: "Not so fast, my friend!" It is true that professional sports leagues, and their derivative businesses, such as athletic apparel and media conglomerates, have become multi-billion-dollar industries, but these businesses are not risk-free and in many ways can be riskier than traditional businesses. Today, we will look at the pros and cons of investing in big-time sports.
In economics, demand (or "final demand") is defined as the ability and the desire to purchase goods and services. Professional and college sports programs strike a strong emotional chord with their audiences. There aren't a lot of companies that can claim a higher brand loyalty to their businesses than big-time athletics. Typically, this means their dollars will follow their hearts.
The National Football League (NFL) tends to market toward a more affluent or "able" customer base; an affluent family of four can easily spend over $1,000 while attending a single sporting event. If this family attends 10 events per year, well, you get the picture.
Likewise, people spend serious money renovating entire rooms of their homes to show support for their favorite teams and players. Professional and collegiate sports have also successfully adapted to the ever-changing technological landscape that is part of our daily lives. Viewing of live sporting events on mobile devices is growing rapidly, as well as on satellite radio and pay-per-view showings. All of these distribution channels are revenue drivers for these businesses.
The NFL started its own television network where it can realize more of the advertising revenue, instead of sharing with traditional networks (FOX, CBS, NBC, and ESPN, among others). The networks charge premium prices that their loyal customers and sponsors are willing and able to pay. How many people thought there would ever be around-the-clock golf or tennis channel?
Another tremendous advantage these major sports leagues have is a lack of competition. It's simply a tough nut to crack, or as economists would claim, there are too many "barriers to entry" to compete with Major League Baseball, European soccer, or the National Football League. There have been some attempts to challenge these leagues, but most have failed. Some sports leagues are also protected by anti-competition legislation.
The NFL in the U.S. has a special antitrust exemption. How many businesses can make a similar claim? One would suspect that it is a concise list. Finally, these businesses enjoy repeat business. Most people don't just own one T-shirt of their favorite team. They own several. Many families pass down season tickets to their children, instilling further brand loyalties for future generations.
Sports teams and leagues are not immune from economic shocks. Demand for sports entertainment depends on the overall economic climate. Prolonged weakness in the economy following the 2008 financial crisis hurt attendance at many sporting events for years. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented many sports venues from hosting fans in person and many games were postponed or cancelled due to illness among team members and staff. But most average Americans view sports as good entertainment that can be enjoyed when there is extra income to spend.
From an economist's perspective, demand for attending sporting events is elastic. In other words, a change in someone's income (downward) or a change in the costs of the products (ticket prices upward) will have a material impact on final demand (ticket, merchandise, and pay-per-view sales). These are the hard economic facts about why sports investments can be risky, but perhaps less apparent are the exogenous or human factors that investors should be attuned to that present at least equivalent business risk.
It seems that every day we hear about a sports scandal more sensational or unbelievable than the day before. These scandals can hurt a sports brand. Allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State University, for instance, not only hurt the school's reputation, but apparel sales dropped significantly as a result. Other incidents such as one where NBA players jumped into the crowd and brawled with fans (i.e., "customers") harmed the reputation of the NBA brand.
Furthermore, greed is everywhere in these businesses: Stars in these leagues make much more annually than the average consumer. The point here is that these businesses present risks to investors that are not traditionally part of the business. If employees of a major corporation went on strike, the company's stocks would most likely get hammered in the short term. If the CEO of a blue-chip company decided they weren't going to report to work for months, or hold out for more money, these companies would face serious repercussions from investors.
The Bottom Line
Investing in sporting franchises and the associated ancillary companies that benefit from the multi-billion-dollar sports business can be an appealing and profitable proposition. High consumer demand, pricing power, and lack of competition are critical success and survival advantages that big-time sports leagues and teams command. It is also important to realize that these businesses have unique risks. So, the next time you are at a sporting event, look at the ancillary businesses that support your favorite team, and see if they make sense in your financial playbook.
Also, sports entertainment is generally considered a "luxury" and is subject to the economic laws of elasticity. The same human or emotional factors that attract us to spend our dollars on their product can quickly sour due to unforeseen events.