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Poll: Americans spend more than $100 billion on sports

Gyms, equipment and lots of sporting events can wallop the wallet

By  |  Published: September 10, 2017

John Egan
Personal Finance Writer
Writes trendy stories about credit cards.

Sports Spending Survey 2017

Americans spent more than $100 billion – yes, billion – over the past year on sporting events, athletic equipment and gym memberships, a new CreditCards.com survey found.

Topping the sports spending list is $56 billion spent at sporting events, $33 billion on athletic equipment and $19 billion in gym memberships.

Who is paying for those gym memberships most often? Millennials. Thirty-six percent of those 18-36 (36 percent) say they paid for a gym membership in the past 12 months. That’s twice as often as those who are older.

When it comes to heading to the stadium, older Americans tend to sit it out. Only 21 percent of those 53 years and older spent money on attending a sporting event in the past year, compared to 43 percent of those ages 18-52.

What we spend our sporting dollars on
Our national telephone survey of 1,003 adults found this is how Americans divvy up their dollars for sports-related spending:

  • 34 percent of the Americans surveyed report having spent money on sporting events, including tickets, transportation, food and beverages, in the past 12 months. This was the No. 1 spending category in the survey.

  • 29 percent say they’ve opened their wallets for athletic equipment (think softball gloves, soccer balls and football uniforms).

  • 23 percent have paid for gym memberships.

  • 12 percent have purchased sports-themed video games.

  • 8 percent have paid to participate in a 5K, fun run, bicycle race or similar event.

  • 4 percent have spent money on fantasy sports leagues.

The scientific survey of 1,003 adults was conducted Aug. 17-20, 2017, via landline and cellphone. See survey methodology.

Money ball
While season tickets to football or baseball games can cost thousands of dollars, that just gets you in the door. Add in the cost of parking, food and drink, and a day at the ballpark or arena often involves a stop at the ATM or a lot of reaching for the credit card.

Kevin Huhn, a former director of business development for the Central Hockey League, a now-defunct group of minor-league hockey teams, says it used to be “the event was the event. That is what we paid money to go see.”

Sporting events now are more about the whole experience – energizing music, entertaining mascots, alluring cheerleaders and, yes, even gourmet foods (lobster rolls, pork chops, sushi and Bloody Marys) at the concession stand.

“We are consumers as a species. We need to consume to live. We want more and more,” Huhn says.

Sports event prices rise
All that entertainment – on and off the field – comes at a steep price.

In 2016, it cost an average of $502.84 to take a family of four to an NFL game, up 232 percent from $151.33 in 1991. That amount covers two adult tickets, two children’s tickets, two small beers, four small soft drinks, four hot dogs, two programs, two adult-size ball caps and parking.

The same family outing to an NBA game totaled $339.02 in 2016, up 139 percent from $141.91 in 1991.

In Major League Baseball, the family-of-four average in 2016 was a veritable bargain: $219.53 (up 176 percent from $79.41 in 1991).

Primo views versus cheap seats
Sporting events attract fans of all ages, but our survey found people in two key age groups are the most likely to cough up cash for event tickets, transportation, food and beverages.

Among the 30- to 49-year-olds surveyed, 46 percent reported having spent money on sporting events; for 18- to 29-year-olds, it was 37 percent. In the survey, those going for the cheap seats were most often in the 18-29 age category.

For all age groups, people with income of at least $75,000 who are college graduates were much more inclined to buy tickets to sporting events and pay for related expenses, the survey shows.

“I joke that when he skates out on the ice, his full kit costs more than my first car.”

A hefty bill for hockey gear
Just as rooting for the home team has costs, outfitting a son or daughter to take to the ice or field can rack up charges enough to score a credit card sign-up bonus.

Robert Herbst, a personal trainer, coach and champion powerlifter from Larchmont, New York, guesses he’s spent roughly $20,000 on hockey equipment for his son. Eric Herbst, 21, has been playing hockey since age 4; he’s now a goalie at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

“I joke that when he skates out on the ice, his full kit costs more than my first car,” Herbst says.

 

SPORTS-RELATED SPENDING: TAKE ME OUT TO THE ATM!
Category of spending Percentage of American adults who spend on it Total U.S. annual spend ($billions) Average annual spend per participant
Sporting events* 36% $55.9 $710
Athletic equipment** 29% $33.4 $487
Gym membership fees 23% $19.2 $354
Sports-themed video games 12% $8.0 $273
Race entry fees*** 8% $4.8 $254
Fantasty sports leagues 4% $2.3 $251

* Including tickets, transportation, food and beverages
** Including spending for the whole family
*** For events such as a 5-K, “fun run,” bike race or obstacle course

Among all ages, the highest share of spenders (42 percent) was in the 30- to 49-year-old group – a group full of parents who have sports-playing kids.

Not surprisingly, the survey found that equipment spending is highest among the most well-off, highly educated Americans (college graduates with at least $75,000 in income).

Herbst says that since his son has stopped growing, the equipment costs have eased up. But in the past, equipment expenses easily topped $2,000 a year, he says.

His son’s hockey gloves cost $500 each, and then there are the sticks ($250 or more and prone to frequent breakage) skates ($950 or more), helmet ($300) and pants (close to $200). 

“To cushion the blow, we would sometimes trade in his equipment to get a discount and would sometimes buy used equipment such as leg pads,” Herbst says.

$179 for a Little Leaguer’s baseball bat
Herbst, who also is manager of his community’s summertime Little League program, has witnessed other parents spending more on athletic equipment than most people spend on a family dinner at a pricey restaurant.

For example, Herbst says he has seen some parents spend $179 on a 9-year-old Little Leaguer’s baseball bat.

If a parent has a son playing football, he or she will be forking over a lot of cash on gear, too.  

“Until their child hits 11 and reality starts to set in, parents think their kid is going to get a scholarship and win the Heisman Trophy,” Herbst says.

“There’s nothing wrong with investing in items like tickets to a football game, new sporting equipment for yourself or your children, and unlimited gym memberships.”

Avoiding a budgetary foul ball
So, if you’re determined to buy a pricey bat for your 9-year-old Little Leaguer, how do you ensure your budget doesn’t strike out?

Matt Gellene, an executive at Merrill Edge, an investment arm of Bank of America, doesn’t recommend giving up spending on athletic equipment or sporting events altogether. He does, however, caution that sports-related spending should be done thoughtfully.

“There’s nothing wrong with investing in items like tickets to a football game, new sporting equipment for yourself or your children, and unlimited gym memberships,” Gellene says.

Just be sure you are budgeting accordingly, he says. “And don’t forget about saving for your long-term financial goals, such as buying a home or saving for retirement.”

If you haven’t begun saving up for tickets to your favorite team’s big game of the year, for example, Gellene suggests setting up a savings strategy a few months before buying those tickets. The same approach could be applied to the purchase of that bat for your 9-year-old.

“This way, when it comes time to buy the item, you may feel as proud of yourself for effectively saving as you’ll feel when your team hopefully wins,” he says.

Poll methodology
CreditCards.com commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates International to obtain telephone interviews with 1,003 adults living in the continental United States. Interviews were conducted by landline and cellphone in English and Spanish from Aug. 17-20, 2017. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

See related: Poll: Americans spend more than $100 billion on sportsTips for football fans on maximizing hotel rewards points, How credit card needs change as your kids grow up, 6 ways hockey can help you erase debt

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Updated: 09-20-2017

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