When Richard E. Snyder, a Chicago economist, recently visited the suburban home of a friend he asked if he might look around the house for sports equipment. The host agreed, and after Snyder finished checking from cellar to attic he had unearthed one complete set of golf clubs, several dozen golf balls, three fishing rods and reels with assorted tackle, four baseball bats, three fielder's gloves, one catcher's mitt, a mask, a chest protector, a pair of shin guards, three baseballs, two basketballs, two footballs, one badminton set, three hockey sticks, four pairs of ice skates, three pairs of roller skates, one set of table tennis equipment and three bicycles.
His host was astounded by the range of booty, but Snyder was not. In a small way, it merely confirmed what he knew to be statistically true about the sporting bent of present-day Americans. No one knows the ways of American sportsmen better than Snyder, who is the leading economist working in sports. Specifically, his specialty is sporting goods. Ever since the end of World War II, he has been adding up the amounts Americans spend for tennis balls and boxing gloves, and for the last 10 years he has served as consulting economist to the National Sporting Goods Association, a trade group that relies upon his annual reports to forecast the shifting tastes of the public. Snyder's reports on past, present and future sporting-goods expenditures have been so accurate and detailed that the U.S. Department of Commerce, which ordinarily supplies figures on any facet of the nation's economy, has conceded this particular field to him.
Among the other things Snyder has found out:
•Sports are largely a family affair, and the more affluent the family, the more likely it is to be involved in sports. Eighty percent of the sporting goods now sold in the U.S. are bought by families who have an income of $7,500 or more and live in a metropolitan area. Snyder's suburban friend, cited above, is typical.
•The sports year, which used to consist primarily of the warmer months, now runs the length of the calendar. Since 1954, sales of winter sports equipment have grown at an annual rate of almost 10%. The ski-and-sled market alone is now valued at $18.5 million annually, 515% more than it was worth in 1929.
•Americans are economically far more involved in participant sports than they are in spectator sports. This year they will spend more than $2 billion on sporting goods and only a relatively measly $300 million on spectator sports. Although these figures would appear to refute the belief that Americans are not physically active or fit, the fact is, most of the participant sports activity is carried on by those affluent metropolitan households, about 10 million families all told. In Snyder's terminology, the members of these families are "multiple sportniks." Instead of concentrating on one sporting activity alone, they go from one to another as the seasons progress.
•Sports, or at least participant sports, are "recessionproof." "When general business activity is softening," Snyder says, "sporting-goods sales tend to rise more than average. It seems that when unemployment is high, people use their unemployment compensation to go to a football game or buy a new golf club." Despite generally erratic business conditions, sporting-goods sales this year will be the highest ever, a record $2.4 billion, up 6% over last year, the previous all-time high.
The sporting-goods industry owes its past immunity from recessions to its youthfulness. According to Snyder, every industry follows a similar economic life cycle, and the sporting-goods industry is no exception. Before World War II it was in its gestation, or introductory, stage, going along at a rate of $200 to $300 million a year. But in the late 1940s the sporting-goods industry entered its vaulting stage—thanks to increased leisure, a rise in real income, changes in its distribution and improvements in technology. Annual sales soared from $754 million in 1946 to $1 billion in 1947 to almost $2.2 billion in 1960. "It wasn't at all like the sporting-goods industry before the war," Snyder says. "It had a new tempo. It had the germ of modern mass production."
In 1960 the industry entered the maturation, or mass-volume, stage. This occurs when an industry reaches approximately 10% of the market, and it is signaled by a sudden slowdown in rate of growth. In 1961 sporting goods grossed only slightly more than in 1960 as increasing competitive pressures were felt from all sides. "The sporting-goods industry hit the first bump of its maturity stage," Snyder says. "Everyone gets on the bandwagon. There were more people selling sporting goods. It's the old American game of trying to get something while the getting is good."
As Snyder sees it the getting is still going to be good—he calculates sporting goods will hit the $3 billion mark by 1966—but a bit more perilous for manufacturers and retailers catering to an increasingly sophisticated public. As the sporting-goods industry moves further through the maturation stage, which can last for a hundred years, consumption eventually will flatten to a growth rate in line with population increases only. When that happens, and not until then, the industry will follow the cyclical swings of the general economy.
If it hadn't been for one of those cyclical swings—in fact, the Great Depression—Snyder would be teaching political science somewhere instead of figuring out the demand for skis. Now 54, he was raised in Joplin, Mo., the son of an itinerant newspaperman who left home when Snyder was 7 to seek a lost gold mine in the Sierra Madre. "Joplin was a pretty tough place," he says. "How good you were was measured by how fast you could throw your fists." In 1925 he entered the University of Wichita, and was graduated in 1930. "That was right in the iron noose of the Depression," he says. "I starved for five years working my way through college, and then I starved five more." He went to Texas, and in 1934 he received his M.A. from Southern Methodist. While earning his degree, he played baseball for an industrial league team and did statistical analyses for natural gas companies, newspapers and advertising agencies. "That turned me away from teaching," he says. "The pay was small, but it was better than I could get in teaching."
In 1937 Snyder moved to Chicago, where he worked successively as director of research and statistics for the National Woodwork Manufacturers Association (now one of his clients), director of economic research for Montgomery Ward and senior marketing consultant for a management engineering firm. In 1946 he went cut on his own as a consulting economist. With some time on his hands, and for the simple reason that no one had ever done it before, he decided to do a study of the sporting-goods industry. This initial work, Trends in the Sporting Goods Market, appeared in the fall of 1947, and it was such a success, at $10 a copy, that he followed it up with another report in 1952. This one so impressed the National Sporting Goods Association that Snyder was retained as a consultant, and since then he has issued a series of annual reports and occasional special studies.
A few weeks ago, Snyder put down his slide rule to indulge in a freewheeling interview about sports in general. Although spectator sports are beyond his professional purview, he does have definite opinions about their prospects. Baseball, he believes, is on the way out. A research acquaintance of his has said that major league baseball will be dead in 15 years, and Snyder flatly said, "I wish I had said that." Whereas most observers view the disappearance of minor league baseball as the inevitable result of the televising of major league games, Snyder sees it as a part of a larger pattern reflecting gradual public disinterest in the game as a whole. Perhaps surprisingly, he believes ice hockey is in for boom times. "This is going to be limited only by how many people can get into the arenas," he said. "This will grow as interest in baseball dies."
With participant sports, Snyder is on firmer ground. His studies show that pleasure boats and equipment comprise the largest single market, $611 million a year, with an annual growth rate of 9.1%. Tents have shown the highest individual growth rate with 11%, and gymnasium equipment is second in rate of growth, with 9.4%. "The day of built-in grade school gyms has arrived with a bang," he said.
Asked about other participant sports, Snyder said, "Bowling will continue to grow, but at a slower rate than in the past. I think tennis has prospects of resurgence on a broad front. Tennis, however, will need heroes. Golf, that's a matter of space. Golf courses are being built as fast as land can be found, but there has to be a stopping point there.
"Oddly enough, I think that within the next decade this country is going to see a tremendous increase in bicycle riding. If we're going to have as many cars as they say, people who live near their work will say, 'The hell with this,' and ride bikes. I think kids will bicycle to school. In this pattern I can even conceive of the possibility that certain streets leading in and out of towns will be restricted to bicycles. I think the seed of this tendency is already planted.
"Curling? I sure never heard of it 10 years ago, but I hear of it now. This is another one of those things that show a creeping progress that may break out into a rash of activity in a few years. Archery has already done it. It seems to me that archery is such a highly specialized sport that it will continue to gain converts, but not at the rate it has in the past few years. To me, archery is worth categorizing as a novelty or a fad rather than a sport. It has come up so fast that you might even say that it has passed out of its vaulting stage and is leveling off.
"I think you'll see a lot of billiards, a rise in pool tables, perhaps as a status symbol. Boats have ceased to be a status symbol—a lot of boats have been bought by people in the clerical level of business or even in the laboring class—and golf has ceased to be a status symbol by a long way. But having a billiard table may become a status symbol. A, you need a big room just to keep it in. B, the table is expensive. And C, just knowing the rules implies status.
"Hunting and fishing will go on as long as there are animals to shoot and fish to catch. This population explosion [of the mid '60s], when the postwar babies start producing children of their own, this fanning out of the suburbs, all this is going to create increasing challenges for the sportsmen of the future."
For all his optimism, Snyder also sounds a note of warning. He has definite views on the social significance of sport, and wrote in one of his reports not long ago, "While the sporting-goods industry is taking due pride in its accomplishments...it may be fair to inquire concerning its social and moral responsibilities. The Roman Empire fell because of too much treasure, leisure and pleasure. The United States is the richest nation on the face of the globe. Its people seek ever more leisure and pleasure. No industry catering to the sybaritic yearnings and tendencies of the 'populace' can afford to default on its responsibility for being ever on guard against any and all forces seeking to employ the fruits of its production for brutalization, degradation, or emasculation of the consumers thereof. Should our worship of athletic prowess (imagined or real) lead us to a 'Bread and Circuses' pathology or should the widespread adoption of 'sporting devices' as merely instruments of escape from reality lead us to a 'couldn't care less' complacency, the barbarians, as always has been the case, will simply come down out of the hills and take it all away. It 'Pays to Play,' all right—up to a certain point."
Want to slip past the Joneses? Get a billiard table, the next American status symbol.