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Original Issue


The U.S. energy shortage suddenly reached the world of sport and recreation as the President put brakes on weekend driving

Not long ago President Nixon summoned a group of governors to the White House for a discussion of the nation's energy emergency and, as is his wont, began the meeting with some unconnected small talk. First the President dwelled lightly upon the fortunes of his No. 1 favorite sports organization, the Washington Redskins. Then he turned to Marvin Mandel, the Governor of Maryland, and inquired as to precisely what has gone wrong with the Baltimore Colts this season. Without hesitation, Mandel quipped, "Same thing that brought us here today, Mr. President—lack of energy."

And now, suddenly, lack of energy is not a joke at all. Last Sunday night the President set forth the first dour specifics, a series of measures meant to cope with the crisis. With his announcements came the certainty that the energy shortage will change the way we all live, including our sports and recreation. The Sunday shutdown of gasoline pumps—including those serving powerboats, private planes and recreational vehicles—will have an immediate and direct effect on what Americans can do with their leisure time.

For at least a fortnight, talk about what might be done had swirled around. Here and there actions had been taken—both broad and narrow. The South African government instituted a full ban on all boating, private planes and auto racing, an act that sent a wave of chills through U.S. car-racing officials. At the other end of the spectrum, the management of the Kansas City Arrowhead Stadium ordered custodial personnel to cut the temperature in public rest rooms to the meat-locker level of 50°—an act that produced its own set of chills.

Professional basketball and hockey teams were experiencing more and more trouble with delayed or canceled flights; no games had yet been directly affected, but the NBA advised teams to review their transportation situation to avoid violating the ironclad rule that any team that misses a game will be fined a flat $15,000—with no excuses of any kind accepted. The heat has been turned off in all the municipal swimming pools of Fort Lauderdale, and a rigid new rule is on the city books of Lauderdale Lakes: no basketball court will be lighted unless 10 players are on hand and ready to play. In Oregon a voluntary fuel-usage cutback was proposed by Governor Tom McCall as early as last August, and his state school superintendent strongly suggested then that all football games be held in the afternoon. The recommendation was ignored by varsity teams because of the revenue involved. High school basketball games all over the country have been rescheduled to afternoon hours to save a bit of heating fuel, as well as the gasoline students would use going home and driving back to school again for a game. Big Ten Conference thinkers have suddenly realized that all of their schools are located alongside grand superhighways and are giving serious thought to chartering buses instead of planes for interleague contests. The situation at California's gigantic Marina del Rey has already reached the action—or non-action—level. No fewer than 780 of the 2,600 powerboats based there burn No. 2 diesel oil, and the fuel dock exhausted its supply in November and will get approximately 7,000 gallons for the entire month of December—less than 10 gallons per boat. (A typical 38-foot powerboat running on two 350-hp engines uses 27 gallons per hour when cruising at 22 mph.) In Mount Laurel, N.J. the Ramblewood Country Club went on daylight savings all by itself to make more time for golf and less for clubhouse power consumption.

And so it went, large effects and small from a fuel-energy crisis the extent of which no one had yet defined for certain. One of the more heartening sights over the Thanksgiving weekend was the massive, gentle submission by many U.S. motorists to the 50-mph highway speed limit suggested earlier by the President. Cynics could hardly believe the sight of normally savage speedways like the New York Thruway and New Jersey Turnpike taken over by docile, unhurried motorists rolling along as calmly as Amish buggy-drivers on their way to church. Indeed, there are those who see possibilities of real benefits from such curbs: the renaissance of a peaceful, less polluted, more leisurely life-style in an America minus gas-gulping 70-mph road monsters and our general all-round mindless consumption of energy—whether in the form of unlimited coast-to-coast jet flights, or the proliferation of drive-in hamburgers, drive-in banks, drive-in everythings.

The one concrete fact about the U.S. fuel shortage is that it has arrived, which leads to apprehension about what else may lie ahead. It is impossible to gauge yet what savings the Sunday closings of gas stations will effect, since that depends on the spirit in which the American public will take the measure. But the very thought of limited Sunday travel is enough to cast deep gloom over those involved in almost every form of the recreation business, from pro football owners to amusement park operators, from scuba rentals in Florida to ski rentals in Vermont. What happens to owners of powerboats, planes, snowmobiles, trail bikes and the like? One New York state trooper was so upset by the prospect that he growled, "If they won't let me use my snowmobile, I'm going to put a speeding ticket on every jerk I see with a pair of skis on his car."

Meanwhile, sports executives themselves are worried about the darkening situation. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn has solicited from all team owners "recommendations to alleviate problems arising from the fuel shortage." The single most obvious method of saving power through baseball—eliminating night games—gives most baseball men a creepy feeling. Minnesota Twins President Calvin Griffith despairs at the thought of his sport being played solely in sunlight. "If they tell us we can't play night ball because of the electrical power drain, we can't exist," says Griffith. "From a business standpoint, we simply cannot play during the day. We couldn't even pay our hospital insurance with what we'd draw with all-day baseball." Bill Giles, vice-president of the Philadelphia Phillies, agrees with Griffith: "We'd average only about 10,000 fans without night games and we would draw less than 600,000 a year [compared to 1,475,935 in 1973]. I would guess the city alone would lose about $300,000 in revenue on that basis and I don't even want to think of what the ball club would lose." The specter of strict gasoline rationing, which could come at some time in the future, is equally troubling. The Twins' Griffith says, "There is no doubt about it, if people are forced to make a decision on how to use their gas, we're going to be one of the last they'll show up for. And without people having a way to get to us, we're out of business."

But Dick Cecil, vice-president of the Atlanta Braves, disagrees. He can even see some possible good in rationing if it comes: "It could be that people wouldn't have the gasoline to drive up to the mountains or off to the lake and maybe they would drive to Atlanta Stadium instead." Maybe they would.

But the fact is that gas rationing—whether by formal edict, super-high taxation or plain shortages at the pump—is almost surely in the cards and will certainly have wide and sharp effects on enterprises as varied as racetracks and rodeos, trout fishing and tennis tournaments. Ski-area operators are desperately concerned. Over the Thanksgiving weekend Mammoth Mountain in Southern California was packed to the rafters, perhaps the largest single weekend crowd in its history, with 11,000 people on the slopes one day. Any serious clampdown on driving would leave Mammoth a shell of its present robust self. Evan Russell, director of publicity there, says flatly, "If just Sunday driving were banned, it would close us out. About 90% of our business is from Los Angeles—and most of that by private car."

The powerboat industry is profoundly pessimistic about the future, as well it might be. Powerboat sales fell off just on the tide of talk about a fuel shortage. Monroe Spodeck, president of a Fort Lauderdale marina, says that his firm's boat sales have already plunged by 80%. He adds darkly (but perhaps accurately), "It would be better if we had a hurricane or something to destroy the marinas—at least that way we could collect insurance." In Mays Landing, N.J., Charles Walters, vice-president of Post Marine Company, which specializes in pleasure boats, observes, "We've had dealers cancel orders for boats. We laid off about 15 workers last week, paid them for the week, gave them a turkey for Thanksgiving and told them it was beyond our control. We tried as long as we could." Beyond the fuel problem lies another: styrene, a petroleum-based material used to make 65% of all fiber glass hulls, is in short supply and, thus, manufacturing—even of sailboats—will be sharply curtailed.

Snowmobiles, which are in some disrepute as environment wreckers anyway, are in deep trouble already. Says Bill Snyder, president of the Pennsylvania State Snowmobile Association and owner of a franchise in Marienville, Pa., "Sales have been nil in the last two weeks. If we go to gas rationing, there'll be a lot of our people going bankrupt. If things keep up like this, it could ruin snowmobiling as a recreational industry in Marienville." (Marienville took in more than $440,000 in revenue last season from snowmobiling.)

Auto-racing people feel especially vulnerable to a fuel shortage, but for a different reason: a frustrated public's potential antagonism. Just to start, there is all that fuel the racers burn up at 180 mph when everybody else has to drive at 50. "We're a perfect target for everyone's resentments," says one spokesman. "It's just too easy for people to look out there and see those cars going around and around getting about two miles to the gallon and blame everything from gas rationing to cold living rooms on auto racing."

A fuel-company official in Chicago came up with figures last week indicating that the U.S. motoring public consumes about 96.6 billion gallons of gasoline in a year; of that, no more than 650,000 gallons (.00067 of 1%) is used in an average year of auto racing, or about the same amount of gasoline as is pumped by a single average service station in one year.

Almost as soon as the first whispers of fuel shortage reached their ears, five major U.S. racing associations banded together and swore to "inventory the situation within motor sports and prepare factual information to develop fair and reasonable regulations if they are thought to be necessary." Late last week this group, by this time known as the Automobile Competition Committee of the U.S., came up with its first set of statistics. ACCUS unfolded a 24-page report that included a complex list of figures purporting to show how much fuel was consumed in the practice and enjoyment of a whole series of sports and recreations—including auto racing. The figures will certainly be disputed—although, says ACCUS, the White House had a look at the list and did not dispute it. The auto-racing group insisted that these were the gallons consumed in the following leisure-time pursuits in the past year:

Vacation travel 5,416,140,827
Motion pictures (excluding drive-ins, oddly enough) 749,578,653
Football 564,043,166
Basketball 238,394,571
Horse racing 97,522,973
Auto racing 93,639,696
Rodeos 88,000,000
Bowling 40,000,000
Baseball 33,657,289
Wrestling 27,108,185
Golf 14,560,000

ACCUS said that its figures included spectator travel for all sports, but team travel only for football and auto racing. It also added the light wattage for NFL night games into its "gallonage." Citing General Electric and the Florida Power & Light Co. as its major sources, ACCUS figured that NFL night games average 1,373 kilowatts per hour, 5,492 kilowatts per game and 71,396 kilowatts for the season. This they estimated as the energy equivalent of 4,760 gallons of petroleum fuel. In breaking down the fuel consumption of U.S. football, the auto racers figured that the NFL consumed—through team travel, spectator travel and stadium lights—the equivalent of 46,708,700 gallons a year; college football 141,097,216 gallons; high school football 376,237,250.

This is only one set of statistics in a gathering storm of figures being brought to bear on the energy crisis by sports executives. Another such exercise seems to prove that playing a night game beneath powerful stadium lights actually causes less of an energy drain than would occur if the event were canceled or held in broad daylight. In Austin, for example, a temporary energy shortage last year resulted in a controversy over whether the University of Texas should continue to play night games in Memorial Stadium. J. Neils Thompson, president of the Southwest Conference—who also happens to be a professor of civil engineering at the university—figured out that a four-hour night football game in the 60,916-seat stadium would consume 2,473 kilowatt-hours. That, said Thompson, is the same amount of power required to operate 1,860 color (or 2,610 black-and-white) TV sets for an evening. Thompson then calculated that about 10,000 TV sets would remain off because of the crowd at the game and thus, he concluded, "There is nothing to be gained if we stop playing at night." A similar study in Seattle produced a similar result: a power-company expert estimated that an average crowd in Memorial Coliseum for a football game was 6,000 people, and that about 80% of them, or 4,800, would have stayed home if there were no game to go to. About half of the 4,800, he estimated, would have left a "partial family" at home using light, heat, TV, etc. But that meant that 2,400 had left dark and empty houses for four hours while they were at the game. They would have used more energy, he said, by staying home. The result? A net saving of power for the night. Another power company in a major league Midwestern city came up with the same general conclusion.

Whether the public makes up its mind about energy priorities on the basis of such computations remains to be seen, but it is a fact that the amount of power devoured by a single sporting event is enormous. Jim Appell, general manager of the Los Angeles Forum and one of the country's top lighting experts, figures that the power used to put on a single hockey game—including ice-making equipment, lighting, air conditioning, hot showers, parking-lot lights, scoreboard, etc., etc.—would total no less than 800 kilowatts. San Francisco's Candlestick Park uses about 300,000 kilowatts in a baseball season, enough to heat, light and run 45 homes for a full year.

So far, the crisis has not brought a real crunch to sport, yet many people are recalling the gray days of World War II when gas rationing forced the cancellation of the Indianapolis 500 and many other sporting events and the relocation of some horse-racing meetings. Officials both in college and professional circles are discussing consolidated schedules, fewer night games and an increasing emphasis on scheduling more games between teams in the same geographical area. It is ironic that sport must look to some hard sledding at the very time when there is sure to be a greater natural demand for the outlets of sport and recreational activity. Whatever else happens, it is not likely that leisure time will decrease in the days ahead; more likely it will increase. But the energy shortage will force changes in the way that time is used: more emphasis on activities near the home—tennis at municipal courts, for instance, or golf. Bicycling will surely continue to boom, as will other non-power-consuming activities such as fishing or sailing if travel is not involved. And the house itself will be even more of a sports center, with the television set as the focus. We are likely to become more troglodytic because of the fuel shortage, rather than less.

Meanwhile, Edgar Rosenbloom, the business manager of the hapless Baltimore Colts, had a cheerful scheme for solving his team's lack-of-energy crisis, both electrically and athletically: "We can save 50% of the power used in the stadium lights," said Rosenbloom. "All we have to do is turn the lights on when we get the ball and turn them off when our opponents get it." In Baltimore, that saving could exceed 50%.