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"42" and the Intangible Impact of Sports

Baseball is life, or so the saying goes. The release of “42” brings back to light a story that, among its many angles and nuances, turns that saying around -- life is baseball. Sports not only mirrors life but also acts as a vehicle to influence and change it. Measured solely by revenues, sports rates a relatively minor player as industries go. Summed together, professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey and auto racing generate only about $30 billion per year. Even with the major football and basketball revenue producers among college teams lumped in, the total is well under $50 billion. That’s nowhere near the $100 billion-plus figures for the heavyweights among individual companies, much less entire industries. Yet, for enormous sales figures and cult-like following surrounding a company like Apple, its ongoing buzz does not come close to sports. Steve Job and Bill Gates have enjoyed about as much celebrity as any corporate figures, but the events involving Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the Brooklyn Dodgers took place over 75 years ago and continue to inspire. Babe Ruth’s exploits in Major League Baseball will soon be 100 years old, but his name is still widely known. After 100 years, I would expect very little public awareness of names like Jobs or Gates, unless it happens through the naming of some institution.

A reply might be, the Jackie Robinson episode lives on because it centers on an important period of American history -- breaking down racial barriers. Yes, but among all the individual stories that paralleled that of Robinson, it’s his that emerged into and has survived in the common public consciousness. This kind of influence, however, goes beyond Robinson and race. Sports is one of the few areas where revenues so radically understate the social impact and awareness of the business. The very existence of substantial merchandising revenues for sports teams is a tell-tale indicator of this non-monetary interest. ExxonMobil may generate $400 billion in revenue but hardly anyone walks around wearing caps, jackets, and shirts displaying their attachment as fans do for the Yankees, the Cowboys, the Crimson Tide, or Dale Jr. In this respect, sports fits with movies, vacations, special romantic moments, and a few other activities where individuals relive, retell, and rehash memorable events over and over, making the initial "consumption value" very durable. The involvement of thousands of other people in the initial enjoyment offers a relatively unique opportunity for social networking that long preceded the advent of the internet.

It’s an interesting exercise to try to add up the non-revenue value of sports to fans. The amount of time alone, whether at reliving the game in the break room or at home, reading newspapers, blogs, or other sources is not trivial. Further, the time spent on fantasy sports ultimately derives its value from the sports themselves. With even modest estimates the number of people involved in these activities along with the time spent and at average wage rates, it’s easy to double the revenue value. Such estimates vastly understate the impact of sports as “42” once again demonstrates.