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Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Updated: August 27, 7:21 AM ET
THIS JUST IN

By Luke Cyphers

What does this sign have to do with your experience as a sports fan? Quite a bit.

[Ed's note: To see more of Luke Cyphers on this topic, please go here.]

How much do you want it?

Every athlete from high school on up has heard the question. It's a rhetorical hammer in a coach's motivational toolbox. Now, with gas prices leaping and the U.S. economy diving, it pounds at the head of anyone involved in sports. Even fans.

How much do I want to drive that RV to the race? How much do I want that seat in the new Yankee Stadium? How much do I want my mid-major team to fly across the country just to be shellacked by USC?

In simple economic terms, the answer in each case is easy: If I can afford it, I'll do it. But in modern America, nothing is so simple. Sports is a culture, a way of life. Owners build civic legacies out of the teams they own. Elite athletes build their fortunes on hours spent in the gym or on the field. Talented kids and pushy parents plan their futures on the pursuit of the dream. And fans build identities out of their emotional if distant relationships to teams. All of that costs money.

And these days, at all levels, on some level, sports has to cut back. Chip Ganassi's dumping of Dario Franchitti from his Sprint Cup car shows sponsor love for NASCAR nation has reached its limit. Roger Goodell's whining about rookie salaries is likely the first shot in what could be a difficult labor struggle in the NFL. Brandon Jennings and Josh Childress might be the point men of a trend that sees U.S. athletes heading abroad, where the Euro is way more valuable than the dollar.

Fringe sports and those who play them are suffering the worst. In the AFL, salaries are modest, and with gas prices hovering around $4, carpooling players give new meaning to the term double-team. Georgia Force wide receiver Carl Morris and a couple of playing buddies traded their SUVs for 85 mpg mopeds they found on Craigslist. Smart move, with that 25-mile commute to the arena.

"I'm 6'3"," Morris says. "The bikes have two-person seats, so I sit in the back. It doesn't look as bad as when I'm all scrunched up in the front" Auto racing's minors are hurting too. Short-track drivers choke on fuel costs that have shot up from about $4 to over $12 a gallon. Worse yet are the hauling costs, says Glenn Luckett, director of CRA Super Series, a Midwestern stock car series: "Now it can cost close to $500 just to get to a track." At Michigan's popular M-40 Raceway, 20% fewer cars showed up this year to race. Meanwhile, 2008 attendance plummeted by half. "Not long ago, we lost $6,000 on a Friday night," says track owner Steve Brown.

Although he's shut down and put his track up for sale, he worries about finding a suitable buyer. "Short tracks are dying off quickly," he says. "It scares all of us." But you know who's loving that $4 a gallon? Marlin. Ocean fish are gagging on fewer hooks because those 60-foot sport-fishing yachts slurp 1,800 gallons of gas at a rate of .4 mpg. "It's like sitting on the back of the boat and throwing a $20 bill overboard each mile you go," says Jason Schratwieser, conservation director at the International Game Fish Association. Many boats are cramming more fisherman on board to lay off costs. "They're pretty much in the HOV lanes," says Judy Layne, managing director of the Yamaha Contender Miami Billfish Tournament. Some ocean anglers are hopping a flight south. "Venezuela has become very attractive," Schratwieser says. "It's always had good fishing, but now gas is only 12 cents a gallon there."

Small-fry are dodging bullets, but budget crises are still hitting the little guy. Maybe a little guy you know. In the Las Vegas area, six youth soccer teams, including the defending Nevada state champs, couldn't afford to travel to the regional site this year. High schools are whittling—and in some cases, hacking—sports budgets, a function not just of oil prices but of declining property tax revenues brought on by collapsing home values. Tennessee grouped bigger schools with smaller schools to limit cross-state travel. Mississippi reduced seasons in all nonfootball sports by 10%. In other states, JV and varsity teams or volleyball and soccer teams double up in the same bus to save on fuel.

Few people are talking about wholesale elimination of athletics, at least not yet, and fans haven't been dissuaded from buying tickets to the ballpark. In fact, the AFL enjoyed record attendance in 2008, and Triple-A baseball is on pace to do the same.

Fans are resourceful. Georgetown alum Matt was too broke to drive or fly commercially to see Mike Sweetney's team play in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, so he searched online until he found a livestock commuter who agreed to let him sit in the back9with the sheep. That was seven years ago. Imagine what the students at G-Town will do to get to Detroit next year if the Hoyas live up to the hype.

Yes, sports is a pastime for overgrown kids, but most sportsmen so far are acting like grown-ups in the face of recession. They realize times are hard and are looking for ways to shrink without dying. It's a lesson we can all learn, even the pros. Down the road, in college sports certainly, it makes sense for superconferences to be less super, for geography to matter again.

Cheap air travel looks doomed; to keep programs afloat, schools will probably need to cut back on flying, not just for away games, but for recruiting, too.

Meanwhile, pro teams will need to offer more value at the game or risk losing fans. The moaning heard over seat license fees charged by the New York Giants and Jets might turn into silent, empty stands if Wall Street's slump continues. Some teams have noticed the squeeze on fans, at least symbolically. The Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants include gas cards in promotions, and in April, a Philadelphia Lukoil offered 76-cent gas for 76 minutes after the 76ers made the playoffs. Such gimmicks won't last or amount to much if oil shoots up to $200 a barrel in the near future, as Oklahoma State's billionaire booster T. Boone Pickens predicts.

In that case, expect teams in cities with mass transit, like Philly and DC, to offer more deals on train and bus rides to sports contests. The venues may sacrifice parking revenue, but it beats sacrificing ticket revenue when nobody can afford to drive to games. You may even see more teams follow the lead of the University of Colorado, which offers valet bike parking at Buffs games.

The current slump looks like a long, rough one, and it's likely people will continue to change all kinds of behavior to cope with it. The U.S. logged 12.2 billion fewer miles in June of this year than it did in June of 2007. Will those changes affect sports? The answer, of course, is no. And yes. In the end, the games we play and watch are too important to too many people, especially moneyed people, to fade away completely. But don't be surprised if your favorite teams spend the next few years trying to not spend as much.

It's the economic version of little ball.