Guess Which of the Four Major Sports Is Recession Proof

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A new National Football League champion is recently crowned, major league baseball begins its annual rite of spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers replacing the once mighty New York Yankees with the largest ever payroll, and the National Basketball Association teams scramble to make the playoffs and replace the Miami Heat as champs.

Oh, and professional hockey starts a shortened season after a lockout left ice rinks empty for months.

Okay sports fans, which one of these four major athletic endeavors is better than the others when it comes to weathering the latest economic stumble? Which one has proven to be recession-proof? Which sport have fans been attending even as the price of gas keeps rising and falling like an R.A. Dickey knuckleball?

(We're focusing on the four most popular pro sports in the U.S. and soccer — or football to its legion of worldwide fans — didn't make the cut.)

Did you say pro football? Seems like the logical answer. TV ratings for the NFL are through the roof and it has America's team (Dallas Cowboys), as well has having NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell making some $30 million last year, so the sport must be rolling in dough. But head to the showers on a late penalty call if you guessed the NFL.

Baseball? Nope, you struck out here as well, despite Seattle Mariner pitcher Felix Hernandez becoming the highest paid pitcher in baseball with a 10-year, $175 million contract, and the Dodgers being bought for more than $2 billion. How about pro basketball, with Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard and their mega-contract deals? You missed the three point shot and the entire backboard on this one.

You see, according to some pain-staking research from ConvergEX Group, and specifically Beth Reed, vice president of the strategy team for the research and investing firm, the sport that's been best able to survive ticket price increases and still keep their fan base from 2008 to 2012 is — the National Hockey League.

That's professional hockey to those who think the Stanley Cup is a wine goblet and the Anaheim Ducks are California's state animal. (The Ducks are the hockey team down the road from the Los Angeles Kings, the current NHL champs).

Only hockey among the four major pro sports was able to have greater attendance now than before the Great Recession, despite an overall 17 percent increase in ticket prices — nearly $10 from $48.72 to $57.10 for the average seat — over the same period, according to Reed. (This research was done before this year's NHL lockout of players, so we'll have to wait and see what impact it had on attendance. And don't forget, seven of the 30 NHL teams are in Canada, so there are fewer teams in the U.S. to track than in the other sports).

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Following hockey in order of raising ticket prices and seeing less attendance percentage-wise than the NHL over the 2008 to 2012 timeline were basketball, football, and then baseball. Only baseball actually had a real negative drop in fan attendance as ticket prices rose.

"I'm very surprised that it's the NHL. I would have guess it was football like most people," said Reed. "It seems the hockey fan is more committed to the sport than other fans."

"Hockey fans are also more affluent than in other sports," said Nick Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx, who said the idea for doing the study came about because baseball's spring training began this month.

"The NHL can jack up the ticket prices more than the other sport and still keep their fans, at least for a while," said Colas."They seem to be better off financially."

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In fact, NHL fans have the highest mean household income compared to MLB, NBA, and NFL fans, with an average household income of $104,000, compared to $96,200 for baseball fans, $96,000 for NBA fans, and $94,500 for NFL fans, according to league data.

They're younger, too. Thirty-three percent of hockey fans are young adults (ages 18-34), compared to 32 percent for the NFL, 30 percent for the NBA, and 29 percent for baseball.

The report Reed put together concludes that studying the economics behind sports fans confirms that the "upper middle class as a whole seem to be doing just fine and that the collective upper middle class is opening its wallet for discretionary entertainment, and we're not just talking about the 'upper crust' hockey fans."

Hockey enthusiasts, generally young, well-to-do white males, tell us something else about a subset of the economy, the report said: "Despite evidence that younger, early-career professionals are really struggling in this job market, 'yuppies' appear to be on solid footing. That or they just really love their hockey."