"If you're going to spend your money somewhere to be entertained, chances are you're more apt to sit in a ballpark for a game than to take a flight to Cancún," Mr. Johnson says.
That rationale probably extends to other "necessities" as well. "I'm sure the sports TV cable package is the last thing that's being canceled by somebody that's unemployed," Johnson adds. "You would probably be maintaining your health insurance, maybe your car payment, but you're certainly not going to lose your sports package on cable."
Officially, the US recession started in December 2007. It's true that attendance at pro sports games, except for National Hockey League games, has gone down since then, but only by a negligible amount. In 2007, an average of 67,755 people turned out for each National Football League game. In 2009, the league's per-game attendance was 67,509, just a 0.4 percent drop. "In terms of the fans, they need their distractions, so sports are a little more insulated [during recessions] than other industries," says Mr. Zimbalist.
Even if we're not physically at the ballpark, the mental space fandom takes up can ease stress on the wallet. Peter Geller, director of fantasy sports products at Yahoo, says that more than 10 million people play fantasy sports online every year. The time people spend checking scores and updating rosters represents a form of free entertainment. "It's a cheap way to have fun and to occupy your time, instead of spending money at the mall," he says.