The Rot in Pro Sports and the Rise of Gardening

Reprinted from The Globe & Mail, January 23, 2003, Metro Edition, A2.

by Roy MacGregor

All material Copyright © Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Okay, so he didn't see the day coming when journalists would deliberately get drunk so they could act like politicians -- but his business is projection, not prediction.

And when it comes to projecting trends, David Foot has an impressive record.

That reality hit home the other day when an American journalist called to ask if anyone could make sense of what has been going on lately in professional sports: empty seats, ticket rebellions, bankruptcies.

"It's right in Boom Bust & Echo," I said.

"What's that?"

"It's a book by David Foot. Huge bestseller here in Canada seven or eight years ago. Foot's an economist and demographer at the University of Toronto -- and he had it bang on."

"How's that?"

The book was within reach, and so I read him a few snippets from the chapter in which Foot (with co-author Daniel Stoffman) traces the rise and collapse of recreational tennis among the Baby Boom generation and suggests that a similar fate awaits other games.

Spectator sports, Foot argued back in the spring of 1996, suffer from "imperviousness to reality."

Expansion had reached its limits, attendance problems were looming and the Boomers were certain to turn away from the expensive, troublesome arena experience to such leisure pursuits as bird watching or doing absolutely nothing.

"Resting will become one of Canada's most popular leisure 'activities' in the years to come," Foot argued, tongue nowhere near his cheek.

"The days of rapid growth, sold-out seasons, and ever more lucrative television contracts are coming to an end."

An aging spectator audience, he added, "is not good news for owners of professional sports franchises."

Such prescience sent me back skimming through the book to see how Foot had done in other areas. He foresaw that interest rates would decline dramatically and attitudes toward work would change. "In fact," he wrote, "the very notion of 'jobs' will come to seem an anachronism during the working lives of many young Canadians."

He accurately saw that once the Boomers' babies were grown, allegiances would shift from the minivan to SUVs. He said soon there would be expensive "gated communities" going up in Canada, and today there are dozens.

He was right on cities, on education, and the coming crunch in health care.

He saw, again correctly, that home renovations and gardening were about to soar.

Reached at his U of T office, Foot chuckles at the audacity of the one question no one can resist asking. Where did you screw up? "I argued in favour of the strength of the stock markets," he says, "and it crashed. So you can look at the market between 2000 and 2003 and you can say, 'Hey, he screwed up in the market.' But in the long term, which is what I'm dealing with, there are still really only three places for people to save: real estate, the stock market, and collectibles. The other place they might say that is real estate" -- (one of the chapters is entitled The Real Estate Meltdown) -- but people forget that all of my trends are five- to 10-year trends, and if you look at the long-term, I'm exactly on target."

It is this difference between short and long term, Foot says, that is hurting Canada both politically and economically.

"We reward people for short-term decisions," he says ruefully.

Politicians get elected for four years, spend the first year finding their feet, the last year trying to get re-elected, and have only two years in which to try to do anything worthwhile. The time frame for action, he says, is even shorter for business leaders, who are rewarded by year-end bonuses and therefore think only one year at a time.

"It's not their fault," says Foot. "It's the system."

What the system needs to do, says Foot, is to try to understand the simple messages of demographics. Canada went through "the loudest baby boom in the industrialized world" and every aspect of society is profoundly affected by those born between 1947 and 1966, and now by the children of these boomers, the "Echo" generation.

"Demography," he wrote in his book, which is available in an updated edition (see, "the study of human populations, is the most powerful -- and most underutilized -- tool we have to understand the past and foretell the future."

He says it's too late for those political and corporate leaders in their 50s and 60s to change from short-term action to long-term planning, but he holds out great hope for those now in their 30s and 40s who have been "educated."

"I've largely given up on the senior decision makers of this country," says Foot.

"You're not going to teach a 50- or 60-year-old new tricks. But demographics have been embraced by the younger generation, those over 20 but under 50 -- and I've got my fingers crossed for them."

Over the long term, of course.