The Economic Impact of COVID-19 on US Sports

Published on May 28, 2020

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

World War II didn’t shut down sports. COVID-19 did that.

The economic impact of COVID-19 on US sports has been a low blow. When every sporting event was canceled or postponed in mid March, this surreal move impacted approximately 1.3 million sports jobs: furloughed, reduced, or erased.

And if sports remain shut down for a total of three months (it may well be longer), sports occupations could lose a total of $12.3 billion in earnings by mid June. That’s an average of $133.4 million in earnings every day, or $92.6K every minute.

Now, there is talk of cautiously opening sports back up—to a degree. For instance, MLB is considering plans that would allow them to start the season without fans in attendance. Yet though airing the games may rally a little red-white-and-blue spirit, it will hardly reboot the economy. For each fan-less game, MLB will lose $640K.

Assuming that sports remain largely canceled till mid June (marking three months since mid March), let’s analyze the damage.


Methodology for economic impact of COVID-19 on US sports

To conduct this analysis, we analyzed 28 sports occupations, including a few occupations that aren’t strictly sports (like radio & TV announcers) but some of which are employed within the sports industry. For these occupations that aren’t 100% staffed within sports, we estimated the percent to which they were. For example, we assumed approximately 25% of radio & TV announcers are staffed within the sports industry. Therefore, 25% of radio & TV announcer jobs could be affected by the sports shutdown. And so on.

While this isn’t a hard-core economic analysis, we’re still able to get an approximate, conservative idea of the economic impact of COVID-19 on US sports in terms of earnings and occupations, and to determine which age cohorts, states, and MSAs stand with the most to lose.


1.3M sports jobs are at risk due to COVID shutdown

How many sports workers are out of a job? Unemployment numbers aren’t yet clear, but a few of sports occupations have more to lose because they have, well, more skin in the game.

The keenest job loss is likely among coaches & scouts, fitness trainers, amusement & recreation attendants, and lifeguards ( et al.) in terms of sheer numbers. Together, these four occupations hold over a million jobs. But a huge variety of sports occupations—from umpires to locker room attendants, from game wardens to dancers—are also affected.

Remember, we don’t know how many sports workers are actually out of a job—for instance, with gyms opening back up in many states, at least some fitness trainers are presumably in business. That aside, the chart below shows the breakdown of the 1.3 million sports jobs at risk due to the COVID shutdown.


Sports could lose $12.3B in earnings by mid June

The same caveat from potential job loss applies here. With an unknown number of sports workers unemployed, we don’t know exactly how much has been lost in terms of earnings. The following chart shows a breakdown of sports’ potential loss: $12.3 billion.

Total loss in earnings could be greatest for fitness trainers & aerobics instructors ($4.2B), coaches & scouts ($3.2B), and amusement & recreation attendants ($1.1B). Note that raw earnings for athletes & sports competitors themselves ($349M) is lower than you might expect, because this salary figure includes only wages from contracts. Most high-paid athletes make more from endorsements than from their actual salaries.


Millennial workers ages 25-34 are most affected by sports shutdown

The economic impact of COVID-19 on US sports, like the virus itself, tends to affect different age groups differently. Which age cohort is feeling the brunt of the sudden dissolving of sports?

As of May 13, COVID unemployment across all industries (not just sports) is socking America’s youngest age cohort (workers ages 16-24) as well as the oldest (workers ages 65+) the worst.

But when it comes to sports occupations, it’s millennials who are most affected.  Millennials ages 25-34 are sports’ largest employed group, making up 23% with a total of 442,000 jobs. Next are older millennials and Gen X ages 35-44, making up 16% with 321,000 jobs.


NYC & LA (but California overall) stand to lose the most sports jobs

Of the metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the US, New York City and Los Angeles boast the greatest number of sports jobs, and therefore are feeling the greatest impact of the sports shutdown. NYC has by far the most sports jobs: 126,000 as of 2020. Los Angeles is second with nearly 76,000. Given the restrictive stay-at-home orders in both New York and California, these numbers are likely an accurate representation of the sports jobs impacted.

But in terms of states, it’s California who could suffer the roughest spike in sports unemployment, with nearly a quarter of million sports jobs (see chart below). In April, the leisure & hospitality industry, which includes sports, lost the most jobs of any industry in California: over 866,000. How many of those are sports jobs per se is unknown.



Maybe the biggest question on sports-lovers’ minds across America now is…will college football return in the fall? Sports Illustrated thinks yes, based on the number of major schools that plan to resume normal operations. But that’s simpler said than done. Cancelling sports was the easy part. Opening them back up will involve tons of logistics, contingency plans, and not a little nerve.

Let’s hope—for the sake of our esprit de corps and our economy—that college football leads the way in sports’ grand and historic comeback.


A version of this analysis formerly appeared on ESPN.