Giving 'Em Fitz: Fans staying home to watch sports

A fan braves the cold weather during the seventh inning of an baseball game between the White Sox and Twins. (Paul Beaty/AP)

I walk daily at a mall. It's warmer in winter, cooler in summer, and the shoppers and ever-changing store windows are a welcome distraction from the exercise.

But every week, or so it seems, there are fewer shoppers and more empty windows.

Not far away from the moribund mall our neighborhood movie theater was recently converted into an auto dealership. Though only 14 years old, the amenities-laden multiplex proved to be a poor competitor for Netflix and a 21st-century den.

Retail stores and theaters are no match for the combination of indolence and the Internet. Why waste gas and time and risk a human connection when we can do it all in the blissful glow of digital isolation?

Technology is extinguishing interaction. In making constant love to our smartphones, we make it harder to be touched by others.

It's not much different in sports. There, the digital monster - like the Hindu god Shiva, a creator and destroyer of worlds - is coming for live attendance, too.

Those who can't imagine ever preferring streamed or TV games to live sporting events are probably the same dinosaurs who still like newsprint with their morning coffee.

Sure, televised sports have been around for 60-some years and professional sports attendance has exploded. But fans have never had as many good reasons to stay away.

Constantly improving television and computer technologies keep making the remote experience more lifelike and appealing. Live-streaming options are ubiquitous and, at this point anyway, still reasonably priced., for example, offers access to every one of its 2,430 regular-season games for $130.

Then there's the convenience factor.

Anyone more inclined to buy a hammer online than at the local hardware store isn't likely to opt for the transportation and traffic headaches, the time investment, and the interfacing with rowdy strangers that sporting attendance demands.

And for those who do still enjoy the live sports experience, the increasingly prohibitive cost of attending is a growing deterrent.

Team Marketing Report compiles a fan cost index - which measures what an average family of four must spend to attend, park, and modestly dine at a professional sporting event - for each major professional sports team. In 2013, the price tag at a Boston Red Sox game was $337. That figure was $635 to see the Dallas Cowboys live and $660 to watch the New York Knicks.

Sports is simply assuming the same two-tiered shape as the rest of America.

Soon only the wealthy or the terminally foolish will be able to attend in person. The rest of us will be forced to consume our sports more cheaply, less personally.

But no matter how they choose to watch, both groups will be paying more for the privilege. Just as ticket, parking, and concession prices are soaring, so are the bills we pay for TV and computer access.

"The standard [cable] package that households receive is skyrocketing in cost at a point in the U.S. economy when we have increasingly lopsided distribution of income," sports economist Andrew Zimbalist recently told USA Today. "Those two things have to collide."

And, as Phillies fans who also are Comcast subscribers recently learned, the biggest driver of cable TV increases is live sports.

Meanwhile, the NFL, which produced an estimated $10 billion in revenue in 2013, has plans to increase that total to $25 billion by 2027. Whatever steps the league takes to get there, be certain they will include higher ticket prices.

Not coincidentally, while its TV ratings and ticket prices have gone through the roof, NFL attendance has been impacted. Between 2007 and 2011, for example, total league attendance declined by nearly 800,000.

The situation is much the same in baseball. This 2014 season is only days old, and already teams such as the Rays, Mets, and White Sox - the latter two large-market clubs - are complaining about diminished crowds.

On Wednesday, when the Twins met the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, the actual attendance appeared to have been in the hundreds. It certainly didn't approach the announced crowd of 10,625.

The average cost of a White Sox ticket is $26, $2 less than the baseball-wide average. Across town, Cubs tickets average $44. With prices like that, it won't be long until the bums can no longer afford the bleachers.

Higher prices don't necessarily guarantee a better product. Just look at Broadway. Even bad seats there now go for $175. And for that, instead of fresh musical comedy, theatergoers are subjected to endless revivals and repackaged versions of popular songbooks and movies.

Despite all these ominous trends, we're not likely any time soon to see major sporting events confined to soulless studios.

But it seems apparent that every year the number of fans less financially able to attend games regularly and those more content to watch them secondhand are growing.

And that will at some point exact a price. The more we deprive ourselves of the shared experience of live sporting events, the more we will be diminished.

We'll lose those emotional sinews that are formed and strengthened by that great American ritual of going to a game with a son or daughter.

We'll never know the thrill of rising as one, of uniting with tens of thousands of like-minded citizens, in a full-throated roar of civic joy.

We'll miss all those sensual experiences that live sports produces - the smell of hot dogs, the sound of sneaks squealing on hardwood floors, the shiver of an ovation, the wistful sight of youthful grace.

"A moment of our lives stands stock still," Donald Hall wrote about attending games, "like all the moments of all of us here, irrecoverable in fact but secure in our memories."