This year, September in Canada means two things: pressure ramping up on the Toronto Blue Jays as they chase an elusive wild card spot for a berth in the MLB postseason; and economists crunching numbers to revise their forecasts of how steep a decline the economy could soon face.
Canada’s economy has stalled, according to Friday’s Statistics Canada report on real gross domestic product. GDP actually contracted in the second quarter of the year, surprising most economists and forecasters who hadn’t expected such a chill to take hold until the fall.
But Canada’s economy is cooling down just as the Toronto Blue Jays’ race for a playoff berth heats up.
As of Sept. 1, the Blue Jays’ playoff odds sat just below 50-50 at 44 per cent, according to analytics website FanGraphs. (They’re pegged at 2.4 per cent to win the World Series, if you want to know the long odds.)
A spate of recent injuries to stars such as shortstop Bo Bichette and a lacklustre offence hasn’t helped their chances lately as rivals charge for the MLB’s few coveted wild card spots.
For the Jays, that means there’s a critical lineup of games to play in September that could sway whether the city of Toronto — and the wider country — has a team in the postseason this year.
As Canadians face pressure from high interest rates and financial anxiety around a slowing economy, could the urge to spend on playoff tickets, travel and other experiences around the postseason be enough to lift the economy out of its doldrums?
Economists who spoke to Global News are doubtful that a Blue Jays playoff run itself is enough to completely stave off a possible recession, though a hypothetical postseason bid could be a welcome boost for businesses if Canadians opt to dip into their savings for some once-in-a-generation tickets.
Blue Jays in Heated Playoff Race
The idea that the Jays could move the needle on Canada’s economy doesn’t come from out of left field.
Statistics Canada highlighted in a GDP report last year that a boost to the country’s arts and entertainment sectors last October was driven by a 4.7 per cent monthly boost from spectator sports when the Blue Jays played just a couple extra games in the postseason that month.
For businesses that rely on the Blue Jays to drive customers their way, a playoff run would be a blessing ahead of further economic slowdowns expected in the fall.
“It would be huge,” says Greg Taylor, president and CEO of Steam Whistle Brewing.
Steam Whistle runs a brewery and beer garden steps from the Jays’ front door at the Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto.
While the area is full of tourist draws like the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium, Taylor tells Global News that Steam Whistle’s brewery is full of blue jersey-clad fans on game days from opening at 11 a.m. until well after the game lets out.
Some 80 per cent of business in the building is tied to tourism, Taylor estimates, including Canadian fans from outside Toronto and Americans who travel to see their respective team take on the Jays.
While he says Steam Whistle has been buoyed by recent moves such as Toronto allowing outdoor drinking in some city parks, Taylor notes that the beer industry as a whole has been in need of a boost as it’s still recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In that vein, he says every bit of help his brewery can get from extra foot traffic around the Rogers Centre come October will be a welcome boost.
“If they get a playoff run, it’ll be like August all over again for us. It’ll be very big,” Taylor says. “Our fingers are crossed, for sure.”
Will fans have the money to spend on the Jays?
Assuming the Jays remain competitive through September and playoff tickets come up for sale in Toronto come October, the organization will be stuck trying to convince consumers to spend on seats and travel just as many are starting to tighten their purse strings.
TD Bank’s latest credit and debit card spending report from Wednesday shows expenditures have been fairly flat over the past three months as higher interest rates deter spending on credit.
The bank noted in its report, however, that while spending on durable goods is especially slowing down, consumers continue to shell out for services and experiences. TD cautioned that spending momentum here, too, might come up against reality as price pressures bite in the fall.
“No doubt consumers are still ready to open their wallets to see Taylor Swift and Barbenheimer, but this category’s trend growth might be cresting,” the report said.
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Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, says he’s expecting consumer spending to be “flat” over the coming quarters. But he, too, said that persistent demand for experiences in the post-pandemic restrictions environment could see certain industries continue to benefit.
“The travel and tourism industries, industries like arts and entertainment, I think are still in that recovery mode,” he tells Global News.
For the Blue Jays’ part, the organization seems aware that fans are facing limits to their spending.
Fresh off renovations to Rogers Centre in the off-season, this year the team introduced $20 all-in ticket pricing for general admission to the new outfield districts.
Anuk Karunaratne, the Blue Jays’ executive vice-president of business operations, told Global News in a statement that these tickets were aimed at fans who want a “unique and versatile ballpark experience, featuring a low get-in price.”
Fans have bought up 95 per cent of tickets for the outfield districts so far this season, with sellouts in 55 of the 65 home games to-date, according to the statement.
The team is still figuring out what ticket offers for the hypothetical 2023 postseason will look like, but Karunaratne said the Jays will “look to offer similar value-centric options” in next season.
Is ‘Canada’s baseball team’ an economic engine?
Moshe Lander, a professor who teaches sports economics at Concordia University, says it’s entirely possible that a Jays playoff spot would convince Canadians to dip into their savings or put tickets on their credit card to make the trip to see the run.
That might spur a bit of extra economic activity in the third or fourth quarter of the year, he tells Global News, but in the long run, the GDP boost from any team’s playoff run is largely short-lived.
Pressures from persistent inflation at the grocery store and the Bank of Canada’s interest rate tightening cycle will eventually put an end to what’s been a surge of spending demand in the recovery from the pandemic, Lander argues. If not in October, that toll will come due later in the year, he says.
“A Blue Jays run might delay that conversion from spending to saving,” he says. “People might say, ‘Well, this is a one-off or the Jays haven’t been this far in 30 years. Let’s spend now and we’ll worry about the mess in January.’”
“The consequences have to be paid at some point,” he says.
Lander adds that when Canadians opt to put their money into Jays tickets and foot-long hotdogs at Rogers Centre, they’re also often forgoing other nights out at restaurants in the city to make the expense fit into their budgets.
He says that tourism dollars from travellers coming from outside the country can be a boon for the economy, but that when it’s fellow Canadians travelling from Montreal or Vancouver to see the Jays, Toronto might win but those cities would see associated drop-offs in local spending.
Lander compares the impact of the Blue Jays to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, which was credited with spurring economic rebounds in cities she visited along the way. When Swift brings the tour to Toronto in November 2024, the impact for Canada’s GDP will be muted if it’s mainly other Canadians travelling cross-country to see her, he argues.
“The economic activity is almost this, moving pieces around on a chess board — that if she’s drawing people from Montreal and Ottawa and up from Buffalo and Detroit, then yeah, there’s an economic boom in Toronto,” he says. “But those other cities are going to say, ‘where did our economic activity go?’”
While Antunes notes it’s impossible to perfectly compare any standalone months of the economy in a vacuum, he looked back at GDP figures from the Blue Jays’ 2016 playoff bid to see if there was a noticeable boost during that run. He found little conclusive evidence that the Jays made any tangible impact to the national economy, though countervailing factors might’ve disguised any such bump.
Antunes says that while a playoff run can result in a “blip” in economic activity one month, it’s usually followed by a dip in the months that come after.
At the same time as playoff baseball might inspire some to spend, headwinds from outside Canada such as a weakening in China’s economy will likely have more of a say in whether or not the country falls into a recession, he says.
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“As big as the Blue Jays are and as many people as that might attract, it’s going to be very hard to move the needle on the national economy,” Antunes says.
For Taylor, the flurry of activity around the Jays at his own beer garden is only one part of the economic impact he sees around a possible playoff run.
Restaurants across the country in particular remain downtrodden post-pandemic, with sales for many struggling to recover to pre-COVID levels, he notes. Restaurants Canada said after a survey of its operators in July that 84 per cent are reporting lower profits so far in 2023 compared to 2019, with half operating at a loss or breaking even.
Any reason for Canadians to gather and keep local businesses like sports bars flourishing as storm clouds gather on the horizon is an idea worth getting behind, Taylor argues.
“If you can’t go to the Jays game, everyone’s in there in their local pubs watching it. And it’s just so good for the human spirit, let alone for industry,” he says.
“It’s Canada’s baseball team.”
No pressure, Blue Jays.