Mickey Orloff knows an economic slowdown when he sees one. The Foster City (Calif.) Little League president says this season kicked off with eight of his 50 teams failing to come up with sponsors. Now, teams in this Silicon Valley community like the Cubs and the Indians are having to go through a flurry of fund-raisers to scrounge up money for gear and uniforms. "It's an extremely unusual situation," Orloff laments. "In the past, we've had double sponsors for some teams." Almost as troubling, some businesses that have committed to paying the $275 sponsor's fee have yet to come through. "We've had to second-bill and we may have to third-bill," he says. "The checks are coming in slowly."
Poor kids. They're the latest, if hardly the most tragic victims of the economic slump that's wreaking havoc across the country. From the heart of the New Economy to the industrial centers of the Old, signs of the slowdown are on the rise everywhere.
SECOND HAND. Indeed, back in Cincinnati, Mary McGregor has a suggestion for those Silicon Valley sluggers: Forget about shiny new bats and balls. McGregor, who runs a trio of Play It Again Sports franchises there, says business is booming as bargain-hunters trade in their worn-out equipment for slightly weathered bats, clubs, and rackets. "People are looking for a way to economize," says McGregor, adding that her foot traffic is up 10%.
There are plenty of deals on used computer gear, too, thanks largely to the flood of stuff being sold on the cheap by dead and dying dot-coms. Charles England, a 24-year-old in Newport, R.I., recently snared a Cisco Systems Inc. router on eBay (EBAY ) for $300. Purchased new, it would cost about $700. "You can program it to do anything," says England. "It does a lot of things that I don't use it for, but it's nice to have," he says.
Another telling sign of economic trouble, according to some: Movie attendance is soaring, as it has in past downturns. Sure, going to the movies, at up to $10 a pop, is no deal. But it's far cheaper than taking the significant other to the theater, or hauling the family to a pro ballgame. "2001 looks phenomenal," with attendance up 20% over last year, says Bruce J. Olson, president of Marcus Theatres Corp., a Milwaukee-based movie chain with 49 multiplex theaters. "I've been in the business for 27 years," he says. "Compared with other economic downturns, this is tracking on par."
For the affluent, there's clearly an upside to the downturn: life is less harried. At Danube, Manhattan's hot Austrian eatery where dinner and drinks for two can cost $200, the wait for a table used to be measured in weeks. Now, says reservationist Elcira Pérez, patrons "can call on the Wednesday they want to dine and probably get in." Rooms in posh hotels are sitting empty, too: the pricey Park Hyatt is offering $100 meal credits to woo weekend visitors to Chicago and other cities. It's much the same in Silicon Valley. Says Intel Corp. (INTC ) Chief Executive Craig R. Barrett: "It's easier to get a cab at San Jose airport, and there's less traffic on the road."
But even for the well-heeled, whipping out the plastic whatever the price is no longer an automatic reflex. With a new Administration in town, no one is cutting back on dinner parties in the nation's capital. Instead, says one Washington-based caterer, they're cutting corners by serving up wine at, say, $30 a bottle, rather than $60. In Chicago, "we've had the lightest foot traffic in years," frets Lake Forest (Ill.) interior decorator Carolyn Finn, who caters to an affluent North Shore crowd. And in Beverly Hills, Calif., plastic surgeon Dr. Peter B. Fodor has also seen the future, and it isn't pretty. He has watched with dismay as demand slackens for liposuction, breast implants, face-lifts, and tummy tucks. "More patients don't keep appointments," laments the surgeon. "Probably the stock market has gone down that day." As Nasdaq goes, so go his implants. And so goes the country.
By Joseph Weber in Chicago, with Ann Therese Palmer in Lake Forest, Ill., and Mark Hyman in Baltimore