Strange Things Lurk Under the Hood of the Payroll Numbers

As the monthly nonfarm payroll employment numbers repeatedly blew past economists’ forecasts over the past couple of years, one small sector in particular stood out. In 2023, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, sports teams and clubs accounted for just 0.1% of US payroll jobs but 2.6% of all job growth. As of April, they employed 75% more people, on a seasonally adjusted basis, than before the pandemic.

boom in sports jobs

When I first stumbled across this apparent sports-employment boom a couple of months ago, I wondered what could be driving it. Was it the rise of sports analytics? The proliferation of weird new sports leagues? Something else? (It’s not the professionalization of college sports — those jobs appear all to be counted under private and public education.)

Happily, I didn’t write anything about this. Happily because now I suspect that the sudden sharp increase in sports-team employment since early 2023 is mostly a statistical fluke.

The monthly payroll numbers, aka the Current Employment Statistics, are derived from a survey of 119,000 businesses and government agencies covering 629,000 distinct worksites, aka establishments. The survey data are adjusted by estimates, made with something called a “net birth death model,” of the number of jobs created by new business establishments not represented in the survey minus jobs lost at establishments that closed down. The BLS later benchmarks these numbers against the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, which is compiled from state unemployment insurance records that cover more than 95% of US jobs. And right now, the QCEW, available through December in not-seasonally-adjusted form, is painting a wildly different picture of sports team employment since early 2023 than the monthly payroll survey: