I would call the disappearance of Ringling Brothers a civilizational advance, except I am not sure we are living in a time that merits this phrase. In any case, I found this 2013 article on circus economics interesting:
Gibson and Petrov travel with Ringling’s “gold unit” through smaller markets like Chattanooga, where the intimate one-ring circus seems more supportable than the the three-ring spectacle that tours big cities.
Gibson describes the economic impact on Chattanooga: 40 of the 120 circus employees stay at a local hotel; 24 travel in RVs that are parked in a nearby field.
Each day, truckloads of hay and produce are hauled to McKenzie Arena to feed the animals. The circus vet banned peanuts from the elephants’ diet for being too fatty but allows them an occasional loaf of unsliced bread or some marshmallows for treats. On performance days, a local caterer feeds the human employees, or they buy their meals in restaurants or grocery stores.
The circus carries its own washing machines and dryers, computers and props. It has a free day care center with two teachers for employees to use and a free, fully staffed school for K-12 students.
The gold unit hits 42 cities in an average year, which means 46 to 48 weeks on the road. Gibson said a lot of circus employees visit Ruby Falls and the Tennessee Aquarium when they get to Chattanooga.
But the schedule does not leave much time for socializing outside of the circus. Many performers are third- or fourth-generation Ringling employees who marry other Ringling staffers and raise their kids on the road. Petrov and his wife, Victoria, have a 17-year-old son who grew up attending the traveling school.
Maybe it was just a poorly run business, but might there be a more systemic read on the troubles of Ringling? The company itself cited declining attendance and high operating costs as factors, but of course that can be made more specific. Here are a few options:
1. It is now cheaper to bring people to spectacular events than to have the spectacular events travel around. Maybe it makes more sense to build something more permanent into Las Vegas or Orlando. Cirque Soleil is experiencing economic problems as well. But note that “Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live,” among other endeavors, still will be up and running.
2. Kids get enough drama through social media.
3. Circus jobs stink, and it is increasingly hard to attract and retain the talent. Might there be a visa/immigration issue as well?
4. Circuses are mostly boring, and some of the highlights can be watched, in one form or another, on YouTube. Even as a kid I was bored by the circus I saw at Madison Square Garden, relative say to watching Fischer vs. Spassky on TV. What’s the actual drama in a circus?
David Burge offers marketing comments: “Ringling Bros was mid-market brand killed by upscale competors like Cirque de Soleil, downscale knockoffs like Washington DC”
5. Fewer circus animals, including fewer or no elephants (none for Ringling since May 2016), hurts circus demand by a significant amount.
6. I don’t know if contemporary circuses still degrade women, the disabled, and other groups, but of course the contemporary world won’t sit still for that any more, not in any sphere of life.
Those are just speculations, what other factors might be operating?