The economics of the circus as a traveling city

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?


I see a lot of ads on TV for touring Chinese stage show extravaganzas -- they usually have a slogan like "5,000 years of culture on one stage" suggesting their target market is Chinese parents worried their kids are growing up too Barbarian-American.

A low-rent Mexican mini-circus comes through North Hollywood periodically.

Judging from those examples, it seems like Ringling never quite worked out how to exploit the ethnic nostalgia angle. The circus was a big part of 19th Century American pop culture -- e.g., in phrases like "I've seen the elephant." But how do you make that pay off?

You must be referring to the "Shen Yun" dance show thing, which I've seen lots of ads for too. Based on where I'd see the ads and the nature of the ads and promotional material, it seemed to me that they were trying to aim for non-Chinese audiences:

That's the dance troupe of the Falun Gong (a.k.a. Falun Dafa) religious cult, which is banned in mainland China.

Is there such a thing as a religious practice which is not a "cult" to those who disapprove?

Reportedly, many get dragged off (or lured) into mental wards much like schizophrenics who would speak openly of (insert here). Who knows what happens to them after that. I don't imagine they exit the ward with a contact list for high quality job prospects.

Children are now scared of clowns.

Great point.


CNN in January: The clown show is out of business! Another victory for animal-rights activists over evil corporations!

Fox News:"Killer clown sightings spread to Florida, Virginia, Colorado".

'Kids get enough drama through social media.'

Yes, your typical 5 year old is totally awash in social media these days. Or something.

You'd be surprised.

Increased concern for animal welfare comes to mind as a factor. Shamu and decline of Seaworld is part of this also. I still remember seeing elephants chained up when I was little and struck me even then. Same with Tigers, and the famous performer Roy (of Siegfried and Roy) who was injured by one. The soring of Tennessee Walking horses falls under a similar umbrella.

As I read your article I also thought about a time I was at a Professional Bull Riding event and saw a man nearly killed when he was thrown off and the bull drove his head into the ground. I understand why people go to see the danger and skill, but it's uncomfortable being there and makes me reevaluate what my money is supporting. The same may happen if an NFL player dies on the field from a hit.

"The same may happen if an NFL player dies on the field from a hit"

As opposed to dozens of NFL players dying every year with CTE?

The immediacy of the impact would be different, I believe, yes.

I'm reminded of my dad mentioning shortly before his death that he used to like to watch boxing, but by then he thought it was a terrible sport. I suppose it's a generational thing -- trained animals, girls in skimpy outfits, and violent risky stuff are just not entertainment anymore. The last showgirl show in Vegas has already closed, and I would not bet on the future of the NFL.

Boxing has been replaced by the even more barbaric UFC, so I don't think that a low thirst for violence in sport is behind this.

I might agree on "trained animals" but anyone who watches music videos or who has been following the rise of mixed martial arts (aka cage-fighting) might dispute the girls in skimpy outfits and violent contact sports part. What might change is that people (ok, let's make that "middle class men") might be less willing to admit to enjoying either of these things in certain situations.

As for the NFL, football is such an important part of America's national culture -- and especially a part of red state American culture when it comes to college football -- that any attempt to drastically change the rules is going to become the subject of the next culture war.

For societal benefit, I've decided to program a BCI machine-trained response to promote excitement for anything which includes violence and reference to women in the same sentence, and then to auto-replay whatever response arises.

It's not criminal if the people targeted by that don't want it, is it?

Is UFC more barbaric? Many less blows to the head and shorter bouts, so I highly doubt it. There is less hand padding, but that may result in a lot less head blows as bouts finish earlier and it is well known that head blows that do not lead to loss of consciousness are still damaging.

This play in last year's Bengals meltdown vs. the Steelers is the thought that sprang to mind. The good thing is that most players don't try to hit like that anymore, but clearly the possibility is there.

Wikipedia lists 35 deceased players with confirmed or suspected CTE. However, 10 lived at least into their 70s and a number of others into their 60s. A number of those who died young did so in accidental deaths or suicides, which may or may not be attributable to CTE.

Yeah, it's a serious problem for football, but the measurable affect on mortality is far less than dozens of premature deaths per year.

Certainly a career in the NFL is far safer and more lucrative than being a coal miner, working on a fishing boat, or even farming. It is dangerous relative to other jobs that require a college degree, but how many NFL players would have college degrees if they weren't playing football?

The cruelty of performing animals is generally over-exagerrated. Particularly for intelligent and active animals. Visit a big cat habitat with a show. The cats genuinely seem to love it. The structure and discipline gives their lives purpose. In contrast to most zoo animals who lazily lie around being fed easy meals.

Not unlike humans. Simply putting a man on the dole, where his daily needs are met without any higher purpose or focus, is a recipe to crush his spirit with existential ennui. Just look at how most lottery winners turn out.

I agree that having animals perform in a show is not necessarily cruelty. But what about the rest of the lives of traveling elephants, etc.? They are confined in small spaces much of the time.

It is ridiculous to assert that large, wild animals enjoy being captured, confined and forced to perform certain acts on the command of humans. You can google the terrible conditions and training methods of big cat shows and circuses if you want to know more. But your assumptions are idiotic.

Well, what is a "big cat habitat"?

... I don't understand how they can have a fully staffed K-12 school with just 140 employees.

How about if they switch to a gig model, with contractors (and backups) in each city bidding to get trained and play the various roles. They can get move equipment around with few staff. Just doing away with the school and daycare seems to me like they would save a lot of money.

The circus-derived saying "see the elephant" is one of the more ramifying figures of speech in 19th Century American vernacular. It was used to mean journey by wagon train to the gold fields of California, fight in a battle in the Civil War, visit the red light district, etc. It usually meant something extremely exciting to look forward to, like going to the circus for the first time, but that comes at a considerable cost.

It's one of the more redolent of all Americanisms.

See the elephant is also in reference to my BBC

Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were fond of bear baiting. Times have changed.

Still waiting for Mr. Trump's tweet on the matter, I bet he will come up with a solution to save American jobs lost because liberals lobbied hard to save African animals despite its dramatic implications to hard-working American families!

7. American children very rarely leave the house for general recreation. This is a combination of a massive decline in "unstructured free time", and more compelling electronic entertainment (social media, video games and streaming content). The average American child now spends less time outside than the average prisoner.

I doubt it's true that children now go out to see some form of major show or event less often than they did in the heyday of circuses. There are just many more entertainment options now: concerts, sports events, festivals, etc.

Baseball stadiums and movie theaters are shrinking in capacity as bigger seats are installed. The Cleveland Indians current ballpark has less than half of the capacity of their old "Major League" era ballpark. Baseball is doing well in revenue terms, but attendance has been edging downward. The decline in tickets sold in the domestic movie theater business is a little more noticeable, but Hollywood overall is doing fine.

Total baseball attendance now is much higher than it was in baseball's golden age. There are more teams, more games, and also more fans per game now than in previous decades. I think the smaller stadiums are just because teams realize that a smaller, fuller stadium is more profitable than a larger, often half-full venue.

Attendance is down slightly compared to about 10 years ago, but I'm not sure that is due to a broader cultural trend, or short-term fluctuation.

Do we see a similar decline in other forms of live entertainment? I see more and more live events than ever before, including small theaters, small music venues and so on? Aquariums, cinemas, zoos, museums and art galleries always seem busy to me as well. Here is a recent report from the UK on leisure trends;
So I suspect this is just about the Ringling brand and type of entertainment rather than any social trend around electronic entertainment (despite my personal experience with my children, who would rather cut off their legs than go without social media for a day!).

In St. Paul, Minnesota there's a high school that's focused on learning circus techniques. They put on a circus every summer that's very well attended and a great entertainment.

"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?" What's the actual drama in a game of chess compared to football or basketball ?

Yes, I'm a fan of this blog, and willing to give a lot of benefit of the doubt, but that's too much to let pass. And tigers are freaking awesome. And a motorcycle in a ball. And a star clown (Bello, David Larible). And the wheel of death. (Haven't been in over 10 years, but took the kids several times when they were young, and they loved it.)

Yeah, the motorcycles inside the ball is cool. As is the guy walking inside and outside of the inverted pendulum cage-thing as it swings down up and over. The trapezists are fun to watch also.

"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."


The urbanization in the US is another reason, if you live in a small town the circus coming to town is a very big deal.

Did the circus really do this back in the day or is Tyler just mood affilition-ing?

Young, attractive women displaying what makes them attractive are an affront to a certain species of old people. I wonder if he'd have the same wounded propriety watching a Pride Parade. Or Freaknik. Or a rap video.

I remember seeing clowns with dwarfism (presumably that's the "disability" Tyler is talking about), and the running gag was the wilier dwarf clowns getting the drop on the bigger clowns. Not sophisticated and probably a little crude, but I don't remember the gag being the dwarf per se. Maybe a commenter with dwarfism can provide perspective.

There's probably a significant portion of the general population that's no longer willing to consider the existence of the unusual because it upsets rather than interests them. This has negatively affected the lives of carnival people, too.

The demise of an institution that helped form a national treasure like Penn Jillette (an alum of the Ringling Brothers clown school, see this video ) cannot, in any way, be considered "a civilization advance."

Amen, brother. Couldn't have put it better...and now I won't have to try! :-)

A century ago the acrobatics in the trapezoid, tightrope should have been awe-inspiring. Indeed, I went to the circus last summer and watched a performance of 6 guys on a bicycle and a tight cable and it was awesome.

However competition is fierce. How many other shows are derivative of circus? Any monster truck show is quite similar to circus. Have you heard about Pastrana's Nitro Circus? ESPN's X-Games? All the young guys doing acrobatics on skateboards, BMX bycicles or motorbikes are as fit and superhuman-like as the people doing trampoline acrobatics a century ago. Perhaps what changed is that a century ago circus performers were regarded as superhuman. Today, any suburban kid can get a BMX bike and follow the steps of the inspirational figure of his choice. I prefer our time were every kid can be a mediocre circus performer instead of a passive consumer. Only a bunch will become pros but a lot of us grew up playing with bikes, skateboards and inline skates. The new circus heroes are Evel Knievel, Matt Hoffman, Travis Pastrana.

I went to a circus last summer. No degradation of women or disabled and no animals, not even dogs or horses. The show was a mix of acrobatics and clown sketches. The clowns were mocking a really short guy during the whole show. This guy was always supporting other acts and his lines were always self-deprecating. In the final act he helps to assemble a huge trampoline. A tall and fit guy in a shiny costume orders the short guy to test the trampoline by jumping. Then the plot twist came and audience went crazy. The short guy that was acting in support characters as old, drunk or clumsy was doing somersaults at 6-8 meters in the air with no safety net at the trampoline borders. Even in the Olympics they put some pads around the trampoline, not this time. Absolutely impressive. I loved this act, they showed that circus is not only elephants, raw acrobatics or throwing pies. They had a plot.

Ps. Just went once to Cirque de Soleil and it feels so....platic and prefab. Almost a Disney show. Characters are as interchangeable as car pieces. A great production but I can't remember any remarkable individual performance.

Usually there's a story/plot with the main clown. We were big fans of David Larible and Bello at RBBB, and Grandma at the Big Apple Circus.

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.

Pretentious much? Even Tyler must be aware that he is an intellectual freak and his personal preferences are completely irrelevant to the popularity or lack thereof of the circus.

I confess, I had much the same reaction. I am generally in agreement with Professor Cowen, but when I find him to be off-target, it's never by a little.

This post is one of those periodic instances where I read it, read it again, read it a third time to make absolutely sure, and then shake my head and say to myself, "Who are you, and what have you done with the smart, sensible, insightful guy who usually writes this blog ?!?"

I thought it was a subtle joke.

Status anxiety is a powerful thing.

You can expect "sensible" to go increasingly out the window over the next four years.

If it was a joke, it is quite a good one. I just never noticed that TC had a sense of humor.

Also, one should not have to remind a social scientist that you can't explain a variable with a constant. The fact that circuses have, purportedly, always bored Tyler can't explain why the circus is closing now.

In the 19th century the elephants were one of the main attractions of the circus because they were the archetype of rare and exotic beasts.

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the phrase "seen the elephant" –

In many ways the MR Comment Section is a type of circus



The Fantastically Frumpy Art Deco- Don't worry kids, he's can't actually hurt you over the internet.

Jaded Jan- His sarcastic one-liners laconically lay down the smack.

The Amazing Anti-Gnostic- He may be a racist, but he has a heart of gold!

The Only Virtuous Circus Performer- She will resurrect Communism right before your very eyes!

AND FINALLY....4ChanMan and his ferocious BBCs! Did you think your wife loves you? 4ChanMan's comments will soon make you think twice, you cuck!


I meant its a freak show except all the freaks are cucks

This post is outstanding, Anon. More posters here need a sense of humor.

First they came for the elephants and I didn't speak up, then they came for football. Football? Yes, I recently read an article with the prediction that, one day, not far away, football would be played in empty stadiums, the only fans in attendance via television/smart phone/video. For someone who enjoys travel, I think Cowen misses the reason the circus was at one time so popular: travel. Yes, every boy dreamed of joining the circus and traveling the world. Of course, that was at a time there were no or few television sets, no or few airports, no interstate highways, no Holiday Inns. It may be difficult to believe, but there was such a time. During my lifetime, no less. Today, travel is as easy as, well, virtual reality: one "attends" the circus, a football game, a river cruise through Europe without ever leaving home. And speaking of home, ever wondered where circus entertainers and employees go when they retire? That's right, Florida. There's a place between Tampa and Sarasota that has long been the place where old circus employees go to retire. It's a bazaar place with even more bazaar characters, such as "Lobster Boy", who had an unfortunate ending to his unfortunate life. [For those not familiar with Sarasota, there are many buildings and parks named "Ringling".] And speaking of animal acts, the Westminster Dog Show is less than a month away. No elephants, although some of the dog trainers/handlers are almost as big as elephants.

Just as fascinating as the retirement home for people who worked in the circus were the retirement homes for the animals who worked in the circus. Those of us old enough to remember traveling US Hwy 1 or 301, those two-lane highways that an through small towns and were littered with gift shops and cheap small motels, will remember the "retirement homes" for the animals, nasty little places operated by nasty old men with old and often sick animals. I still travel those backwoods highways and occasionally come across one of those retirement homes for the animals. They have long since been closed and are difficult to spot because they are overgrown with trees and vines. But they are still there, no doubt occupied by the ghosts of the poor animals who spent their final days there.

I am reminded of Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes", ostensibly a children's book which reads quite well for adults also.

The real pull of the story were these strange exotic performers who roll into town on a train. The imagery is vivid, and sparks the imagination in a manner which I am unsure could resonate today.

I think it's been quite a long time since circuses were popular mass entertainment. Even when I was a kid in the 70s, a circus was more in the category of 'a traditional thing you should try to take your kids to once'. Which is exactly how many times I've been (my wife and I never took our own kids). This feels like nothing more than the end of a long, slow fade-out.

The Circus is all around you, so they lost out to better entertainment.

If I want to go someplace to smell elephant feces,

I would rather go to a political convention.

And, besides, not all the hucksters and con men work at the circus,

Some will bark or tweet that they will

Make American Great Again.

Free the glutens!

Serious question for the comments: do you really use the phrase seen the elephant? I have never encountered anyone use that phrase in my time of Internet trolling or traveling.

Also a lot of supposed love for the circus here. Many people are offended that Tyler has always found them boring. And that makes sense, really. First goes the circus next goes the church. For much the same reasons too.

Well, I find watching chess boring. We're all adults here (the teenage Indian prodigy gave up blogging years ago at this point), we can accept the fact that we don't like each others interests.

I do reserve the right to mock Tyler for his increasingly ridiculous signaling, though.

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.

Tyler obviously does not watch a lot of Latin American television.

He enjoys their restaurants. That should be enough for you.

I have seen Barnum and Bailey perform three times in the last five years. Twice it was the big show that tours big cities, once it was the smaller show that tours smaller markets. I didn't notice any degrading of women, I have no idea where Tyler got that.

A lot of the show was acrobatics, which frankly I found profoundly boring. The best part for me is always the motorcycle stunts. They saved this for last, with very good reason. These were thrilling and kept me on the edge of my seat.

The best animal routine was the trained dogs: poodles. Unlike many circus animals, the dogs seemed to be having fun performing. I'd say the big cats looked like they were having the least amount of fun, the dogs the most amount of fun, and the elephants somewhere inbetween.

But mostly, when I went to the circus, I felt out of place. Because there I was as a 20-something year old guy, and all around me were people with kids. The vendors were all hawking stuff aimed at kids. It was hard to find t-shirts in sizes that were not for kids.

I remember being a kid and asking my parents to go to the circus. You know what I wanted to see? Lions, tigers, elephants, camels...I didn't care a lick for clowns, I could see Bozo on TV every morning. I wanted to see animals. I can easily believe a story where lack of animals leads to kids not wanting to go leads to adults not buying tickets.

Liberals kill another great American institution.

You don't have to be a liberal to be concerned about the way animals are (were) treated in the circus.

We should be concerned, but maybe it wasn't so bad.

While that is bad misconduct, it isn't a finding that there was no animal mistreatment.

The details may be up for dispute (and I have no doubt that some animal rights groups exaggerate). But I don't think it is disputed that circus animals spend much of their lives confined in small spaces, and that seems like the biggest problem.

I had a hotdog and 3 beers last time I went to circus. Perhaps the US should stop being so puritan with alcohol.

" I’d say the big cats looked like they were having the least amount of fun, the dogs the most amount of fun, and the elephants somewhere inbetween. "

Rampant anthropomorphism.

Civilization is advancing just fine, Tyler.

The status of university professors? Not so much.

And we're fine with that.

The circus died for the same reason poetry died: what people used to get from them, they can now get more easily elsewhere.

This was the LOL takeaway quote from the article:

David Burge offers marketing comments: “Ringling Bros was mid-market brand killed by upscale competors [sic[ like Cirque de Soleil, downscale knockoffs like Washington DC”

Yes, DC is a zoo.

Well, there's still Circus World in Baraboo, WI. Although I think their finances have become somewhat shakey:

Been there. Not bad, kids love it.

According to Forbes Magazine, only 15% of revenues of Feld Entertainment is from the Circus. Attendance has been declining for years.

Cowen, I bet you don't believe in Santa Claus either.

“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. ”

If there is a more convincing way to write, “my cultural tastes are so weird that they are useless in explaining or understanding my fellow man”, I have never read it.

"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." Except when running for president of the US, then you can be as degrading as you want.

chained up bears are depressing. For my family it was the animal abuse that turned us off.

People's eyes have been opened--thanks to PETA and others, the public now knows that Ringling keeps animals chained and caged when they aren't performing and beats them to make them perform tricks.

Ringling brought their demise upon themselves by having a morally bankrupt business. It elates me to no end that the public isn't buying into their abuse anymore. Watch out SeaWorld - you're next.

It's long overdue. Forcing animals to live in cages and chains and beating them until they obey is ethically indefensible. Not a single parent I know would take their kids to an animal circus. Why would anyone want to encourage children to cheer cruelty to animals?

Here's an article about one of the world's greatest jugglers walking away from performing to make a decent living refinishing concrete floors.

Good riddance! I can still remember my first protest against Ringling Bros. It was about 24 years ago. It's awful that animals had to endure such abuse and exploitation for so long, but I knew that all of my friends at PETA wouldn't give up until this day came. SeaWorld is next!

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