Traditional sport, it seems, is increasingly struggling to connect with younger generations.
Only 23% of Gen Z describe themselves as passionate sports fans, compared with 42% of millennials, according to a survey assessing sport fandom in America; a significant fall and one that looks set to decline further in the next decade.
An additional survey highlighted that 35% of US parents with children born from 2013-2017 said they lost interest in sports during the pandemic.
In response, sports organisations are rapidly spinning-up digital platforms and personalised products aimed at attracting, retaining, and diversifying their fanbases.
According to YPulse research, 70% of 13-37 year olds say that they don’t need to watch sports events to keep up with what’s going on. Many prefer to watch highlights or bitesize content rather than a full match. We’re also seeing growth in the type of content that audiences enjoy, with a greater variety to watch live or on streaming channels than ever before.
Whilst younger generations’ appetite for watching a full match is declining, content consumption as a whole is increasing, with 30-60 minute streaming platform series and social media content growing in popularity. As a result, there is a rush amongst clubs, leagues and governing bodies to respond to fans’ insatiable demand for content by partnering with OTT platforms to produce docu-series.
Traditional sports formats are also changing to appeal to a wider spectrum of generations and fans. The Hundred (cricket), super tiebreaks (tennis), RugbyX and 3x3 basketball are all examples of the shifts in fan preferences, resulting in new formats and rules being applied to traditional sports. Supplemented by slick digital content and social media engagement, format innovation is targeted at appealing to younger audiences’ preferences and habits.
Stadium experiences are also transforming to meet fan expectations, with technological, sustainability and safety related enhancements at the core. Bringing the live stadium experience closer to those who can’t or won’t attend (with international and sustainable minded audiences) is also becoming an increasing focus for organisations looking to grow their fanbases. Digitally connected stadia and virtual/augmented reality in-home experiences will complement the fan experience, but these must be seamless and deliver real fan value to become truly mainstream and there is much work to be done here.
Around half of Gen Z males in the US spend more time following non-traditional sports than traditional sports. This is challenging ‘traditional’ sports to evolve to attract younger audiences. The introduction of new Olympic sports in Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024, such as climbing, skateboarding, surfing and breaking, is a direct response to the growth of these sports and aiming to draw younger and more diverse audiences to engage with the Games.
A common denominator of high-growth sports is their more compact and action-packed format when compared with traditional sports. For example, Padel – a form of tennis played in an enclosed space – is the fastest growing sport in the UK with younger players finding it more exciting, sociable and easier to play than tennis.
With participation and player dynamics changing, sports organisations are having to go back to basics to develop core digital capabilities to increase recruitment and retention of grassroots players. Making it easy for people to sign-up, find and book facilities online will be paramount to increasing participation as users expect a frictionless experience.
Younger generations are growing up in a ‘purpose-focused’ world, challenging brands to reflect their values such as a commitment to sustainability, equality and inclusion. The race for talent is likely to continue at pace and younger generations in particular will seek out roles in sports organisations that have an authentic purpose and an inclusive working environment.
The race for talent is likely to be particularly competitive for digital experts as new entrants and new innovations enter into the market. Private equity investment is playing an increasingly active role in professional sport and this is likely to soon filter down to grassroots sport, too.
As the commercialisation of sports organisations develops, particularly at a grassroots level, the profile of full-time employees and volunteers within a workforce will also change.
Sports organisations must embrace the change and importantly put themselves in a position where they are agile to respond to the changing demands of the next generation.
The next decade will be crucial in determining the future success and legacy of some sports. Whilst the future consists of many uncertainties and potential challenges, it also will provide great opportunities for the sports industry to take an active role in addressing the next generation’s most pressing concerns: climate change and sustainability, health and wellbeing, and societal issues.