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Rob Oller | Pro sport's success to be determined by age of viewers

July 06,2017 22:17

When wondering which sports will rise and fall over the coming decades, the GPS coordinates begin and end with dollar signs. That likely means sports like baseball, golf and NASCAR had better brace for a downturn, while soccer and the NBA should ...

Wednesday
Jul 5, 2017 at 8:02 PM Jul 5, 2017 at 8:02 PM

Follow the money.
When wondering which sports will rise and fall over the coming decades, the GPS coordinates begin and end with dollar signs. That likely means sports like baseball, golf and NASCAR had better brace for a downturn, while soccer and the NBA should prepare to pocket the cash that comes from increased popularity among younger fans.
A report released last week by Sports Business Journal detailed the Nielsen TV viewing data of 24 professional sports. The study, conducted by Magna Global, revealed an uptick in the average age of viewers as younger fans shift to digital platforms. Gen X’ers and millennials who do watch via traditional TV are increasingly turning from “old-school” sports like baseball and golf to soccer and the NBA.
What does it all mean, other than I’m feeling older and more out of touch? Again, follow the money. Advertisers tend to target younger viewers — except in golf, where it makes sense to cater to an aging and more upscale audience — which means those viewers will dictate the future of popularity and culture that impacts sports viability.
Boiled down, soccer skewed as the youngest major sport on TV, with a median age of 40 for Major League Soccer viewers in 2016, up from 39 in 2006. The PGA Tour tilts the oldest, as the average age jumped from 59 in 2006 to 64 in 2016.
Anecdotally, it makes sense that soccer and golf are at opposite ends of the age spectrum. Golf participation is down, while youth soccer has been ubiquitous in suburbia for more than a generation.
But participation does not automatically equal popularity. The NFL remains No. 1 in ratings despite a large portion of its audience — i.e., women — having never played football. But common sense dictates that familiarity breeds a more robust following.
Also, in an increasingly short-attention-span society, the longer a sport takes to play, the less likely it will appeal to younger generations. Golf and baseball are struggling in part because viewers simply become bored by lack of action and an overly long window of play.
No one knows where this is all headed, which is why networks like ESPN and Fox Sports, which broadcasts the first half of the NASCAR season, are nervous. It would be foolish to suggest NASCAR is dying — as a niche sport, its future likely is safe — but with the average viewing age climbing from 49 to 58 since 2006, its impact will continue to diminish.
If nothing else, sports like NASCAR and golf are looking at losses in broadcasting dollars unless they can somehow capture more of the market share. And the less money coming in, the less coverage going out. (Baseball benefits by playing during the relatively sports-thin summer months.)
Where things get tricky is in trying to determine whether a drop in viewing is mostly because of technical change or cultural adaptation. Younger fans now stream content on digital devices, but they also tend to watch sports less often, preferring to play video games or spend time on their phones.
Alarming to TV executives is that they cannot freeze time, meaning that over the next 20 years some sports will be threatened as older viewers pass away. If the current average age of Major League Baseball TV viewers is 57, what will it be in 2037?
Some of the doom and gloom will be negated by networks adjusting their business models to the changing digital culture, but that does not guarantee every sport will stand tall. Even the mighty NFL cannot be certain of its invincibility. The average NFL viewer is 50, but only 9 percent of the league’s audience is under 18, compared with 15 percent for MLS soccer. The NHL’s under-18 numbers have dropped from 13 percent to 8 percent since 2006, and golf’s is 3 percent.
The times they are a-changin’. Which sports can and will change with them?
roller@dispatch.com
@rollerCD

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