SBJ/20090817/SBJ In-Depth

Leagues aim to build next generation of fans

The same script has played out for ages on athletic fields across the country. The center snaps the ball to the quarterback, who rolls out of the pocket to avoid would-be tacklers. The quarterback fires a 10-yard completion to a receiver on a slant route. Touchdown.

The main difference in this scenario is that the participants are wearing flag belts instead of pads, and some are even wearing ponytails. They are part of the NFL’s most recent expansion into youth and high school sports.

Besides the desire to maintain developmental programs that produce elite athletes, professional leagues invest time and money in youth sports because participants are more likely to become avid fans of that professional sport, resulting in more money to the teams and leagues, and their corporate partners.

Connecting with children 6 to 13 is paramount in turning them into lifelong fans, according to data compiled by the NFL. Fifty-five percent of avid NFL fans said they became engaged or interested in football in elementary school or earlier. Seventy-five percent of avid fans and 62 percent of casual fans participated in football at some level as a child.

The NFL has expanded the reach of its flag
football program for girls.

The NFL is sorting through a mountain of data to establish the return on investment of its youth programs. Peter O’Reilly, vice president of fan strategy and marketing for the NFL, wouldn’t share preliminary findings but said, “It affirms a lot of what we hypothesized in terms of the importance of marketing to youth.”

In short, avid fans buy more tickets and more merchandise than casual fans. They watch more games per year. Higher ratings mean higher ad rates, driven upward because avid fans have higher recall rates of advertisers.

Armed with that hypothesis, the NFL launched a recreational flag football program in 1996 for boys and girls ages 5 to 17. This year, children will play in eight regional tournaments held in NFL cities for the opportunity to play in the championship prior to the Pro Bowl at Dolphins Stadium.

In 2008, the league helped expand the number of high school varsity girls flag football teams after conducting research in Florida and Alaska — the two states with existing high school programs. The league identified potential hotbeds in other states and approached girls in those markets to lead a grassroots charge.

“There’s tons of research out there that proves that fan avidity is based on involvement in the sport and participating in the sport at a young age,” said Samantha Rapoport, manager of girls flag football for the NFL. “There’s no doubt these girls will become NFL football fans by playing in a football league that’s related to the NFL.”

In its second year in the high school program, girls flag football has expanded from two to seven states and will be played by more than 12,000 girls this year.

Flag football is an extension of the NFL’s multilayered youth development program that includes the annual punt-pass-and-kick competition and the Play 60 initiative launched in 2007.

The SUM U-17 Cup is among the ways MLS and
its clubs connect their brands to youth soccer.

“Not everyone that’s a fan is going to play the game, so we’ve really built out what we think is a good portfolio of ways to connect with kids in the 6 to 13 range,” O’Reilly said.

Major League Soccer is presented with a challenge much different than the NFL. Rather than develop avid fans by getting them to play football, MLS is trying to cultivate its fan base by appealing to the millions of kids who already play soccer.

MLS’s Soccer United Marketing works with U.S. Youth Soccer, and the league has ties to other organizations that run youth soccer programs. But a unique point of contact comes at stadiums surrounded by soccer complexes.

Three MLS soccer stadiums are surrounded by soccer fields that can be rented by youth sports organizations. The footprint was created to help make the stadiums year-round destinations in markets where they were unlikely to compete with other stadiums and arenas for concerts and other entertainment events.

“We think it will create a long-term benefit by leading to higher ratings and ticket sales and a larger fan base,” said Neel Shah, MLS director of fan development.

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, home to the Colorado Rapids, hosts 1 million athletes each year on the 24 fields (22 grass, two artificial turf) surrounding the stadium. It gives the fields a year-round revenue stream, but also provides more opportunity for the Rapids to put its brand in front of children.

In addition to offering youth the chance to play in the stadium’s shadows, the Rapids conduct stadium tours and include match tickets in registration packages.

NBA teams also put heavy emphasis on marketing their brands in local markets through team-branded leagues. However, the league’s most recent effort, iHoops, was created to improve the quality of youth basketball programs.

“We can add something to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, and parks and recreation leagues by supporting them,” said Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s executive vice president of social responsibility and player programs. “Is there an added benefit in terms of a positive brand (association) for the NBA? Certainly. But the bigger benefit goes to the kids who are participating.”

Major League Baseball connects through
its Reviving Baseball in Inner
Cities program.

Cost is becoming more of an underlying issue in youth sports participation. Basketball is the most popular participatory sport among children, in part, because of the relatively inexpensive cost of pickup games. Conversely, hockey has lost 20 percent of its participants in the last eight years, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (see chart).

Skates, pads and sticks can cost a few hundred dollars every couple of years, but ice time is the largest expense. It’s not uncommon for youth hockey programs to charge 9- and 10-year-olds $1,000 for a single season.

The NHLPA’s Goals & Dreams fund is trying to counteract rising costs by donating hockey and ice rink equipment to underprivileged children around the world. The union donated nearly $1 million worth of equipment last season, and has given away more than $17 million, including 10,000 full sets of equipment, since launching in 1999.

Increasing participation among underprivileged children is also a focus of Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program. This year, baseball launched a pilot program called Junior RBI in 16 cities across the U.S.

The program, sponsored by accounting firm KPMG, creates playing divisions for children ages 6 to 12. Teams from each of the cities met in St. Louis during the All-Star Game in early July to play a 32-game tournament. MLB expects to expand the program nationwide in 2010.

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