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Use of technology by fans offers industry lots of room to grow

It might feel like every sports fan is dependent on the Internet, cell phones and game systems to fulfill their sports desires, but in reality, we are only halfway there.

Watch the research numbers closely when they suggest large percentages are on board. Most are based on those who use technology or talk about the percentage increase over the past year. But when you base it on the population or even on all sports fans, the numbers are still quite small.

Some examples:

• PricewaterhouseCoopers reports 17 million online game subscribers. That is about 6 percent of the population or 17 percent of households. The same research reported roughly 20 million subscribers to mobile Internet access of any kind, not just for sports, or about 7 percent of the population.

• Nielsen Online reported ESPN.com topped video streaming in December, but less than 8.5 million unique users or 2.8 percent of the population.

Not only is the use of technology limited, but nearly half of all sports fans today say that technology is “not at all important” to their enjoyment of sports. Today, we are expecting technology to deliver too much of the marketing value in sports. Here are findings from five recent national studies to back that up:

FUTURE FIVE
What will be the most important issue of the second quarter?
ISSUE
SCORE (% of 1st-place votes)
1. State of U.S. economy 230 (50)
2. Ability of middle-income American families to spend money on sports 208 (23)
3. How financial pressure companies feel will affect sports investments 173 (10)
4. Pending league/union labor negotiations 126 (3)
5. Competition for American sports sponsorship dollars 125 (0)
Note: Results from a panel of 30 industry leaders. Participants ranked each of 10 issues, with 10 points being assigned for a 1st-place vote, nine for a 2nd-place vote, down to one point for a 10th-place vote. Percentages have been rounded. Only the top five are listed.

1. The shift from newspapers to TV and now to the Internet is one of the most dramatic changes in how fans follow sports.

Fifteen years ago, the local newspaper dominated as a lead source for sports information (see chart). The Internet is the leader now, but with only 33 percent of fans. The landscape for sports information has diversified. The future may be dominated by technology, but how likely is it that any one form of technology will dominate the way newspapers did?

2. Less than half of Americans (39.6 percent) ever use the Internet to get sports information.

In addition, the use of mobile devices for sports is below 10 percent penetration.

3. More than half of all Americans said they were “not at all likely” to spend discretionary income on technology in 2009.

American businesses are focused on developing new technologies for marketing, but the everyday American has yet to share that priority. The August 2009 Luker on Trends/ICR survey of 1,074 Americans ages 18 and older found that two-thirds said they had less to spend than they did in 2008. When asked how they would spend the money left after paying their bills, 54 percent said they were not at all likely to spend it on technology.

4. Going into 2010, less than 40 percent of Americans said it was important for companies to sponsor technology opportunities (39 percent) or sports (35 percent).

The top three Future Five issues (see above) are economy-based. The December 2009 Luker on Trends/ICR survey found Americans taking a more positive view of the economy. Sixty-three percent said they expected the American economy to be better in 2010, and 57 percent said they expected their own financial situation to improve in the new year.

But even with that more optimistic view of the economy, corporate investment in technology or sports was not a high priority to more than half of American adults (see chart above).  

5. About half of Americans (53 percent) and sports fans (48 percent) say technology is “not at all important” to their enjoyment of sports. Going beyond mere use of technology, a February 2010 Luker on Trends/ICR survey question asked: “How important to your enjoyment of sports is access to games, events and information through technology such as the Internet or on a cell phone?” Less than one-third of the most-avid sports fans said technology was very important to their enjoyment.

Bright side to a cup half full

If you have been thinking that most American sports fans are already heavily using technology in sports, the good news of the cup half full is that we have a lot of room to grow. Half of avid sports fans are above average in their general engagement with technology outside of sports. In general, the bigger the sports fan, the more engaged they are in technology.

The use of mobile devices in
sports peaks with the 25- to
34-year-old age group.

Generally, younger people are even more connected to both sports and technology. But the youngest are not the leaders in sports today. For example, the peak use of the Internet in sports is among those 18-34, not those 12-17. Similarly, use of mobile devices in sports peaks at ages 25-34 (46 percent), followed by 18-24 (38 percent), then those 12-17 (32 percent).

What’s the point of this trend?

It’s time to recalibrate our expectations regarding the use of technology in sports. There are too many measures essentially saying the current top end for even the best technology applications is 50 percent, and that is extremely rare. Less than half are using any specific technology application in sports. Less than half of fans say they want it; less than half want companies to sponsor it.

There can be no doubt that, over time, technology will become an even more desired and valued element of the sports experience. But for now, we as an industry are far more focused on the role of technology in sports than are more than half of American fans.

Rich Luker (rich@lukerco.com) is a consultant with The Luker Co.

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