SBJ/September 26-October 2, 2011/Opinion

How can sports compete for the hearts, minds of youth?

Forty-five years ago there were 70 teams playing in the big four professional sports leagues (NFL/AFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). Today, with expansion and with the advent of MLS, that number has doubled. Add the myriad high-profile minor league, college and junior clubs, and the potential for clutter in the marketplace becomes much more obvious.

Take it a step further: Where once the average consumer experienced 2,000 messages per day via advertising and other communications like store signs, billboards or the sides of buses, today the average American sees or receives as many as 30,000 per day, even more for the hyper-engaged online. So we’ve doubled the number of teams and gone up by a factor of 15 on the number of communications, advertisements and audio-visual interruptions. Some simple math means we’re at a 30x increment in possible distraction. And, don’t forget the increasing number of mediums — online, offline, mobile, etc.  

To that end, we’ve been wondering how the average child (if there is such a beast) actually becomes a fan of a sport, adopts a favorite club and develops team-aligned avidity … not to mention getting out and playing that sport. For us, prolonged avidity is the lifeblood of pro sports, and this is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. When a fan is truly dedicated, game tickets and team merchandise are bought, sponsors buy signage at the stadium, advertisers buy spots on game broadcasts, and great athletes are drawn to play the game because the money is there.

But check this out: In addition to the cluttered environment, we’re also dealing with a less active one. Do you think having played a sport creates some impact on fan avidity? We believe so, and other researchers have supported the notion that children are becoming less active. Recent stats showed that a mere 50 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in North America actually participate in sports, a marked drop from a generation ago. The health implications notwithstanding, this is also a challenge for professional clubs.

But how are leagues and their member clubs accelerating that adoption process? How do they get kids more involved and interested and playing? As former hockey players, we’re familiar with the NHL’s efforts years ago to invest resources in street and roller hockey. That was a period when the NHL’s marketing team (led then by Octagon’s Rick Dudley) believed if they could place a stick in a young person’s hands, they stood a chance of developing a new fan.

We’re even familiar with a distant friend of ours who has been trying to shop a TV cartoon concept to the NHL called “Asphalt Avengers” in which various characters animatedly solve superhero problems in association with the NHL. We’re not sure the NHL will option this concept, but it brings forth the question of whether any of the big leagues, in the midst of a staggering economy, lockouts, saturated airwaves, Facebook and various player misbehavior, can afford to spend much time thinking about 5- to 8-year-olds or newly arrived immigrant children. At the very least, we know the big leagues — via their actions — have realized they need to communicate with youth in their language and via their chosen media … social, text and mobile. They get this, they’re in this space, and more is undoubtedly coming.

We also know that parents play a huge role in what sport a child may adopt to play and/or follow and that sports greatly facilitates the concept of new-country assimilation. But in an age of single-parent families and significant brand clutter, it is worth wondering whether the biggest sports properties are fully investigating the consumer behavior pathways of their next generation of fans. We recommend they commit to that research now.  

But it’s not easy in an age of short-term profitability obligations to think about distribution channels, information overload and meaning transfer. Other industries interested in youth brand adoption have been doing it for decades, but the sports industry often shuns the specific market research long embraced by “traditional” consumer brands.  

Let’s not for a minute doubt that baby boomers are aging and will become less avid fans over time. We also know Generations X, Y and Z (the Net Generation) are smaller in aggregate and perhaps more fragmented due to media proliferation and increased consumption options. And, now we’ve got this aforementioned Internet Generation coming through … the kids of a small generation who are hyper-busy, multitasking online and often physically lazy. Screens are everywhere, the content options are sexy and attractive (not to mention non-sports-related), and those digital tablets are portable.  

What’s a sports marketer to do? Don’t make the mistake of writing off clutter. There’s no question the human brain is super-computer enough to disregard non-important brands and images. But what if your brand is increasingly lumped into that “delete” category? That’s not good for your owners.  

It’s probably better to be proactive. If you are in charge of your brand’s image or sustainability, you may want to make sure you understand modern children and early childhood cognition patterns. You may even want to conduct some research with children in your stadium (if you can find any) or at a sports facility where a future fan might already play your sport.

Kids say the darndest things, but they also hold the key to a lot of future revenue. We suggest you take them seriously. 

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (norman.oreilly@uottawa.ca) is an associate professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa.

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