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The fan-base sizes of the affected sports have held close to or exceeded their numbers from recent years, according to nearly 20 years of trending data from The ESPN Sports Poll. That consistency, however, is not the story here. It just led us to conduct new research of sports turmoil to see if there were any noticeable impacts. The findings revealed some surprising trends regarding fans’ connection to sports.
■ Only 43.8 percent of Americans ages 12 and older “… are aware of the recent realignment of college sports conferences where teams are moving from one conference to another.” (ESPN Sports Poll, February 2012; random landline/cellphone sample of 1,493 in the U.S., ages 12 and older.)
Among college football and basketball fans, the percent aware wasn’t much better (55.3 percent), and avid college sports fans were still underwhelming at 70.9 percent.
It gets better. Next, we asked those who were aware: “Have you been following the realignment closely?” Just 26.6 percent of Americans who were aware said Yes. Among the college fans that were aware, 29.4 percent said Yes, and 42 percent of avid fans were following it closely.
That much turmoil doesn’t matter? We broke the analysis down to look at differences for those whose favorite team was in one of the more-affected conferences, such as the Big 12. Those fans were only marginally more aware and following more closely than those favoring teams from less-involved conferences. The college fans that do not have a favorite team were, as expected, the least aware as a group (29 percent), which raises the question: Can you be a fan and not have a favorite team? Turns out, the answer may well be yes. That may signal a dramatic change in the context of sports interest in America. More on that in a bit.
So, there has been turmoil in sports, but fan-base sizes are holding. And in the case of college sports, dramatic change in realignment is largely out of sight. When in sight, it is largely ignored. Turmoil isn’t driving fans away and it doesn’t seem to be getting much of their attention.
Are college fans paying attention to conference realignment? Poll results reveal not very much.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
If there is turmoil in the world of sports, it’s not enough to:
• send fans away;
• keep them focused on the changes; or
• get them to grade down the general reputations of the sports most affected by the turmoil.
That said, there was another very interesting finding in the grading …
■ The highest grades for the sports were given by the youngest people. And if a person was a fan but didn’t have a favorite team in a sport he or she was grading, it was a higher grade than from someone who had a favorite team. (ESPN Sports Poll, February 2012; random landline/cellphone sample of 1,493 in the U.S. ages 12 and older.)
We may be seeing an undercurrent here. Having a favorite team implies some sort of a personal connection to the sport, a bond, a reason to follow. The younger you are, the less likely you are now to have a favorite team. And yet, the direct interest in the sport remains high in ways that for nearly 20 years have predicted valued fan behavior. What’s changing?
I’m a Michigan guy. I am also not a kid. If Ohio State went to the Big 12, I would be crushed. My Michigan bond would be wounded. I’d still be a Michigan guy, but a part of me would die if they left. So I talked with Dave Boeck, a professor from the University of Oklahoma who has that direct experience in losing Nebraska to the Big Ten, and asked him what died (see Forward Thinking, above). He lost tradition, he said, but the stadium is still full, and the bigger issue now is winning national titles, not specific rivalries.
This much seems clear: The tracking data from The ESPN Sports Poll along with the new research on direct impact of turmoil indicates that if the quality is on the field, the sport will be fine. Everything else is a sideshow, and fans aren’t so interested.
While we in the industry pay close attention to every change and challenge, it’s possible that fans are coming to sports more like “American Idol” or “Survivor” where, at the beginning of each season, they can pick a side, watch the action, and change the channel to the next thing when it’s over.
Are you good with that?
Rich Luker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Luker on Trends and The ESPN Sports Poll.
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