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In July 2013, as part of the ongoing ESPN Sports Poll, 899 sports fan respondents were asked “When you watch or attend sporting events, do you prefer to watch with your family or your friends?” The slight edge in preference went to being with family (40 percent) over being with friends (37 percent), with 14 percent saying they enjoy being with both equally.
Looking at gender or age alone can be deceiving. Looking at them together provides a logical, and enlightening, view of how sports fits over a lifetime.
> TEENAGERS (12-17): We may think youth is all about friends, but when it comes to sports, parents are still key. For boys, family (45%) wins over friends (41%), with 12 percent saying they are equal. Girls are not that much different, at 50 percent for parents, 46 percent for friends and 4 percent saying both equally. When either say family, they generally mean parent, but for boys it means dad (97 percent) and for girls, mom is becoming a bigger factor (dad 59%; mom 41%). Parents — and marketers — tend to give up on the parent/teen connection. Sports is likely the best place left for parents to connect and for marketers to help with parent/teen programs.
> YOUNG ADULTS (18-34): In nearly every other social context, the importance of spending time with family generally diminishes for young men and increases for young women. But 18-34 is an anomaly for men. When it comes to sports, the importance of family remained strong among men, and watching with siblings and spouses or significant others gained importance. Watching with family or friends was of equal importance to women. In fact, this is one of two life stages when a larger percentage of men prefer watching sports with family than women do.
For men ages 35-54, watching sports tends to be more about community than it is family.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
> THE PRODUCTIVE YEARS (35-54): Amazingly, this is the only stage of life when friends (40%) are more important than family (38%), but just barely. We know this is the most important age group to sports. They spend the most, they watch the most. And there is an opportunity to rethink how we approach them — particularly men — because it seems sports is more about community than family. Sports function as relief from work and family responsibility.
When they do choose family, there are significant differences by gender. For men, it is more about being with their children (38%) than their spouse (35%). For women, the spouse (50%) significantly leads and kids (25%) are important, but not as key as for men.
Throughout their lifespan, women are turning increasingly to female family members during sports fan activity, but today’s 35-54 age group has a significant number whose primary connection to sports is still the husband. We can’t ignore that as an opportunity but must remember the most active female fans are the ones more connected to sports than to the spouse through sports.
> THE LATER YEARS (55+): Sports becomes a more solitary experience as people age. Nearly half (49%) of all sports viewing is done at home alone for men (and 27% for women) as compared to nearly 75 percent social sports experience for Americans overall. Within family preferences, men (41%) enjoy sports with one of their children over their spouse (35%), while women still are more connected to their spouse (40%) than their kids (30%). Eight percent of this age group say they enjoy sports most with their grandchildren. This age group can be key ambassadors for spreading the love of sports to younger generation as they are the most likely to enjoy sports with kids and grandkids, and the most likely to be able to afford treating them to a game.
> HOW DID WE GET HERE?: I have found no find primary, industry-wide, lifespan research that looked at how the sports social experience changes over time. Beyond our research, I found none that looks at the total experience or focuses on the importance of the social interactions and how they change over life. However, there are people looking closely at understanding the fuller social experience of sports (see Forward Thinking).
We have always assumed friends are most important in youth and family is most important in the productive years. That seems logical. But so many aspects of social life in America defy logic these days.
Rich Luker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.