SBJ/April 17-23, 2017/In Depth

Sorting out priorities: How sports can improve standing with fans

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Interest in sports is declining dramatically, and none of our attempts to fix things will fully work. Why? The problem is not “something wrong” with sports. The declines are a result of an explosion of competitive online free-time alternatives. Sports are not broken. They just have to fight for attention, time and investment.

This seismic shift in the competitive landscape has been coming, but was realized broadly for the first time in 2016 in declining television ratings across nearly every sport. Unfortunately, the biggest declines are among males between the ages of 12 and 34. Among men 35 and older, sports interest still grows, holding off the impact to the bottom line for most sports. Competition for time is the challenge. The problem is that the younger fans we have lost will not bring in the next generation that follows them.

How is the industry responding? By the end of 2016, we knew there was a problem. But there are three more stages to a solution — understanding the problem, short-term fixes, and long-term solutions.

Understanding the problem

Most quick fixes assume if we modify the product, the problem will go away. That is not going to work here. Twenty-three years of ESPN Sports Poll data show declines are affecting the broadest level of general sports interest, as well as sport by sport. This is an industry problem, not a sport-specific problem, and not a product problem. Competition only explains what is happening to sports. It does not explain how competition changes American free-time behavior in a way we can address.

Where does sports rank?

Appointment viewing

Watching sports as planned social viewing is declining fastest among those who have the highest sports priority.
Percent of U.S. population 12 and older who most often watch sports as a planned activity with others

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
High sports priority 70.6% 68.6% 67.1% 63.7% 62.2%
Avid sports fans 69.0% 65.1% 64.7% 61.1% 61.4%
All sports fans 56.7% 55.3% 56.0% 55.2% 54.1%

Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll: 31,995, 2011-2016


Free-time priorities

Percent of U.S. population 12 and older saying this ranks between 8 and 10 (on a scale of zero to 10) of free-time priorities

Activity Percent
Time with family 70.0%
Time with friends 42.7%
Productive activities 40.1%
Time to myself 37.5%
Outdoor activities 37.1%
Playing sports / exercise 32.6%
Out on the town 26.0%
Time online 24.9%
Watching TV 23.6%
Sports fan activity 14.6%

Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll: 2,993 U.S. respondents age 12 and older, 2014-2016


For the first time, Americans have far more compelling options for free-time activity than they have time to do them. This has forced people to, essentially, create consideration sets. They now prioritize, choosing from among their most compelling options. And, for the most part, the prioritization process is unconscious.

The problem is competition, and the response is efforts to increase the conscious priority of your sport. For the most part, tinkering with the sport or product is only responding to the source of the competition — online activity — rather than building strategies to increase the priority of sports.

Short-term fixes

While we see some investment in responding to the bigger issues, most sports and sports companies are more focused today on short-term fixes.

Changes like trying to speed up the game, modernize it, make it younger, and incorporate more fun things to do can buy time while sports study, design and invest in strategies to increase dedicated, high-priority fans for the future. I think short-term fixes send the right messages that we see there is a problem and we are responding, but the impact is short-lived and won’t bring a fan back.

More important, it isn’t going to bring a fan in the first place, if they aren’t fans today. That is why long-term solutions are essential to the future of sports.

Long-term solutions

Think about the things that get a higher priority for you in your free time. Time with family and friends likely comes first. Then stuff you have to get done, or the things you are committed to doing. Playing a round of golf, for an example, is a much lower priority than playing golf in your Thursday league. For more than two decades, sports fan activity and watching television have been the lowest free-time activities because they are always there and just for fun (see Free-Time Priorities chart). Time online is eighth overall in high priority in the U.S. But for 12- to 17-year-olds, it is second only to time with family.

Anything with a priority will replace watching TV or sports fan activity. And when a free-time activity introduces “a reason” for doing it, it moves up in priority. I see more sports seriously considering what it takes to increase priority and commitment, but few, if any, yet committed to long-term invested programs to reward that priority and commitment.

How can we expect a fan to increase his commitment and priority to a sport unless that fan can see how the sport has increased its commitment to that fan? And what would it look like to a fan if a sport did that?

Here are some examples of those priority building blocks:

Time with family and friends: These are the highest free-time priorities. Make your strategies around how your sport enhances the opportunities and quality of experience with family and friends. Make the fan experience about a better way to be with family and friends, not just about the sport.

Planned social viewing: Fifty-six percent of fans with a favorite team live outside of that team’s market, which makes watching games on media the closest regular experience they can get. And the younger you are, the more likely you don’t live near your favorite team. When you plan to watch a sporting event with others, you have done the exact same work as if you planned a party or to go to a show with friends. Fifty-four percent of all sports fans most often watch sports as a planned social activity (see Appointment Viewing chart). The higher the sports priority, the greater the planned sports viewing.

Support instigators: Ninety-five percent of people attend games with others, and more than half watch sports on TV as a planned social experience. Someone has to make that happen. Five percent of the U.S. population routinely takes responsibility for planning. Do you know your 5 percent? And 25 percent of that 5 percent are the 35- to 54-year-olds we often ignore. Identify and support them, they are worth three times as much as other fans.

Start a conversation: You probably have email addresses for about 10 percent of the fans who say your sport is their favorite sport and their favorite team is from your sport. They are committed to you. Further, you probably have that email address because of a sale and for the purposes of selling more. Think of what would happen if you used your contacts to create a real relationship and increase priority and commitment without trying to sell. They would buy more because they see your commitment to them.

The future solution cannot be about growing the size of our fan bases. That is not realistic. It can and should be about growing the number of relationships a sport has with people who prioritize and commit to the sport — and who feel the sport is as committed to them.

Rich Luker (rich@lukerco.com) is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.

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