SBJ/June 5-11, 2017/Research and Ratings

Going gray: Sports TV viewers skew older

Study: Nearly all sports see quick rise in average age of TV viewers as younger fans shift to digital platforms

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Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

According to a striking study of Nielsen television viewership data of 24 sports, all but one have seen the median age of their TV viewers increase during the past decade.

How top properties stack up

Property Avg. age of TV viewers in 2016 Change since 2006
PGA Tour 64 +5
ATP 61 +5
NASCAR 58 +9
MLB 57 +4
WTA 55 -8
NFL 50 +4
NHL 49 +7
NBA 42 +2
MLS 40 +1

Source: Magna Global


The study, conducted exclusively for SportsBusiness Journal by Magna Global, looked at live, regular-season game coverage of major sports across both broadcast and cable television in 2000, 2006 and 2016. It showed that while the median age of viewers of most sports, except the WTA, NBA and MLS, is aging faster than the overall U.S. population, it is doing so at a slower pace than prime-time TV.

The trends show the challenges facing leagues as they try to attract a younger audience and ensure long-term viability, and they reflect the changes in consumption patterns as young people shift their attention to digital platforms.

“There is an increased interest in short-term things, like stats and quick highlights,” said Brian Hughes, senior vice president of audience intelligence and strategy at Magna Global USA. “That availability of
information has naturally funneled some younger viewers away from TV.”

Jeramie McPeek, former longtime digital media executive for the Phoenix Suns who now runs Jeramie McPeek Communications, a social media consultancy, also cited the movement of younger consumers to digital platforms.

Golf skews the oldest when looking at the average age of television viewers, and in response the sport has increased its digital initiatives.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“It is smartphone and tablet usage by younger people who are on Snapchat or Instagram all day long and watching a lot of videos on YouTube and Netflix,” McPeek said. “Rarely are they watching TV and they are on their device constantly where they can watch videos on demand.”

None of the properties contacted contested the data, but most pointed to digital consumption among younger viewers, which was not included in the study and is growing rapidly. Some leagues, such as MLS, the NBA and WTA, will be bullish about the data while others such as the PGA Tour will continue to address the long-term viewership narrative around their sport.

Soccer skews the youngest on television, with a median age of 40 for MLS viewers in 2016, up from 39 in 2006. The PGA Tour skews the oldest, as the average age of its television viewers climbed from 59 in 2006 to 64 in 2016.

Adding on the years: Sports television viewership trends

Magna Global, on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal, analyzed three separate years of live, regular-season TV viewership on broadcast and cable sportscasts. Its analysis of Nielsen and U.S. Census data shows that golf circuits have the oldest viewers; soccer has the youngest.

Median age of television viewers, ranked oldest to youngest in 2016

Property 2000 2006 2016
PGA Tour Champions NA 59 64
PGA Tour NA 59 64
Figure skating 54 59 64
LPGA NA 59 63
Horse racing 51 56 63
ATP 51 56 61
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series NA 49 58
Pro rodeo 51 53 57
MLB 52 52 57
WNBA 42 49 55
WTA Tour 58 63 55
Olympics 45 50 53
College football 47 48 52
College basketball (men's) 44 48 52
NFL 44 46 50
Boxing 45 47 49
NHL 33 42 49
UFC NA 34 49
Action sports 31 33 47
EPL NA NA 43
NBA 40 40 42
MLS NA 39 40
International soccer NA 35 39
Liga MX NA 32 39

Note: Numbers have been rounded.
Source: Magna Global's analysis of Nielsen and U.S. Census data.

Ranked by biggest change 2000-2016

The NHL has seen its median age jump by 16 years since 2000. The WTA Tour is the only property to see its median age decline during that 16-year span, as well as over the past decade. The NBA has stayed fairly consistent, with the median age of viewers climbing only two years since 2000.

Property Median age 2016 (change since 2000)
NHL 49 (+16)
Action sports 47 (+16)
WNBA 55 (+13)
Horse racing 63 (+12)
ATP 61 (+10)
Figure skating 64 (+10)
College basketball (men's) 52 (+8)
Olympics 53 (+8)
NFL 50 (+6)
Pro rodeo 57 (+6)
College football 52 (+6)
MLB 57 (+5)
Boxing 49 (+4)
NBA 42 (+2)
WTA Tour 55 (-3)

Notes: When calculating the changes between years, rounding may lead to the appearance of math discrepancies for college football. The full numbers were compared, and the difference then rounded. A comparison to 2000 is not available for the LPGA, MLS, PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, international soccer, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Liga MX, UFC or EPL.

Ranked by biggest change 2006-2016

Property Median age 2016 (10-year change)
UFC 49 (+15)
Action sports 47 (+14)
Monster Energy NASCAR
Cup Series
58 (+9)
NHL 49 (+7)
Liga MX
39 (+7)
Horse racing 63 (+7)
WNBA 55 (+6)
ATP 61 (+5)
PGA Tour Champions 64 (+5)
PGA Tour 64 (+5)
Figure skating 64 (+5)
College football 52 (+5)
College basketball (men's) 52 (+4)
MLB 57 (+4)
NFL 50 (+4)
LPGA 63 (+4)
International soccer 39 (+4)
Pro rodeo 57 (+4)
Olympics 53 (+3)
Boxing 49 (+2)
NBA 42 (+2)
MLS 40 (+1)
WTA Tour 55 (-8)

Notes: When calculating the changes between years, rounding may lead to the appearance of math discrepancies for college football and MLB. The full numbers were compared, and the difference then rounded. A comparison to 2006 is not available for the EPL.


The NFL in 2016 had a median TV viewer age of 50, up four from 2006; MLB rose four years as well to 57; the NHL was up seven to 49; and the NBA was up two from 40.

Regardless of the property, the numbers highlight why so many sports properties feel a sense of urgency to attract younger fans.

“There are now so many different ways to engage with properties, and people are getting highlights whenever they want,” said Doug Perlman, chief executive officer of Sports Media Advisors. “People have to question whether younger viewers are less inclined to watch or less inclined to watch as long.”

Ty Votaw, executive vice president of global business affairs of the PGA Tour, summed up the tour’s demographics: “While we may be older, our demographics have been of considerable higher quality than other sports and we have aged considerably slower.”

Votaw also noted that audience trends today can’t be solely focused on the linear TV viewer and pointed to a younger audience on tour-run digital properties.

“When you go to PGATour.com, the median age is 55 and for our PGATour Live (over-the-top network), the median age is 20 years younger than on broadcast,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, MLS credits its younger average age to the game itself and its multicultural reach. Fifteen percent of its fan base is under the age of 18, the highest such rate of the U.S.-based leagues (see charts).

The NHL has seen the average age of its television viewers increase by 16 years since 2000.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“It is the coming of age of our league and the connection we have with multicultural millennials and with people who grew up with soccer as their first participatory activity,” said Howard Handler, chief marketing officer of MLS, which counts ESPN, Fox and Univision as the league’s TV partners. “If you get into bigger trends, our game is a two-hour experience that isn’t broken up by a bunch of TV timeouts. We consider our TV deals to be progressive. We are the only league that has an exclusive Hispanic game of the week. Yes, we have a young demographic, but we have a lot more work to do. We are still driving scale.”

The NBA has the next-youngest TV viewership with a median age of 42, up from 40 in both 2000 and 2006.

“The youthfulness you see in the NBA is by design,” said Pam El, the league’s chief marketing officer. “Children start playing basketball at a young age and we have a strong youth program. Our players are pop-star icons and have strong appeal to young people. They have huge followings and young people follow young people. But you don’t just want millennials. You want to continue to keep viewers in all age groups.”

Like other leagues, the NBA has seen a strong uptick in digital consumption.

Changes in youth viewership

Seventeen percent of Liga MX's TV viewers were under the age of 18 in 2016, the biggest such share of any of the 24 properties measured. MLS is second with 15 percent, while golf brings up the rear with about 3 percent.

Youth composition, ranked by total, ages 2-17 in 2016

Property 2000 2006 2016
Liga MX NA 20% 17%
MLS NA 16% 15%
International soccer NA 16% 13%
NBA 16% 14% 11%
Action sports 27% 23% 11%
Olympics 12% 9% 10%
EPL NA NA 10%
Boxing 9% 9% 10%
College football 10% 9% 9%
WNBA 16% 12% 9%
UFC NA 12% 9%
College basketball (men's) 12% 11% 9%
NFL 10% 10% 9%
NHL 16% 13% 8%
Rodeo 11% 10% 7%
MLB 9% 9% 7%
Figure skating 7% 11% 6%
WTA 5% 6% 6%
Horse racing 10% 7% 5%
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series NA 8% 5%
LPGA NA 5% 4%
ATP 8% 6% 4%
PGA Tour  NA 5% 3%
PGA Tour Champions NA 5% 3%

Note: Numbers have been rounded.

Ranked by biggest change since 2000

The NHL saw an 8 percentage point drop from 2000-2016. Only the WTA Tour and boxing saw an increase in its younger-aged TV audience composition over the past 16 years.

Property Ages 2-17 2016 (Change since 2000)
Action sports 11% (-16)
NHL 8% (-8)
WNBA 9% (-7)
NBA 11% (-4)
ATP 4% (-4)
Horse racing 5% (-4)
Rodeo 7% (-4)
College basketball (men's) 9% (-4)
MLB 7% (-2)
NFL 9% (-2)
Olympics 10% (-1)
College football 9% (-1)
Figure skating 6% (-1)
Boxing 10% (+1)
WTA Tour 6% (+1)

Notes: A comparison to 2000 is not available for the LPGA, MLS, PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, international soccer, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Liga MX, UFC or EPL.
Numbers have been rounded.

Youth composition, ranked by 10-year change

Young viewers made up 8 percent of the NHL's overall TV audience in 2016, down from 13 percent a decade ago. The Olympics, boxing and college football were the only properties to see an increase in its youth composition, albeit barely 1 percent.

Property Ages 2-17 in 2016 (10-year change)
Action sports 11% (-12)
Figure skating 6% (-5)
NHL 8% (-5)
WNBA 9% (-3)
UFC 9% (-3)
Liga MX
17% (-3)
Rodeo 7% (-3)
NBA 11% (-3)
ATP 4% (-2)
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 5% (-2)
Horse racing 5% (-2)
International soccer 13% (-2)
College basketball (men's) 9% (-2)
MLB 7% (-2)
PGA Tour 3% (-2)
PGA Tour Champions 3% (-2)
MLS 15% (-1)
LPGA 4% (-1)
NFL 8% (-1)
WTA Tour 6% (-1)
College football 9% (+1)
Boxing 10% (+1)
Olympics 10% (+1)
EPL 10% (NA)

NA: A comparison to 2006 is not available for EPL.
Note: Numbers have been rounded.


“We know that people are going to consume our content differently, not just through broadcast or on one device,” El said. “We know how millennials consume content and we have developed our offerings to meet that demand. You go where they go and you will attract fans in that age group.”

Aging faster than the general population

The median age of the U.S. population was 37.7 years old in 2016, based on U.S. Census data, up from 35 years old in 2000. The median age of residents in U.S. markets that are home to a major league team has increased at the same rate as the rest of the country. However, the median age of TV viewers of nearly every sport has increased at a higher rate than that of the population. Only the NBA (median age rose by two years from 2000-2016, to 42) and WTA Tour (whose median age dropped by three years, to 55) have seen a change in median age that was less than the overall U.S. population. These are the five big league markets that saw the biggest increase in median age from 2000-2016, and the five that saw the least change in median age.

Market Current median age Change since 2000
Miami/Fort Lauderdale 41 +5
Detroit/Ann Arbor/Flint 40 +5
Green Bay 39 +5
Los Angeles/Riverside/Orange County 36 +4
Salt Lake City/Ogden 32 +4
Baltimore 38 +2
Orlando 37 +2
Seattle/Tacoma/Bremerton 37 +2
Tulsa 37 +2
Oklahoma City 35 +1

Prime-Time Comparison

Additional data provided by Magna shows that while the sports television audience is aging at a faster rate than the overall U.S. population, it is doing so at a slower pace than prime-time TV. Through mid-May, the median age of viewers of such programming on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, excluding sports and specials such as political debates, rose by a range of 8-11 years compared to the same time period a decade ago.

Median age of prime-time viewers

Network 2007 2017 Change
CBS 53 61 +8
NBC 49 57 +8
ABC 46 55 +9
FOX 40 51 +11

The WTA is the sole property studied to buck the trend toward older TV viewers. In 2016, the WTA’s median age TV viewer decreased to 55, down eight years from 2006. It was the only property that saw a drop in the median age of its TV viewers during the past decade.

WTA President Micky Lawler said that the increased social media participation by WTA players and the growth in the WTA’s OTT and digital offerings have attracted younger viewers to television.

“Our digital platform drives people to the linear live matches,” Lawler said. “We need to get to 35. We have a ways to go.”

While the study shows the progression toward older TV viewership in sports, it does not address any specific changes in the number of sports television viewers for any particular property. However, Magna data reveals that in 2016 the majority of properties saw an increase in the number of televised hours compared to 2006. For example, approximately 354 hours of live MLS action aired nationally last year, up tenfold compared to a decade prior. Only boxing and the PGA Tour Champions saw their number of TV hours decline between those two years.

Magna Global is part of the IPG Mediabrands family and has no contractual relationships with any sports league or property in the study.


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