Reaching Millennials may be biggest challenge facing sports

Teams, leagues look for ways to be relevant, panel says

NASCAR CEO Brian France says figuring out the Millennial fan is a big issue in sports.
The biggest challenge facing sports in the next few years is determining how to engage Millennials in a way that’s relevant to their demographic, said a panel of league commissioners and team presidents at the 2014 IMG World Congress of Sports.
 
“Everybody’s ability to manage and figure out the Millenial fan and how that continues to unfold this year and over the long term (is the most important issue in sports business),” said NASCAR CEO Brian France.
 
MLS Commissioner Don Garber added, “It’s a whole new world and I encourage everyone to spend a lot of time thinking about it.”
 
Garber said that the Millenial generation is about 80 million people, and that they view their teams and favorite sports radically different than generations before them. They multi-task. They consume sports on multiple platforms. They may or may not have cable. They want their in-stadium experience to include interactivity.
 
Garber pointed to a situation MLS ran into in San Jose as an example of how Millennials’ perspectives can affect sports teams. The Earthquakes opted to charge more for tickets for a game against the Seattle Sounders, and Sounders and Earthquakes fans united through social media to create a supporters group that raised their concerns with the league. They protested together.
 
“That’s not something anyone in our generation thought of,” Garber said. “A Giants fan wasn’t hanging out with an Eagles fan to figure out how they were going to deal with away ticket pricing. We better understand that. It’s going to affect the way we do business.”
YouTube Global Sports Head Claude Ruibal said that while that type of response among Millennials is creating issues for leagues and teams, it’s also creating new opportunities for the sports industry.
 
“The social amplification, something like Kick TV (a soccer channel on YouTube that MLS launched) that people are sharing with 10, 20 and 30 of their friends [is] spreading out,” Ruibal said. “You have to see the power of that.”
 
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is trying to engage the Millenial generation with its relaunch of the Toronto Raptors’ brand. It brought on Canadian rapper Drake to assist in developing a new logo and look for the team.
 
“We’re using him as an opportunity to understand social media because we absolutely believe that is the platform to reach our future fan base,” said MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke.
 
Both Leiweke and Seattle Seahawks and Sounders President Peter McLoughlin said that their soccer teams, Toronto FC and the Sounders, tend to have more young fans. Leiweke noted that avidity among young fans for MLS is now equal to avidity for MLB, according to the ESPN Sports Poll. McLoughlin said that the way they interact with their team is different.
 
“They believe they are owners of their own club,” McLoughlin said. “It’s just a whole new world in our business.”
 
France said that NASCAR, which has an aging fan base, is working hard to find new ways to engage Millennial fans. It created a Fan and Media Engagement Center to monitor social media, where most Millennial fans communicate, and its top facility, Daytona International Speedway, is adding new social media interaction areas as part of a $400 million renovation project.
 
“They’re getting interested in sports differently,” France said. “It’s not the male in the house idea that your father or brother or uncle take you to a game or a race. And then the device — they want the device to have relevance into the actual game. That’s not going to be upon us tomorrow morning, but over the next decade and longer, it’s going to be a very big factor.” 
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