Does it matter if some sports have greater relative strength in the major media markets while others are proportionally stronger in the outlying markets?
At a time when most fans believe they can watch any game or event on the TV or Internet — not just the teams offered in their local area — does the actual location of the team or event even matter anymore?
If these questions don’t matter yet, they are likely to in the coming years because the sports fan landscape is shifting rather dramatically.
For decades, the sports fan experience was centered on attending games and events. Even with growing television coverage, by 1998, The ESPN Sports Poll reported that the majority of fans for any major sport said they would rather attend the game than watch it on TV. Overall, 57 percent preferred attending, 37 percent preferred watching on TV. That was before HD, live sports on the Internet and the ability to catch nearly any game remotely if you tried hard enough.
Results from The ESPN Sports Poll in August 2011 show those findings have fully reversed, with 61 percent saying they would prefer to watch on TV and 35 percent saying they would rather attend the games in person. Today, there is no major sport where the fans would prefer attending over watching remotely.
Has this high-quality, broad access to nearly everything in sports translated into every major sport being truly national now, instead of just having strength where they have teams or events? No. In reality, some sports like NASCAR and college sports are relatively stronger in outlying markets. Others, like Major League Baseball and the NBA, are stronger in the biggest markets, and the NFL tips a bit toward the larger markets, but not by much. These differences are enough to make MLB a much closer No. 2 sport to the NFL in the largest markets. Both MLB and the NBA surpass college football in the 10 largest markets, and they are both bigger than college basketball in the top 25 markets. College football and basketball are stronger than MLB or the NBA in smaller markets (see chart).
Suppressed interest in college sports in major markets is even more interesting given there is a higher percentage of college graduates in the larger markets. Pro teams are defined most often by city, but always by geography, not by the composition of student body. As such, there is a less natural connection between a big city and any one school as compared to a city and its pro teams, even when there are two teams for a sport like baseball in Chicago. The South Siders follow the White Sox and the North Siders follow the Cubs.
Then you have event-based sports like golf, tennis and racing. NASCAR, for example, has an even split of race locations by market size, with roughly half the races in or near a top-25 market and the rest in outlying markets. At a time when sports fan interests are less confined by geographic media offerings, sports that are not defined by geography — it’s not the Jacksonville Jimmie Johnsons — may have an opportunity to rewrite sports strategy.
Does it matter?
The quality and access to sports through technology will force us to reconsider at least two very important elements of the sports industry. First, we will need to rethink the strategy of team and event locations. For example, the fight for a new stadium will have different implications if going to games is less important than catching them remotely. And, second, will the development of the next generation of fans be harder or easier if the early experiences are more like watching TV as opposed to an outing with the family?
Rich Luker (email@example.com) is the founder of Luker on Trends and The ESPN Sports Poll.