Survey says: Twenty insights from poll’s 20 years
Intelligence from the first 20 years of The ESPN Sports Poll gets the spotlight today.
|The 1994 strike led to a sharp drop in fan support for MLB in September of 1994.
Had the Sports Poll launched any other year it might not have survived. Four significant events demanded attention from the industry in 1994. Two of the four were really side shows: O.J. Simpson’s murder trial and Nancy Kerrigan and the crowbar at the Olympics. But it was the baseball strike that secured the future of the Sports Poll. At the beginning of the year, baseball was as popular as the NFL. As the strike progressed and the World Series was canceled, the monthly reports (see chart, 1994: Percent of fans by sport) documented
The fourth event in 1994 forever changed the face of racing. The split between IRL and CART divided open wheel racing. That alone was not enough to propel NASCAR into dominance, but it certainly helped. By 1998, the NHRA would overtake IndyCar as the second most popular form of racing, and more than half of all racing fans preferred NASCAR over the others.
Here are some of the most significant insights from the 20 years of the ESPN Sports Poll.
There are no sports fans. There are only people with varying levels of interest in sports who are also interested and invested in a lot of other things. It was possible before the start of the Sports Poll to imagine sports fans did nothing but follow sports.
8 / 4
Similarly, there are no football, baseball or basketball fans. In the early years, my biggest challenge with sports properties was to get them to realize the typical avid sports fan followed five of the top 12 sports and had avid interest in two. Today, they are fans of eight of the top 12 sports and avid fans of four (see chart, How many sports do avid fans follow?). So, yes, avid interest is spreading even thinner as time passes. No sport owns its fans. At best, 5 percent are fans of their sport and no other.
A better way to describe an avid sports fan is as a person with an active lifestyle because, if they are very interested in sports and follow several different sports, they are also far more likely to go to movies often, participate in sports regularly, and enjoy local fairs and festivals than those who enjoy sports less. And 63.3 percent are very interested in outdoor activities.
The avid sports fan’s broad interests, unfortunately, are not linked to having significantly more free time. From extensive time-use studies, we know 57.1 percent feel they have more free time than others, but not a lot more. So sports are fighting for more attention from people who have no more free time than the next person, but many more interests.
88% / 31%
No free-time activity or interest comes close to the amount of engagement or number of people who are sports fans. And that interest is mostly stable. For 20 years, 85 to 90 percent of Americans have had some interest and 28 to 32 percent have had avid interest in sports. In 2013, 88 percent are fans and 31 percent are avid fans. While the percent of Americans following sports has remained constant, the number of fans has grown along with the overall population from roughly 189 million to 219 million people (ages 12 and older). Avid has a specific meaning: This is the percent of people whose interests and activities are, statistically, significantly higher than the rest of the population for virtually any aspect of sports. The avids are the minority who drive the majority of sports activity.
The only time in 20 years that something outside of sports affected American sports interests was during this most recent recession from 2007-11. One reason the impact was intense but relatively short is because income drives sports interest. Fans in middle-class income households of $50,000-$99,999 had a steady decline in sports interests over the last 20 years while all other income groups remained stable. Technology has changed work life in a way that is demanding more time from the middle class and decreasing the priority given to sports.
Spending on sports is not a life necessity, and a down economy translates into declines in spending money after the bills are paid. Over the last three years, 56.4 percent of Americans said they had less to spend after paying their bills than they did the year before. Non-fans (60 percent) were worse off than fans in general (55 percent), or avid fans (53 percent). But more than half of Americans have had to cut back.
There are significant changes taking place in sports interest, probably none more important than the decline in sports interest by men 12-34 and the growth of interest in men 35 and older. Declining interest by younger men points to a diminished future for the business of sports. There is no doubt that predictive analytics will enable us to maximize profits and efficiency from today’s fans, but it does nothing to help us understand why a person becomes a fan in the first place and continues to grow in interest, rather than fade. Since 1994, the percentage of men who are avid fans has declined 16.8 percent and men 18-34 declined 12.3 percent.
The decline in interest can be easy to miss because, at the same time, male avid fans 35-54 are up 21.8 percent. Not only is the proportion of avid fans increasing over time, but the average fan level per person is increasing while the per-person average declines for men 12-34. People older than 35 are also the ones driving purchases in sports today: 61.8 percent of all people who spend money on sports more than once a month are older than age 35.
There is stiff competition for free time. Being an avid fan is not a guarantee the fan will have time to devote to sports interests. We regularly measure how big a priority sports fan activity is to see the balance between desire and dedication. Sports is a high priority for 38.7 percent of avid sports fans. By comparison, 1.5 percent of light fans and 6.4 percent of casual fans say sports is a high priority.
The importance of priority doesn’t end with sports for avid fans. The priority of having time with family and friends was 22 percent higher for avid fans than for anyone else. Being a sports fan is rarely a solo event. The average number of tickets purchased to a sporting event is around three. The only true loners in the sports world are gamblers and fantasy players, and there is another number …
Playing fantasy sports well requires every imaginable form of sports fan experience. Fantasy players (and gamblers) are by far and away the avid of the avids. In general, avid fans are not only extremely active in a broad range of social activities in sports and beyond, but the emphasis is on social. The more that is done to feed their relationships within sports, the more a property will be rewarded with their time, attention and investment.
The nature of fan behavior, at its core, is changing. In the 1990s, 70 percent of all fans preferred to attend a game over watching it on TV, all things considered. Today, those numbers are reversing. And in the last year, even avid fans would prefer to watch on TV than attend in person with others. In 2011, 53.7 percent said they would rather attend. In 2013, that number is down to 49.1 percent.
The trend toward TV is not all bad, however. Sixty-seven percent of all fans typically plan to watch their sports and watch with others, making it social viewing. This works well for existing fans, but can we count on kids having a love for sports the way their parents do if it is only enjoyed as a TV show? That puts the NFL in direct competition with “Survivor” and “The X Factor” if we reduce fan behavior to watching games on TV.
In 1995, 1 percent of Americans went online first to get sports results. In 1994, 67 percent of fans went to the newspaper first, now only 15 percent do. Television was the top source at 43 percent from 2000 to 2010, when the Internet took over. It now leads with 55 percent of all sports fans.
Favorite sport is an open-ended question and every month more than 100 sports are mentioned. And football, baseball and basketball account for 62 percent of all mentions. And that number has been fairly constant for 20 years (see chart, Favorite sport by year). Soccer is the real driver here, moving solidly into fifth place while racing has declined from fifth to a tie for sixth with hockey.
Once and for all, the Cowboys are America’s team. They have been the overall favorite team 17 of the 20 years and were second the other three years (see chart, America’s team).
That’s the number of sports fans who don’t have a favorite team. And that may be the key problem going into the future. Being a fan is all about being connected. Avid fans are the most social people. We do so little alone in sports. If you don’t have a team, why bother? Sports that focus on getting kids hooked on a team will go a long way to solving any of the challenges we have seen in the first 20 years of the ESPN Sports Poll.
The number of interviews the ESPN Sports Poll has done since it started on Jan. 4, 1994. That’s 240 consecutive months of fresh national samples, 7,112 days of interviewing, more than 2,000 variables, and a pretty good start.