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Volume 22 No. 43
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Industry looks for right recipe to attract fans among millennials

When the San Jose Earthquakes set a minimum ticket price for visiting fans at $55 this season, Seattle Sounders fans, whose team opened the season in California, took to Twitter in protest. It wasn’t long before Earthquakes supporters joined them, and then fans from both teams and both cities united to take their concerns to the league.

Opposing fans joining forces is something MLS Commissioner Don Garber never imagined, and it underscored just how different millennial fans are from their predecessors.

“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.”

The way 20- and 30-somethings are consuming sports was a major topic throughout the 2014 IMG World Congress of Sports, held last week at the St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point, Calif. The sports industry is confronting a major transition in the makeup of consumers. The Baby Boom generation, which has formed the bulk of fans for decades, is aging, and the millennial generation, born between 1980 and the early 2000s, is taking on greater importance as ticket buyers, TV viewers and influencers.

“Who can get that [generation] right is going to be better off than where they are,” NASCAR Chairman Brian France said.

The focus on millennials comes at an important time in sports. The greatest decline in avid sports fans in the last decade has come among 12- to 17-year-olds and 18- to 34-year-olds, according to sports demographer Rich Luker. That has raised concerns about whether those generations will take their children to sports events the same way their parents did, which is critical to sports maintaining the more than 90 million avid fans who have been the backbone of its business for decades in the U.S.

“It’s in no way a crisis, but it’s an area where you should be concerned,” Luker said.

As the Earthquakes-Sounders issue illustrated, the new generation of fans views their teams and favorite sports differently than the generations before them. They multi-task. They consume sports on a variety of platforms. They may or may not have cable. They want their in-stadium experience to be interactive. And they have more things competing for their time and attention than any generation before them.

IMG College President Ben Sutton said that the elusiveness of the 20-something fan is evident at college football games every Saturday. Attendance in the student section at traditional football powerhouses has been declining. University of Georgia students, for example, left 39 percent of the school’s allocated section empty over the last four years. The reasons range from the lack of connectivity in the stadium to high-definition screens at home to other activities that compete for students’ time and attention.

“It better not take until 2025 [to address that], because we’ll lose an entire generation of fans,” Sutton said. “We’ve not responded thoroughly or rapidly enough to the current demand.”

Improving the in-venue experience remains a huge area of focus as the sports industry looks to engage 20- and 30-somethings. There continues to be talk about adding Wi-Fi at stadiums to allow fans to access highlights and social media during games.

“I’m still waiting for someone to build an arena without a Jumbotron because everyone is looking at their phones,” said Casey Wasserman of Wasserman Media Group. “There will be changes in the venue that have to be thought of in non-traditional ways.”

But changes to the way venues are constructed aren’t the only thing teams are exploring as they try to draw young fans to games. In Seattle, Sounders fans skew younger than Seahawks fans, and their games have more of a celebratory environment, filled with rituals and united cheers.

“Being there live and experiencing a game … there’s nothing like it, and we have to protect and nourish that,” said Peter McLoughlin, the president of both teams. “How the Sounders fans celebrate has caught the eye of the Seahawks fans, and how we can make the rituals and experiences of being a Seahawks fan different and more similar to being a Sounders fan is something we’re thinking about.”

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is trying to engage younger fans with its relaunch of the Toronto Raptors’ brand (see related story). 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. “Bringing Drake into the mix means we’ve tapped into an audience that we believe is the future of the Raptors.”

Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil said that the majority of the team’s ticket buyers are older than 35, but as 20- and 30-somethings increasingly become season-ticket holders, they expect access and special experiences that previous generations didn’t. The team has provided that by hosting 20 season-ticket holders at breakfasts in the locker room with the coaching staff every Friday.

“It speaks directly to this group,” O’Neil said. “There is a sense and feeling of direct access that this group has that the world’s never seen before. It’s all the same stuff we’ve been doing. It’s just more important now.”

There was some concern at the conference over whether sports could respond fast enough to what the new generation wants. Twitter’s Geoff Reiss, who oversees sports, noted that baseball discussed doing replays of controversial calls for decades before making that change.

“If that took 30 years, how long is the conversation going to be on getting games done in under four hours?” Reiss said. “I think this ties into the question of how you maintain relevance. The reality is, and baseball is the perfect sport to pick on, people don’t have four hours to watch 162 games. And one of two things has to change. We know it isn’t going to be the 162 games, because of the economic models. So being able to push that game into a more consumable form becomes essential.”

Interest in sports still indexes high among 20- and 30-somethings, and it remains more DVR-proof than other media content, said Tom Peyton, American Honda’s assistant vice president of advertising. He added, “Those items alone make it a great platform to invest in.”

But there are some indications that that could change. Vizio research showed that 45 percent of consumption on its Smart TVs, which are connected to the Web, is of streamed content, a considerable increase from what it was only a year ago, when cable content consumption was far higher.

“That was eye-opening to us, and we said, ‘This generation’s behavior is changing even in respect to TV,’” said Lily Knowles, vice president of product marketing for Vizio. “Sports has an interesting challenge. It’s one of the last live events that brings everybody together, but the challenge is that the content is not as readily available and engaging as other entertainment media when it comes to streaming. How does that affect the effectiveness of live sports?”

Wasserman said that being more willing to make changes to sports would become increasingly important in the years ahead. He said the stability of sports revenue over the years has made it averse to change, but as teams such as the Green Bay Packers struggle to sell out playoff games, that will have to change.

“In a tech-based world, you have to change or you die,” Wasserman said. “[That hasn’t been] the case with sports. It’s an industry that has lived on in much the same form it has for 100 years.”

Staff writers Austin Karp and John Ourand contributed to this story.