Going gray: Sports TV viewers skew older
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|
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.
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
Note: Numbers have been rounded.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
NA: A comparison to 2006 is not available for EPL.
“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|
|Los Angeles/Riverside/Orange County||36||+4|
|Salt Lake City/Ogden||32||+4|
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
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.