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Volume 22 No. 44
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Life moves pretty fast – just ask a teenager

Fifty-nine percent of kids ages 8-11 have their own smartphone. That statistic was enough for me to decide we need to understand 5- to 17-year-olds more deeply, study them more often, and report more frequently on life changes for them. Because the future of sports depends on kids who, today, are spending more time with their phones than they are on sports.

For decades, American engagement in sports was a cultural constant. Can you

think of anything, today, that is a cultural constant in America? The idea of generations made sense when life-changing, major, historical events (like World War II,) or technological innovations (like the internet,) came along every 20 years. Now, we are experiencing overlapping, life-changing, dynamics in less than two years. It may be time to stop talking about millennials and Gen Z, and focus more on immersive learning about 2016 and 2017.

The Luker on Trends - The ESPN Sports Poll commonly reports on the sports engagement of 12- to 17-year-olds (a six-year time span). Given the faster pace of change, we broke the data from 12- to 17-year-olds into three age groups, 12-13, 14-15 and 16-17. We found substantial age-group differences in sports behavior, as well as the expected differences in constantly evolving online activity — from kids who were less than two years apart in age, rather than a generation of 20 years.

The graph below shows, from 1995-2016, the percent of change by age/gender group who were avid fans of sports in general. There are three, distinct patterns in the data. First, males 12-13 are generally declining, while females 12-13 have been increasing steadily since 1999. Title IX support for girls may be at work, and interest and play in sports like softball and volleyball have shown growth for this group over the last 15 years. Second, males and females 14-15 have declined over those years, but are similar, and the closest of any of the groups to remaining flat. And third, the clearest declines are among both males and females after they turn 16. Males dropped nine percent, and females dropped four percent (the largest drops for each gender).


GENDER AGE 1995-97 1998-00 2001-03 2004-06 2007-09 2010-12 2013-16
Male 12-13 59.7% 54.9% 59.6% 53.7% 55.8% 53.1% 53.4%
Male 14-15 57.9% 54.1% 54.0% 54.0% 53.0% 52.1% 53.6%
Male 16-17 54.5% 51.0% 51.0% 48.8% 47.9% 49.9% 45.6%
Female 12-13 37.0% 34.8% 37.5% 35.9% 36.2% 39.5% 39.2%
Female 14-15 34.6% 34.5% 35.5% 31.1% 30.1% 37.7% 32.4%
Female 16-17 32.6% 30.6% 31.2% 28.8% 27.1% 28.6% 28.5%

Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll, 2011-16 U.S. 12-17-year-olds

Looking at two-year age intervals, there were three different patterns that varied by direction of change between genders and across age groups. The pattern was similar for both boys and girls within the 14-15 and 16-17 age groups, but was opposite for males compared to females in the 12-13 group. These changes are not generational.


Which of the following is your favorite thing to do on the internet?

12- to 13-year-olds

2011-12 2013-14 2015-16
Social networking 31.1% 22.9% 20.5%
Play games 13.8% 13.3% 17.1%
Watch videos 16.5% 27.9% 29.2%
Listen to music 22.8% 19.4% 20.3%

14- to 15-year-olds

2011-12 2013-14 2015-16
Social networking 37.8% 32.8% 25.7%
Play games 9.1% 8.3% 10.3%
Watch videos 13.8% 19.4% 26.3%
Listen to music 26.4% 24.8% 26.3%

16- to 17-year-olds

2011-12 2013-14 2015-16
Social networking 38.9% 27.1% 25.6%
Play games 3.2% 5.7% 6.5%
Watch videos 13.1% 19.1% 19.7%
Listen to music 28.6% 29.3% 27.9%

Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll, 2011-16 U.S. 12-17-year-olds

Some of this still aligns with “growing up” social development. But the difference caused by increased competition for free time changed dramatically from the time a kid was 12 in 2011 to age 17 in 2016. There is more to the causes of decline than generational differences or simply increased options. The chart at right shows that new forms of online free-time activity, for the same age groups, change the “favorite thing to do on the internet” from just 2011-17. Watching videos online increased dramatically in all groups, but for 12- to 13-year-olds, videos moved from third to first favorite. In 2011, for ages 14-15 all three favorites were clearly spread. By 2016, they were all tied for first. While all three had social networking the clear favorite in 2011, by 2017 video was on top (12-13) or tied for first (14-15), and lagged for ages 16-17. Dramatic changes, in just five years, and in a way that shows today’s 16- to 17-year-old went through the 12- to 15-year-old period just ahead of the video boom.

In your sports work, I bet you have thought about millennials in the last month. When was the last time you thought about kids under the age of 12? If what you have just read is what it looks like for ages 12-17, how young does it start and what do we need to know to be ready for these kids when they turn old enough for us to care about them?

So let me get this started. Luker on Trends and KidSay (see Forward Thinking, below) are going to put together the best intelligence we can on kids 5-17, along with insights from their parents and teachers. We are announcing this effort at Hashtag in New York on Tuesday. We will focus first on the power of change, and then on how change is influencing sports and the rest of free time. You can help us find the right foci by sending me an email (address below) answering the following statement. “If I knew _____ about kids 5-17, I would be much better prepared to serve them when they get older.”

Bob Reynolds, Terence Burke

Bob Reynolds and Terence Burke of KidSay Research have been studying kids ages 5-15 for over 17 years. I have known them for most of that time. We recently shared our respective findings and interpretations. We were both surprised at how clearly our data and thinking aligned. But it was sobering at the same time, because it suggests there is much more work to be done. Here’s some of my conversation with Burke:

How advanced are younger kids in their online engagement, and how is that engagement affecting what they do for fun — and in particular, sports?

Seventy percent of 12- to 15-year-olds have their own tablet. Even more (87 percent) have their own smartphone (8- to 11-year-olds: 82 percent tablets, 59 percent smartphones; 5- to 7-year-olds: 77 percent tablets, 10 percent have smartphones). This device-laden environment is changing kids’ relationship with entertainment. Having a portal in their pockets has enabled kids to have more frequent engagement with content. This is evident in the number of kids ages 8-15 who report using the internet “many times a day.” It’s now at 64 percent, a 32 percent increase over 2012. And this kid-sourced number is conservative, as many of these kids don’t consider their time on apps as “using the internet.”

We see the same trend you do in watching videos as the favorite online activity. Seventy-six percent of 12- to 15-year-olds subscribe to YouTube (61 percent of 8-11s; 17 percent of 5-7s).

While engagement with entertainment is more frequent, it’s also more fleeting. Kids traverse the entertainment landscape constantly on the lookout for the latest “just for me” content. That vigilance is why YouTube is the favorite website of 44 percent of kids 5-15. (No. 2: Google, 7 percent). That 44 percent is over three times the number of kids who named YouTube as their favorite website five years ago. For kids 5-7, that tripling in YouTube’s popularity has happened in just the past year.

As for sports, in 2017, 9.2 percent of kids 8-15 mentioned sports when asked what their favorite weekend activities were. That is down more than 31 percent from 2012.

Your data shows that kids at a very early age are embracing online behaviors that are directly in competition with time spent on sports. What is the key for reaching kids 5-11 with sports in this environment?

By having their own smartphones, kids today have much more control over what they do. It starts with knowing about what they do now, and want to do more, not just in sports, but overall free time. Most of the research we do with kids also allows us to learn from their parents and teachers. Going forward, we can do more to see the fit between what kids do and how parents and teachers interact with them. For example, we know parents today want their kids to be well-rounded and equipped for adult life. Recognizing this, a cook created an online cooking show for kids. It was a hit for the kids because it came to them where they wanted to be. And it made the parents happy because it was helping their kids grow up. The key is showing up where kids want to be and introducing the love of sports in the way they see the world.

Rich Luker ( is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.