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Volume 21 No. 13
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We are wrong about millennials; they ARE sports fans

M any sports executives fear that the root cause of declining TV viewership and aging audiences is the disengagement of millennials from live sports. But the belief that millennials are to blame is misplaced.

We aren’t losing fans, we are fighting short attention spans

From Nielsen data, in the 2016-17 regular season, NFL ratings among millennials declined 9 percent. However, the number of millennials watching the NFL actually increased from the prior season by 2 percent. The ratings decline was caused by an 8 percent drop in the number of games watched and a 6 percent decline in the minutes watched per game. The same was true for MLB, NBA and NHL. With so many sports options across so many screens, fans of all ages are clicking away from low-stakes or lopsided games.

Millennials are social fans, and research shows that they are still watching live games.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

Millennials versus Gen X: The wrong way to segment sports fans

As sports executives seek to build new direct-to-consumer channels, McKinsey’s proprietary research suggests that age is an ineffective way to target digital sports fans.

Millennials are sports fans too. Although more Gen Xers than millennials follow sports closely (45 percent versus 38 percent), the gap disappears for NBA, UFC, MLS, EPL and college sports.

Most millennials have cable. As of November 2016, 78 percent of millennials had cable, satellite or telco TV service at home. That’s pretty close to the 84 percent of Gen Xers with pay TV.

It’s not about getting older, it’s about having kids. It’s true that on average, millennials watched 28 percent fewer hours per week of TV in 2016 than people their age did in 2010, whereas Gen X viewing slipped by only 8 percent over the same period.

However, when Nielsen segments millennials into those living with parents, those living on their own, and those starting their own families (at age 27, all three segments are about equal in size), big differences emerge. Millennials with kids watch 3 hours and 16 minutes of live TV a day, fully 55 percent more than millennials living on their own and just 14 percent less than Gen Xers under 49. Millennials living on their own spend 15 percent more time out of their homes and are 31 percent more likely to own a multimedia device than millennials with kids.

Millennials still watch live games. Millennial sports fans watch just 6 percent fewer live games per week than Gen X.

Everyone’s digital. Virtually everyone in Gen X owns a smartphone, as do millennials. The two groups own multimedia devices (36 percent versus 40 percent) and use online subscription video on demand (68 percent versus 75 percent) at nearly the same rates. And they both spend over five hours a day on smartphones and PCs.


A difference of degree: Streaming and social media

For all the similarities in technology adoption and viewing behaviors, millennials differ from their parents’ generation in two ways that matter to sports rights holders.

Millennials stream sports more often. Millennials stream almost twice as much as Gen X (56 percent versus 29 percent). They are also more likely to admit to using unauthorized sports streaming sites (20 percent versus 3 percent).

Millennials are social fans. While millennials and Gen X use sports sites and apps equally, significantly more millennials follow sports on social media. For example, 60 percent of millennial sports fans check scores and sports news on social media versus only 40 percent for Gen X. Twice as many millennials use Twitter, and five times as many use Snapchat or Instagram for that purpose. YouTube dominates sports highlights for millennials.

However, the gap is closing: Gen X is growing social media usage 38 percent faster than millennials.

Implications: Targeting digital sports fans

Given the similar trends in sports viewing among millennials and Gen X, how should sports marketers target digital fans?
■ Target mobile viewers of live streams. In predicting the number of live sports events watched per week, we found that generation (i.e., millennial versus Gen X) was not statistically significant. Those who watch live sports on mobile, however, watch 20 percent more live sports events than those who do not.
■ Convert the pirates. Fans who admit to watching unauthorized streams watch 22 percent more games (across all platforms) than those who do not.
■ Target moms. Male sports fans with children watch 14 percent fewer live games than those without, but women with children watch 24 percent more sports events than those with no kids.
■ Promote tickets on social media. Teams know to target fans making more than $100,000 a year (51 percent of whom attend live games versus 40 percent of those earning less than $100,000), but they may not know that 56 percent of fans who follow athletes or teams on social media attend games (versus only 30 percent of fans who do not).
■ Highlights are the gateway to subscription video. Fans who consume more than 30 minutes a day of sports highlights are three times as likely to subscribe to sports OTT services as fans who do not.

Implications: Innovating the digital sports experience

The problem of declining attention spans will not be solved merely by replatforming TV video for PCs and mobile devices. As sports marketers develop new digital products — including services for livestreamed events, highlights, fan commentary, news, analysis, etc. — they should design for new, digital behaviors that cut across generations:
■ Shorter viewing sessions (e.g., with whip-around viewing and quick navigation to other games).
■ One-click tune-ins from social media or search, prompted by alerts on high-stakes game situations.
■ Convenient access, e.g., the ability to watch any game for my favorite team or player or fantasy player, regardless of the TV network on which they are broadcast.
■ Rapid, simple sign-on and payment (ideally using fingerprints or other biometrics).
■ Quick navigation between fantasy sports rosters and live streams, especially for avid DFS players (and sports bettors).

Gen X wanted its MTV. Millennials have Fear Of Missing Out. Both generations are consuming digital sports voraciously, at the expense of traditional TV viewing. Sports marketers who target the right digital behaviors, rather than traditional viewer segments, and develop digital products to take advantage of them will build stronger fan bases than ever before.

Dan Singer is the leader of the McKinsey Global Sports & Gaming Practice.