The best time to make a sports fan was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” — Reboot of an Ancient Chinese tree-planting proverb
Professional sports leagues too often think the ‘now’ above is a suggestion. It is not. It is an imperative. It is a call to immediate action. It is a truth that, if unheeded, puts the future of pro sports in existential peril; a peril that the sports world has never faced.
Why such a bold claim?
Because today’s kids are not the easily harvested sports audience that their predecessors were twenty years ago. They are not beholden to a static screen that is controlled by their parents — they control their screens, screens that travel with them wherever they go.
Kids today are not limited to relatively few content options — YouTube, Netflix, and Twitch alone give them millions of content choices. This new reality is why cultivating today’s kids is more challenging than it has ever been for sports leagues.
In the very recent past, limited entertainment options meant leagues did not have to work so hard to nurture fandom in kids. Sports fandom was often a default mode for many kids because frankly, what compelling entertainment options were there? That fact, combined with the way sports was embedded in American culture, meant that the next generation of fans was practically bequeathed to sports leagues. This enabled leagues to focus their energy on their core adult customer. After all, kids were not the ones that purchased tickets, bought apparel, or appealed to advertisers. Adults were. Therefore sports leagues rightfully focused on adults while giving a nod to kids, assured that in a decade or two those kids would be their adult customers.
To be certain of that today is to be irrelevant tomorrow.
While sports are still compelling and a major part of the fabric of American culture, there’s no assurance today’s kids will be tomorrow’s fans.
Sport competes for kids’ attention with an ever-increasing avalanche of content produced to meet kids’ insatiable demands. This content explosion obliterates the ‘default mode/bequeathed fandom’ model that virtually ensured that kids would be future fans. Gen Z’s future fandom is far from ensured.
Since 1999, KidSay has been tracking the attitudes, behaviors, and desires of America’s kids. Our partnership with Rich Luker, founder of the ESPN Sports Poll and CEO of Luker on Trends, offers the sports industry the most comprehensive look at how macro trends with kids ages 5 and up are impacting their relationship to sports.
One of our key findings is that having kids attend a sporting event is a crucial step in creating the type of passionate engagement that leads to life-long loyalty.
Luker says, “If a kid goes to their first baseball game before the age of six, they will go to 58% more games — PER YEAR — for the rest of their life than someone who does not attend their first game until the age of 14. By and large, sports leagues do not even think about “fans” until they turn 18 — long after they have lost any hope of making them fans in the first place.”
Pro sports leagues are not planting enough seeds with today’s kids. This is evident in the fact that no pro sports league can claim that a majority of America’s kids have attended a game. Luker’s insights and recent nation-wide polling conducted for KidSay’s Trend Tracker report tells us that.
This tells us that pro sports leagues are missing out on the opportunity to cultivate relationships with kids when they are young and impressionable — fertile soil upon which fandom grows.
Shared family experiences and indelible memories of the game or while viewing together at home nurture fandom.
It is through these relationships and experiences with family, and teams, and the sport itself that kids develop the deep sports roots that last a lifetime.
Kids want those relationships and experiences. That’s evident in the 84% of kids 8–15 who want to attend a pro sporting event. KidSay recommends developing those relationships and immortalizing those experiences for kids’ terms. Here are 4 key ways to start doing that:
In bite-size chunks
Via mobile devices
Through collaboration and cooperation
With an authentic message and content that “gets” kids and the platforms they are on
And one last thing. If you did not start doing this 20 years ago, the best time to begin is NOW.
Terence Burke is the SVP of Research at KidSay, and co-creator of KidSay’s Trend Tracker, a noted research report that many of the world’s most successful companies rely upon to understand kids and their rapidly-changing world. Connect with Terence here and here.
Enjoy more thought leadership on the impact of Millennial/Gen Z fans at our annual Hashtag Sports conference.