Since 2009, my firm has conducted an annual survey of some 1,300 avid sports fans to gauge and trend their attitudes on a number of topical issues surrounding the sports landscape. In our hyper-competitive sports marketing environment, where everyone seems to be looking to be bigger, better, newer and faster, it’s easy to overlook the true underlying sentiment of those who open their wallets and engage in or reject our content, our partnership activations and the broadening array of more personalized experiences that we strive to provide.
Clearly, the popularity of football, both at the collegiate and professional levels, has skyrocketed over the last decade, with 85% and 67% of sports fans claiming to closely follow each, respectively; tops among all sports.s But underlying the fascination that remains are a number of intriguing conundrums.
Sensationalism and the pursuit of Attention vs. Overexposure
There’s often a fine line between immersion and saturation. Our research has interestingly shown that among the most passionate fans of a particular sport the proliferation of available content across digital media has actually been additive rather than disruptive to traditional channels like print and television. Fans are actually spending more time across a greater number of content sources, feeding what may seem to be an insatiable appetite.
But from a straight market share standpoint, there is ultimately a point that will throw supply out of synch with available demand. This strikes us as troublesome in that the tenor of content has become more sensationalized as the expanding base of content providers battle for attention. Advertisers must navigate this fragmented landscape, and contraction of media vehicles seems inevitable. Only 7% of fans we surveyed agreed that they are interested in learning about the private lives of sports stars. So, as much of the ubiquitous banter seems oriented towards off-field activities, we may rapidly reach a tipping point.
While our 2017 fan survey showed NCAA football topping all 20 measured sports in perceived popularity increase vs. decrease, the NFL, though still on the positive side of that ledger, posted its worst ratio since inception of the survey. Couple this with some 43% of avid football fans who strongly agreed with the statement, “The NFL is overexposed,” and complacency is ill advised.
Player Safety vs. The Pursuit of Glory
In lockstep with the media battle for attention, we’ve seen amplified and often dramatic dialogue about player safety, fueled by discussions of CTE and persistent reportage on players in concussion protocol. While it is far from my intent to seem insensitive, our research shows a very intriguing dichotomy in fan attitudes. On the one hand, more than two-thirds of football fans that we surveyed this year strongly agreed with the statement, “The issue of concussions in football is among the most serious problems that must be dealt with.”
Yet at the same time, we pose to respondents an intriguing scenario that reads, “Assume for a moment that a genie offers you the following proposition: You will be given the opportunity to live or re-live your life with the ability to become an All-Pro NFL player, recognized as one of the best at your position in the league and compensated accordingly. You will enjoy a lucrative 10-year career that enables you to retire from the game with both celebrity and lifetime financial security. However, at age 65, you will begin to show the onset of dementia. Do you accept the genie's offer?” In 2017, some 54% of football fans aged 45 and under, went for it … up a full 10% from what we observed just two years ago!
The Thin Line Between Participatory Fandom and Legalized Gambling
Also captivating our attention is the continuing debate over legalized sports gambling. We’ve all heard statistics on the volume of wagers placed on the Super Bowl and College Football Playoff. A sizable industry has evolved around fantasy sports that some suggest has transformed the way we watch the game. Yet, fans are still not fully over the line when it comes to supporting what many feel is an inevitable pivot towards legalized wagering. In our most recent study, more fans (31%) strongly agreed that sports gambling should be legalized throughout the U.S. than strongly disagreed (29%). Yet the plurality (39%) were on the fence. Much for sports marketers to think about and, hopefully, much more research to be done as we strap on the helmets for 2017.