The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.
On top of COVID-19, the national reckoning over racial and social justice, and a rapidly evolving media landscape, pro sports leagues are wrestling with yet another existential crisis: teens and young adults giving up on the game. According to ESPN data cited in a recent Washington Post article, while 96% of teens 12-17 still identify as sports fans, just 34% report being “avid” fans, down from 42% a decade ago.
Fewer young adults bother sitting through hours of live game coverage, threatening the value of a rights package estimated at nearly $50 billion by 2024.
There are many reasons for this. Youth athletic participation rates have long been declining. In a tough economy, fewer families have the money to support their kids’ athletic careers, or to buy pro sports tickets and merchandise. In the age of COVID, teams are now playing to empty houses.
Games are too long for short attention spans shaped by mobile phones and social media. Gen Z is increasingly concerned about how leagues treat players on and off the field, and their support of causes like Black Lives Matter. And young adults used to participatory media—playing video games, making videos, posting comments and connecting with others—find a typical spectator experience to be too passive.
The leagues realize their future rests with Gen Z. They know that if they don’t connect with consumers in their teens, they’ve lost them forever. So they’ve adopted an extensive playbook to attract young fans and make leagues more relevant to digital natives.
What are they doing, and what can marketers learn from this full-court press?
*Serve short videos on digital platforms. Leagues realize that Gen Z viewers might not sit through a three-hour game, but they will seek out game content on social media. And many young viewers might not even have a cable subscription to see games on ESPN, Fox Sports or TNT.
So leagues are putting more clips on social media, with the NBA leading the way: it has 148 million social media followers, more than all other leagues combined, and earns 43% more views on social media vs. three years ago. Its official YouTube channel has 15.4 million subscribers, who have access to nearly 34,000 videos. It’s almost certain that more young people saw LeBron James and his fellow Lakers win the championship on social media than on ABC.
*Give fans a way to join the game. Digital natives don’t just want to see LeBron win the championship; they want to win alongside him. Now that gambling is legal in more states, pro leagues and individual owners are partnering with betting operators. All of the leagues are now on Twitch, and they’re also collaborating with video game companies, esports tournaments and fantasy leagues, to allow fans to play the game digitally alongside their idols, and feel more of a stake in the outcome.
*Speak their language and address their concerns. Sports leagues—traditionally apolitical at best, and reactionary at worst—have now changed their tune. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made a video reaffirming that “Black Lives Matter,” and admitting that “we were wrong” in not listening to players’ concerns.
After the Milwaukee Bucks led a work stoppage during this year’s playoffs, the NBA and players’ union agreed to an unprecedented partnership to promote social justice, including messages on uniforms and the court; ads promoting civic engagement; and arena access for voting. All of these efforts told Gen Z “We hear you, we support you, and we’re changing.”
By adopting these best practices, brands looking to connect with teens and young adults can stay in the game with their fan base of tomorrow.