The world of today is dominated by the blistering acceleration of technology and is increasingly trending in the direction of younger generations such as millennials and generation z. With this knowledge, it’s no wonder that traditional sports such as football, basketball, etc. are seeing a sharp decrease in viewership over the last five years and the market for technology-based sports like drone racing and esports is growing exponentially. But you don’t have to take my word for it, the numbers speak for themselves, showing a great schism between the younger generations and sports interest and consequentially viewership.
According to a Nielsen study of television viewership data of 24 different traditional sports, all but one have seen the median age of their TV viewers increase during the past decade. NASCAR saw the greatest jump in age, from 49 to 58 being the median age of viewers in 2016 – with the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) seeing increases of four years each as well. Traditional sports are skewing older as the older generations’ size begins to decline which likely spells disaster for many of these sports as their viewership continues to fall. The millennial generation has overtaken the baby boomers as the largest living generation and it seems that their disinterest in traditional sports will continue to decrease viewership across the board.
For years professional football has been America’s favorite sport in almost every poll conducted, and despite it still being number one on the list – the NFL has seen a recent decrease in viewership after decades of substantial growth. Sunday Night Football has been television’s highest-rated primetime show for five years running, but in 2016 it saw a 10 percent viewership drop as well as double-digit declines in Monday & Thursday night games as well. Last year Fox posted its worst NFL viewership since 2008 and ESPN had its worst since 2005. This coupled with the recent National Anthem controversy is likely to result in a continued viewership decline across the 2017 season and the future.
NFL viewership among 18 to 34 year olds
But it’s not just the NFL that is seeing this decline in viewership in recent years, not even younger skewed sports like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) or the National Basketball Association (NBA) are immune from the trend. The median age of NBA viewers remains one of the younger for professional sports, at 42 – but not even that is enough to keep viewership up. The NBA reported a regular-season decrease in viewership of 6% in 2016 from the previous year. Though they were lucky enough to see a small uptick (4%) in viewers through the post-season, unlike other sports leagues. UFC, like every other traditional sport saw an increase in the median age of viewers, from 34 in 2006 to a staggering 49 in 2016. Between this age increase and the loss of many of its flagship stars like Rhonda Rousey and Conor McGregor their viewership saw decline as well.
With this across-the-board decline in traditional sports viewership you may wonder how any sports at all could possibly see an increase in viewers in the coming years. Newer technology-based sports like drone racing and esports are seeing monumental increases in viewership each year and are projected to see continued growth. For esports, the number of “enthusiasts” worldwide in 2012 was 58 million which more than doubled by 2016 to a whopping 162 million and is predicted to increase all the way to 286 million by 2020 if trends continue. In fact, their 2017 World Championship (Intel Extreme Masters) set a record for live attendance with more than 173,000 attendees – about 100,000 more than last year’s Super Bowl. They also reached an audience of more than 46 million unique online viewers, highly impressive given the infancy of the sport.
Drone racing is another technology-based sport seeing an increase in fans and viewership over the past few years. Indeed, even more traditional sports mediums like ESPN have jumped onto the drone racing bandwagon, airing the Drone Racing League’s (DRL) competitive events including their annual championship. The DRL 2016 season on ESPN drew in more than 33 million broadcast viewers and 45 million digital content viewers. In 2017 the DRL saw astronomical growth and expanded their broadcast partnerships to include top-tier global networks including Disney XD and OSN. Continued growth can be expected for drone racing, for both viewership and international popularity.
Given the data, the outlook for traditional sports viewership may seem bleak for the future but what these leagues need to do is learn from the technology-based sports. What are esports and drone racing doing differently than their relatively antediluvian competitors? They’re catering to the millennial and post-millennial generations in many ways, particularly by offering their broadcasts online and fostering communities through social endeavors. Most traditional sports air their live broadcasts on television or online with a paid subscription to cable or their channel, but with millennials leading the way in cord-cutting they’re losing out on a colossal chunk of viewers. Millennials are continuing to cut their cable cords as the costs outweigh the perceived value, many of them may be sports fans but are willing to sacrifice their interest in live sports in order to save on the astronomical costs of cable television. Though the NFL is finally catching up with this notion and offering live programming on Hulu (for an additional cost, of course), it may be too little too late.
What does this mean for the future of sports – particularly for advertisers and investors? It may be prudent to begin diversifying your money into the newer technology-based sports, particularly if you aim to reap the monetary benefits from millennials and post-millennials. With the overblown cost of advertising during traditional sporting events, you may even be better off spending your advertising budget elsewhere – perhaps on more digital content if the drone racing or esports audience doesn’t reach the niche you’re looking for. The trends clearly demonstrate that the safe bets are to 1) divest from traditional sports to prevent the loss of capital and protect your company from being associated with tired brands and 2) invest in drone racing or esports to capture the gains that come from reaching the surging number of fans and viewers.