Where All the Fans Have Gone

A bi-coastal view into declining viewership ratings for live sports on TV

Much has been written about the decline in live sports viewership over the past few years. Some of this decline has been attributed to the changing viewing habits of millennials and the burgeoning Gen Z, who prefer to watch highlights on social media or on apps that localize sports content. Others support this point with discussions around “cord-cutters and cord-nevers,” those consumers who eschew cable packages in favor of on-demand content from subscription services, or in some instances, pirated content from the web. What’s more, similar declines in Europe (The UK’s Premiere League reported a 39% viewership decline from 2012-2017 on their flagship Sunday afternoon game) point to a more macro trend around the globe. With sports one of the few remaining bastions of live TV tune in, the question becomes, what are sports fans doing to fill the time they used to fill as captive audiences?

While there are numerous differences in sports fans from coast to coast, data has shown that fans averaged in ages 35-49 on both the west coast and east coast.

As an east coast native now living on the west coast, I sought out the answer with a review of unique contextual data on sports fans living on both sides of the country (i.e. those states that touch the Pacific or Atlantic oceans). Specifically, what type of sports do east coast fan prefer to watch or play, how fans spend their leisure time away from the TV and ultimately determine how brands can give them more of what they care about through their marketing efforts.

East coast highlights

One of the more striking differences uncovered is in the type of sports each coast favors. There’s strong evidence of prep school and collegiate tradition in the east, with the top two team sports of interest being lacrosse and hockey, while pro wrestling’s stronghold in the region also remains intact (the WWE is headquartered in Stamford, CT, and many of its early events were held in the famed Madison Square Garden in NYC). Country club favorites like tennis and golf are also of high interest. Fantasy sports (especially football) also shows higher interest on the east coast than on the west, and there has been plenty of conjecture around the impact of fantasy sports on network TV ratings. One theory is that while fantasy helps draw in casual fans, the advent of snackable fantasy highlights on programs such as DirecTV’s NFL RedZone offer a compelling alternative to watching full games, potentially one factor in the overall ratings declines. After all, fantasy sports participants may care more about their own team than certain professional ones, a manifestation of the personalization phenomena we see in other areas of society.

West coast highlights

Out on the west coast, the top two sports of interest are surfing and soccer, a reflection of both the proximity to the birthplace of surfing (Hawaii) and its subsequent adoption on the beaches of California, as well as soccer’s success through the MLS on the west coast (teams and their respective stadiums in Seattle, Portland, San Jose and Los Angeles have operated at or near 100% capacity in terms of attendance since the league’s inception back in 1996). West coast fans have access to outdoor activity year round, which is reflected in their favorite sports. But perhaps the most telling of how west coast fans spend their time with sports is within the “alternative sports” realm, with snowboarding, motocross, biking (BMX and mountain) and outdoor activities such as hiking, running and watersports all showing higher interest out west than on the east coast.

What’s next for marketers?

While there are numerous differences in sports fans from coast to coast, data has shown that fans averaged in ages 35-49 on both the west coast and east coast. With ample amounts of insights for fans on both coasts, the question remains, where do marketers go from here? While live sports ratings on TV are declining, they still pull in large audiences relative to other programming, so completely abandoning the medium is not a viable short-term solution. One thing to also keep in mind is that declining ratings are not necessarily analogous with declining interest, rather, a reflection of a global society that has more access to fragmented content than ever before. Their passion remains, it can just be a little harder to identify then with simplistic ratings measurements.

Across the US, we see an uptick of interest overall in gaming and e-sports, which have been discussed as an alternative to the major leagues in terms of reaching a new generation of sports fans. Data also reveals a very diverse set of websites where sports fans obtain their news, follow their favorite teams and players, and hold discussions on forums with other likeminded fans. One major common thread between e-sports, fan forums, and discussion boards is a sense of community built around a shared interest. These online communities often contain some of the most impassioned fans, active discussions, and ultimately invaluable assets for marketers to tap into.

With these insights in mind, marketers should shift their focus on understanding what the most passionate members of each sport’s respective fan bases are interested in at key moments, developing communications and adding unique value to those topics to build loyalty from the ground up. The brands that establish themselves as key members of a community built around sport are primed to take advantage of today’s media landscape of interruption and distraction, eschewing ratings and embracing connection as their key measurements of success.

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