Why Do So Many Young Americans Hate Sports?

Market data paints a grim picture for the future of pro sports. In league offices around the country, the campaign to secure it is well underway.

November 19, 2021 5:59 am
Three young people in the stands at a professional soccer game browse their smarthpones
Nearly 30% of people under the age of 25 say they actively dislike sports, an alarming figure for leagues and their broadcasters
Mike Hewitt/Getty

According to the headline of an op-ed she wrote for her school paper last year, Penn State senior Grace Miller really, really, really hates sports. She hates the pervasive win-at-all-costs approach that strips away the fun. She hates the “toxic culture” sports can propagate. She hates that sports are often inherently exclusionary, separating men from women, and the “best players” from the putatively inferior ones. 

Miller also believes that when it comes to sports, to reference a meme many people in her age group know well, ain’t nobody got time for that.

“This generation just has so much to think about, with social injustice, obviously the coronavirus, financial things and all the struggles that are happening,” Miller tells InsideHook. “When would I think about sports? I work and I go to school and I worry and I sleep and I don’t have room for sports in my head.”

She’s hardly the only young person with this outlook.

A new study reveals that just 23 percent of Generation Z — people born between 1992 and 2007, as the study defines the age group — consider themselves “avid” sports fans. That’s 19 percent lower than the Millennial mark of 42 percent. Roughly a third of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, meanwhile, identify as “avid” sports fans, about 10 points higher than members of Gen Z. Perhaps more tellingly, Gen Z folks say they “actively dislike” sports at a 27-percent clip. The correspondent rates for Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers rate hovered between 5 and 7 percent.

This is not the first time data collectors have concluded that Gen Z is just not that into sports. In November 2020, Rich Luker, a social psychologist who founded his own sports polling organization, told the Washington Post that he’s observed sports fandom drop among young people for the past decade and a half, and has warned major sports leagues that a reckoning is on the horizon. Two months earlier, an enterprise technology company, Morning Consult, released a report indicating that 53 percent of Gen Z identifies as sports fans, of any degree, compared to 63 percent of all adults and 69 percent of Millennials. Morning Consult also revealed that “Gen Zers are half as likely as Millennials to watch live sports regularly and twice as likely to never watch.” 

Why the decline in live sports viewership? Nielsen, the ratings analytics giant, said in 2019 that Gen Z individuals “have higher expectations for entertainment experiences than their elders, and new ways to discover and consume content.”

Given the size of the sports industry complex — worth tens of billions of dollars a year in revenue, including about $20 billion in media rights — such precipitous drops of interest among young people raise concerns about the long-term sustainability of sports leagues and the media companies broadcasting their content. 

Stakeholders have taken notice.

Why Do So Many Young People Hate Sports?

The relative lack of sports enthusiasm in young people is “a consequence of the culture we exist in,” says Mike Lewis, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, who co-authored the most recent study and published it on his website, Fanalytics, an information platform focusing on fandom trends. Lewis and his research partners have considered several prospective causes for this shift.

First, Lewis observes that the United States has undergone a change in demographics, rapidly diversifying in recent decades, welcoming people from new parts of the world, namely Asia and Latin America. “It’s not clear that the attitudes and the preferences for sports are going to be the same when folks are coming from different cultural backgrounds,” he says. 

The greater diversity among Americans has naturally compelled sports leagues to market toward a wider range of people. In what Lewis calls a “strange paradox,” the effort by these corporations to “be more inclusive and broaden their audience” could have the opposite effect, weakening the interest of their “core audience.” 

“If a product becomes something for everyone,” Lewis continues, “that product isn’t for any specific group.”

He also points out that kids today more often focus on a single discipline versus playing various sports year-round. This specialization has helped cultivate a rise in highly competitive and costly travel teams, which Lewis says pushes more youth “out of their sports career by the middle of grade school.”

“The theory is a lot of people become fans because they played the sport, and so if we have fewer people playing, then we have fewer people interested in consuming [sports] in the future,” says Melissa Davies, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Sport Administration at Ohio University, who’s considered this issue in her research. “That’s another area of concern, to perhaps invest in youth sports and opportunities for people to experience the sport, hands on, before becoming fans.”

Curiously, Lewis’s data also suggests that there exists a stark gender divide when it comes to Gen Z’s interest in sports. The study reported that 29 percent of Gen Z females identify as avid sports fans, with a comparable percentage recorded among Gen X females. But Gen X males identify as avid sports fans at a 39-percent rate, nearly two times that of their more youthful Gen Z counterparts (20 percent). Considering the zeitgeist discourse about American male alienation, Lewis says, “we have data that suggests, psychologically, they’re not interested in being a part of things as [much as] young women are.”

As this observation relates to sports, Lewis says a left-leaning faction of society might cry, “Toxic masculinity is causing men to behave badly and not participate.” On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the perspective could hold that “culture is too influenced by feminists, and therefore [sports is] negative to young men,” which might also influence a lack of sports engagement. “I don’t think it’s possible to disentangle these factors,” concludes Lewis.

He also notes that while both Millennials and Gen Z are “digital natives,” the younger of the two groups has taken device integration to “the next level.” They’ve owned and used smartphones as we know them today since elementary school, while the oldest Millennials didn’t have them until grad school. This reality has tremendous ramifications for how Gen Z chooses to consume media. Lewis says it “may not lend itself to traditional fandom,” e.g., sitting down in front of a television and watching a game for, say, three consecutive hours.

In considering Gen Z’s active hatred of sports — a data point that Lewis calls a “real eye-opener,” since “we tend to think of sports as this unifyer or at least something that is going to be neutral” — he and his research partners point to the proliferation of “outrage culture.” “If you’re indifferent to something, maybe because the way outrage culture works, what you do is you actually flip that to become something that you’re very negative about, that you go on the attack,” Lewis says. 

In conversation with Miller, the Penn State senior, she backtracks a bit from her highly clickable headline that said she “really, really, really hates sports.” She understands the appeal of sports, and even its cultural relevance and importance — how sports can harbor a sense of community, for example. She also admits to not being very athletic, and believes that may have informed her point of view. 

Regardless, she says, “I just literally never found it interesting.” But there’s still a component of outrage to Miller’s take. Her documented aggression toward sports was partly fueled by the blowback that non-sports fanatics can be subjected to, which flies in the face of the generally more conscientious, sensitive and inclusive disposition of young people today. “Sports fans can be very clique-y,” Miller says. “Then they shit on you for liking something else.”

In her op-ed, she wrote that she couldn’t see a difference between a sports fan being upset their team lost a championship game and a One Direction fan being upset about the band’s breakup. “These girls are called dramatic, stupid or immature,” she wrote, referring to those on Team Harry, Team Zayn and the rest. “But when a man cries because his favorite sports team lost a game, no one ever says the same thing.”

Division like this, and with far higher stakes, has become widespread among the American populace, with individuals hardening their polarized stances. Lewis believes sports fandom of the future could thus become increasingly “segment-oriented,” mimicking our new orientations on a broader societal level.

“We’re starting to see a lot more breakage among political lines, where conservatives may be alienated from the NBA after last year, some differences in terms of [which sports] different races tend to prefer,” Lewis says. “I suspect you’re going to start to see distinct fan groups that are going to overlap a lot less.” Down the road, he says, it’s possible that neither Braves fans nor Hawks fans will call themselves “Atlanta sports fans.”

The Rise of Esports

There are, however, contradicting narratives even within the scope of Lewis’s study. While traditional American sports like football and baseball are on the wane among young people, newer, often digitally native competitions are growing at remarkable rates among the same demographics.

According to Lewis’s study, Gen Z had the lowest generational fandom rankings across the four major North American team sports. But that was not the case with esports (or soccer). Using their own seven-point scale, Lewis and his researchers found that Gen Z esports fandom outranked that of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers — though it still ranked slightly lower than Millennial esport fandom. 

This year, the esports industry celebrated its first $1 billion annual revenue projection, with some speculating that the figure may reach beyond $2.5 billion in 2022. Sam Cooke, Managing Director of Esports Insider, an esports events and media company he co-founded five years ago, measures the industry’s growth by what he calls “audience awareness” — which translates into dollars and cents.

“When you’re speaking to brands or sports organizations, or advertisers or media, if you mentioned the word ‘esports’ in 2016, most people would be like, ‘What?’” says Cooke. “Now, most people at least have a decent idea of what it is or have at least heard of it.”

For the uninitiated, Cooke says “any competitive video game or competitive ecosystem that includes people playing against people” qualifies as esports. In addition to video game and console sales, as well as advertising and sponsorships, esports also gets its nut from live, in-person events, in which fans watch gamers compete against each other, no different than two professional sports squads going toe-to-toe on a field, court or rink at the base of an arena.

“The in-person events are a huge part of the esports landscape,” Cooke says. “Everything from the Bird’s Nest in Beijing to [the] League of Legends World Championships, those events are absolutely spectacular.”

The scene at the World Championships Final of League of Legends at the Bird's Nest in Beijing on November 4, 2017
The scene at the World Championships Final of League of Legends at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing on November 4, 2017
STR/AFP via Getty

The reasons for esports’ popularity among more digitally savvy generations — whether it’s Gen Z or Millennials — isn’t hard to ascertain. As Cooke explains, they represent a “fast, ready, quickly consumable, easy-accessible” brand of content. He adds that esports is “super easily attainable, and it’s right there in the palm of your hand.” In other words, esports satisfy those shorter attention spans that Gen Z folk are (in)famous for. Still, Cooke stops short of saying esports is “the future,” as though there will be a Terminator-esque takeover. 

“We’ve seen these headlines and the idea batted around through certain [media] outlets that sports organizations should be frightened of esports or ‘esports is coming for your fans.’ Absolutely not,” Cooke tells InsideHook. “It’s just a new way of consuming content.”

Melissa Davies, the sports administration instructor, points to changes in media consumption as the trait that has sports leagues most concerned — not some generational, en-masse purging of fans. “If this next generation is no longer consuming [sports] via the traditional broadcast, then that’s going to obviously have wide financial implications,” she says. “But the positive side is that we are seeing they’re still interested in sports, it’s just completely different in how they’re trying to consume it.” The question for sports leagues and broadcasters, she says, is “How do we meet them in a way that interests them, and how do we monetize that long term?”

The Plan to Win Them Back

Davies says one possible broadcasting solution is already widely known: NFL RedZone, a linear TV experience in which only teams with imminent scoring opportunities from across the entire league are broadcast. Gen Zers are “accustomed to having that highlight culture,” from primarily watching sports on social media. More sports, she says, could be “packaged” in similar ways. 

Davies adds that “including more data and information in the broadcasts, to help with things like fantasy sports and gambling,” can also help attract and retain young consumers. More personalized experiences could also become a thing, Davies says, another influence of social media. The PGA, for example, recently launched a livestream that allows viewers to watch individual golfers of their choice rather than following whomever the broadcaster picks for them.

Stakeholders can also meet Gen Z on streaming platforms — though engagement with this relatively new TV technology in older people is growing as well. In response to young viewer demands for streamers, NBCUniversal launched NBCLX, a digital storytelling platform, in June 2020. Its content primarily focuses on current events and hot-button issues, shows and segments the hyper-aware Gen Z viewer will crave. But sports has also been on the menu. 

“We treat it like everything else: What is going on in the world and what’s the best way to cover it?” says Matt Goldberg, Vice President of Content Strategy at NBCLX. 

When NBCLX recently covered the MLB, for example, the coverage skewed toward how the All Star Game’s change in location from Atlanta to Denver affected local economies. Instead of presenting events during this year’s Summer Olympics, NBCLX published human interest pieces, like one about a female athlete’s newfound ability to “embrace her Blackness.” (Davies says such behind-the-scenes access is another type of broadcasting Gen Zers enjoy, also a carryover from social media culture.)

NBCLX is also now a broadcast partner of Fan Controlled Football (FCF), which Goldberg says is a “meeting of live sports and gaming.” In the seven-on-seven indoor football competition that is FCF, Goldberg explains, “As a fan, you have the ability to call plays, you have the ability to be a part of the game, and choosing who’s on the teams, what are the team names, what are the colors of the teams.” Fan engagement is made possible through a phone app, making second-screen viewing, a very common Gen Z behavior, inherent to the experience. 

This is hardly the first time professional sports leagues have had to recalibrate their approach to attracting fans with new demands. When radios began to make their presence felt in American homes back in the 1920s, Major League Baseball balked at the idea of broadcasting games across the airwaves, out of fears stadium gate revenue would suffer. 

“But other owners [eventually] saw radio as a promotional machine that would sell baseball to women and, more importantly, children — the next generation of paying fans,” wrote James Walker, a communications professor at Xavier University, in a 2015 article. MLB would later leverage the television to bring baseball to fans who’d never seen a game in person.

John Ourand, a writer for Sports Business Journal, agrees that the current state of affairs in sports and broadcasting tech is similar to those a century ago. In regards to attracting and retaining young media-consuming fans, Ourand says, “Nobody quite knows how to do it yet, and everybody is testing.”

Before young fans became drawn to streaming services, there was social media. Ourand says initially platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook were “rivals of the leagues” and “the networks did not want any of their programming on there.” But today, Ourand says leagues and networks are more open to allowing social media users to clip content and throw it up onto the platforms. Social media companies have also become outright broadcasting partners, with live-streamed games beamed across the digital ether. 

This past January, Nickelodeon partnered with CBS to broadcast a kid-friendly twist on an NFL playoff contest, with Snapchat-like graphics superimposed to player faces as they celebrated for the camera. When a player scored a touchdown, slime graphics rained down on them, a playful on-brand feature from Nickelodeon, which Ourand also says “created a full production, with an announce team that was talking basically to 10-year-olds, explaining football.”

The offering was so successful that its broadcasters are bringing it back this playoff season, and Nickelodeon recently launched a weekly pro football series, NFL Slimetime, which also airs via streaming on Paramount+. Upon the show’s announcement, Sean McManus, the CBS Sports Chair, said Nickelodeon has “a demographic and an audience that the NFL wants to reach.”

After concerns were raised that the NHL has been lacking in new, younger fans, the league began approaching the ones it already has for marketing advice. The NHL’s new broadcasting partnership with Disney is also partly a ploy to attract young people to hockey.

NFL game on Nickelodeon
Nickelodeon cartoon characters in the stands during the NFC Wild Card Playoff game
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

America’s Past Time?

In any conversation about the death of American pro sports, one league has long taken center stage: Major League Baseball. Most recently, the league has faced concerns that the game’s “pace of play” does not jive with contemporary consumers, especially young ones who are used to content that moves at a breakneck pace. But Chris Marinak, MLB’s Chief Operations and Strategy Officer, says that while the league must continue to explore new ways to reach young people whose media consumption is far more “fragmented” today than ever before, baseball’s relationship with them is strong. And MLB has data to support its stance. 

When combining baseball and softball — so as to more fairly compare the sport of baseball to other singular sports that both males and females engage with — a trade organization called the Sports & Fitness Industry Association says it is the sport Americans have participated in most across four of the last five years. ​​Since the MLB’s “Play Ball” initiative, which encourages sustained participation in the sport, began in 2014, casual baseball activity has increased by nearly 90 percent in the U.S.

To address the new consumer demands in broadcasting, MLB has partnered with YouTube to present a “Game of the Week” and produce a series called MLB Originals, which according to a statement “presents stories about the game and its players in a variety of unique short storytelling video formats.” Ninety-five percent of the show’s audience is aged between 13 and 34. Elsewhere, the number of minutes streamed on MLB.TV jumped 39 percent last year, and the league partnered with Twitch for “Watch Parties” that featured celebrity appearances. 

Over on social media, MLB founded the Player Social program, with the league issuing the players customized content through an app for use on their personal social media accounts. And fans are getting involved in promotional efforts on TikTok, with the league recruiting a “Creator Class” that provides young people “access to the game, players and celebrity fans to generate TikTok videos with the platform’s sensibility in mind,” according to a statement.

With these programs and others, Marinak says MLB is “keeping the product current and compelling in the construct of modern media consumption. 

“That’s really more of what it’s all about; it’s not about changing the product,” he adds. “People love the product.”

With young people also being of freer individual expression and issue-oriented, MLB has begun to embrace players’ show of style and enthusiasm on the field — manifesting in its recent “Let the Kids Play” ad campaign — while amplifying their voices. Buoyed by the resurgent social justice protests of 2020 and an eagerness for people in the game to publicize their support, current and former MLB competitors founded the Players Alliance, a group “focused on building equitable systems in order to change the trajectory of diversity throughout baseball.” MLB has committed up to $150 million to the organization.  

Melissa Davies says this time of increased cultural focus on civil rights, equity and inclusion is an “opportunity” for leagues and broadcasters to “invest in growth for the non-traditional” organizations, like women’s leagues. She notes that when the NBA Finals ratings dipped to all-time lows in 2020, WNBA ratings increased. They have also continued to rise, up 49 percent this regular season over last, according to The Athletic.

The Future Is Interactive

If any organization out of “the Big Four” North American pro leagues is stone-cold confident it has a bead on what young people want out of its sport, it’s the NBA. The league boasts the youngest TV viewership among them by a wide margin, with the average age sitting around 42. When I asked the NBA to respond to the Fanalytics study and other recent data indicating a Gen-Z disassociation with sports, Kate Jhaveri, the league’s Chief Marketing Officer, said in an email, “We are not concerned.

“Based on our research,” she continued, “Gen Z is at the age where they are in the early stages of developing their fandom. We view this as an opportunity to not only connect with them, but to also help grow their affinity for basketball, the NBA and its players.”

The NBA’s young audience is “tech-savvy,” she added, and expects the league to innovate. In fact, it already has, customizing feeds on digital platforms and utilizing alternative audio and camera angles to bring fans “closer to the game.” The NBA also achieves greater connectivity, she wrote, through social media content, where “maintaining a multiplatform strategy to meet these young fans where they are has always been top of mind for us.” 

To name a couple more examples of NBA initiatives aimed at young people, there’s also ESPN’s recent “Marvelcast,” where Marvel Comics superheroes turned up in a 3D broadcast, and TNT’s betting-focused telecasts, both of which Jhaveri added have been “very successful.” 

In addition to producing content on streaming platforms and other places Gen Z people might find it, more traditional broadcasters of sports might also consider dedicating airtime to sports actually being played by youngsters. Joe Gleason, a sports producer at KTRK, an ABC-owned station in Houston, oversees a wealth of high school sports video content, with an emphasis on football, which he says in the area “is king.”

“It’s a commitment,” Gleason says. “You have to be committed to these kids in these communities, and we are.” 

Last year, during peak coronavirus season, KTRK partnered with a local high school sports outlet to stream two games each week, including football, basketball and volleyball. This year, Gleason has hosted a high school sports streaming show each week ahead of the Friday night football kickoffs. But like NBCLX, and other outlets seeking to draw Gen Z viewers, KTRK also produces an abundance of human interest stories that moonlight as sports coverage, some of which are built on themes of inclusion — with girls joining high school football squads, for example — which young people might appreciate.

“It shows the community we care,” Gleason says of the effort. “We’re not just ‘Channel 13,’ we’re part of their lives, and that’s what is a little different in what we’ve been doing to try to grab younger people and keep younger people, because their interests are all over the place.”

Whether or not these ploys to attract and retain young sports fans to the leagues and their broadcasters will work in the long term is, for now, a mystery. Gen Zers are the newest members of the 18-to-34 age demographic, when people spend more money on products than larger investments, like homes, making them vital to marketers. (Some Gen Z kids are still only in their mid-teens.) As experimentation grows more rampant, broadcasters and marketers will collect data to assess failure and success. Only then will we be able to say whether Gen Z’s putatively compromised interest in sports is salvageable.

One final tech-driven attempt at engaging with young people has particularly high hopes for accomplishing this. Coming soon to an arena near you is technology built by a design company called TVU Networks that will allow fans themselves to broadcast from the stands of live sporting events

“One of our statements is: ‘The best camera you have is the camera in your hand,’ and that’s your phone,” says Greg Doggett, Director of Sports, Entertainment and Strategic Alliances at TVU Networks. Via the TVU Anywhere phone app, with team arena and broadcasting partner integration, fans can contribute to sports broadcasts on big screens inside the building and those beamed out of it, to TVs, laptops and other phones and devices. Even fans outside the arena can be included in the sports content “ecosystem,” Doggett says, which broadcast producers can pull from. 

TVU is currently demoing this technology with professional team sports leagues. It will potentially allow fans to supply instant replay angles from the seats, among other applications, like up-close-and-very-personal kiss cams

The tool can also give fans the chance to provide real-time reactions to on-field play in the stands, reinforcing the sense of community that’s been the bedrock of sports fandom since time immemorial — something the MLB’s Chris Marinak says Gen Z still values tremendously. 

“If you ask, more broadly, things to Gen Z like, ‘How important is it for you to be part of a community?’ and ‘How important is it for you for sports to play a role as a way to bring people together or create a way for you to socialize with friends, family, etc.?’ the Gen Z group actually over-indexes in that,” Marinak says. 

Still, the best way to achieve this communal sensibility is what writer John Ourand suggests, a fairly low-tech solution that’s been available for as long as sports have existed: “Go to a game.”

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