Here’s perhaps the biggest problem that sports executives and college athletics directors across the country don’t want to hear: the United States’ younger generation is not following sports as much as previous generations.
Here are some stats from Morning Consult to back that up:
- 53% of Gen Zers identify as sports fans, compared to 63% of all adults and 69% of Millennials.
- Gen Zers are half as likely as Millennials to watch live sports regularly and twice as likely to never watch sports regularly.
- Esports are more popular among Gen Z than MLB, NASCAR and the NHL, with 35% identifying as fans.
Do you think I’m just hand-picking data that supports my theory? Well, for that, I’ll reference a recent study conducted & published by William & Mary’s Board of Visitors (if you need to zoom in, feel free):
In the quad box matrix above, prospective W&M students were asked which five attributes are most important to them when judging colleges. Those results were then plotted against data collected from current W&M students, asking current students what they consider to be W&M’s biggest strengths…notice anything? First thing that jumped out to us from a sports perspective was just how incredibly low Division 1 athletics were in importance for W&M’s prospective students (i.e. the younger generation & the type of students that W&M is currently competing for).
If you’re confused why all this is happening, you’re not alone. But digging deeper, the new phenomenon makes total sense. And I’ll tell you why.
The biggest reason the younger generation doesn’t follow sports as much is, in fact, relatively simple when contrasting their entertainment environment with older generations (we’ll use Baby Boomers as the contrasting example): Baby Boomers grew up with limited entertainment options; these options largely included playing sports with friends outside. When inside, with only a handful of actual channels even broadcast on TV, Baby Boomers often found themselves following & watching their favorite local sports teams on TV with their friends and families.
In direct contrast, today’s younger generations (Millennials, Gen Z and beyond), now have seemingly limitless entertainment options: streaming channels with thousands of on-demand, commercial-free shows and movies of all genres & tastes (Disney+, Netflix, HBO Max, etc.), video games that allow one to play with and talk to their friends in reality-bending, online metaverses (Xbox, computer games, augmented reality/virtual reality, etc.), social media outlets that provide personalized, snack-sized entertainment (Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, etc.), and more.
All of these options provide never-ending entertainment that simply did not exist for previous generations. Now, I’m not saying that this is a bad thing; given technological advancement worldwide, this seems to be the natural progression for American society (and for many, if not most, “first world” societies in general).
However, this phenomenon creates MASSIVE ramifications for sports fandom — not only for William & Mary Athletics, but for all of sports, inclusive of major professional sports and collegiate sports — both from a participation standpoint and from a sports fandom standpoint.
It’s often been said that younger generations have a lower attention span than previous generations, and that may be true. But in my estimation, that reality is due, more than any other factor, to society’s current entertainment environment. This newfound environment emphasizes on-demand streaming services (no more waiting for your show to come on or wasting time sitting through ads), bite-sized social media content (quite literally designed to stimulate dopamine bursts in one’s brain), and near-unlimited genres to get lost in (one can now choose to immerse one’s self in just about any fiction / non-fiction rabbit hole one pleases — as opposed to the limited options curated by media monoliths of the past).
And as the human brain remains the same anatomically (i.e. the younger generations’ brains are the same biologically as older generations’ were), I lean toward an environmental explanation for the recent change in sports fandom above all other factors at play.
Circling back, this phenomenon signifies massive trouble for all sports, but especially for sports that are perceived as “slow” and “boring” by the younger generations. Enter America’s past-time: baseball. I truly think that baseball, the poster child of “boring” for modern day youth, will soon go the way of boxing and horse racing, two sports that used to be the most followed in the country, but were phased out as prior generations passed on and new societal interests were cultivated. And this is coming from a big-time baseball fan & from someone who grew up playing the sport! Folks soon forget that there’s legitimate precedent for “big time” sports falling by the wayside in this country, all-too-soon forgetting what happened to boxing and horse racing not too long ago.
Getting back to W&M and college athletics as a whole: on football game days, it’s very easy to find current students quite literally dodging (an ever-dwindling amount of) tailgaters on their way to the library or on their way to some other event they deem far more interesting than taking in a game. A game that requires them to sit on cold, hard bleachers (with no seatbacks) for 3 long hours — all for an event that might even end in their team losing! When coupling that raw perspective with today’s alternative entertainment options, it’s quite easy to see why sports fandom is dwindling with the all-important younger demographic.
And it’s true today perhaps more than ever before: college football student sections are seldom, if ever, full. It’s sad, especially for older alums who remember when college sports were truly a big deal (especially at W&M). And as older donors and alums pass on, I sincerely fear for the future of many college athletics programs, including W&M Athletics — especially from a fundraising perspective. But this isn’t just a problem for “smaller” athletics schools. This is a trend we’re seeing everywhere.
Heck, we’re even seeing big-time athletics coaches like Nick Saban complaining about students leaving games at halftime; it really doesn’t seem to matter how successful your school is at sports. What once seemed unfathomable is now reality. At JMU, a school currently at the pinnacle of FCS / mid-major success, the Dukes field similar complaints from their alums and fanbase about students leaving games en masse at halftime. Again, I strongly believe this phenomenon is due to a plethora of “other things” that modern day students know they could be doing instead of standing around at a game, all to watch a sport they probably didn’t grow up playing, following, or even caring about.
So if we know what’s wrong…then what’s the solution? Well, if I had the answer, I’d probably be a multi-millionare by now, wouldn’t I?! With all major “issues” in life, there’s no silver bullet that will solve this all at once. It’ll take a joint-effort across the entirety of major sports, collegiate sports, and the rest of the industry to ensure that the sports category continues going at levels we “avid” sports fans have grown to know and love. I truly wish there were a better way to put it, but in an ever-changing environment with technology advancing at a record pace each and every year, the best thing we can do is work together, across all fronts & on a macro scale to ensure sports’ continued success in this country and across the world.
And one thing seems for certain: the fandom process has to start while they’re young. Sport needs to be fun and engaging in the eyes of each new, successive generation. Sport needs to be accessible to all — both from a playing and watching perspective. Sport needs to lead society and help promote positive change. Ultimately, sport needs to mirror the wants and needs of future generations, not mimic those of past generations. It certainly won’t be easy, but we absolutely know it’s possible.
And as one of those avid sports fans, and someone who makes a living in the space, I sure do hope we’re successful. Because truly, sport always has and always will continue to make this world a better place to live in. Don’t you agree? I sure do hope so!
Let us know what you think in the comments & on social media (links below)!