Attracting New Fans Requires Going Where They Are, with DTC Digital Services, Fantasy Sports and eSports Offerings

BOSTON, MA (March 15, 2017) – Millennial sports fans are bypassing cable television and abandoning traditional sports for online video game tournaments and other “eSports.” Both developments spell a potential headache for professional sports teams, leagues, broadcast partners and other stakeholders.

Sports fandom is marked by a sharp generational divide. A new study of sports fans by global management consulting firm L.E.K. Consulting shows a dramatic change in TV viewing habits and sports preferences between non-millennials (age 35+) and millennials (18-35). Non-millennial sports fans report spending 41 percent of their media time on TV, but only nine percent of it on online TV. Millennial sports fans report spending much less of their media time (33 percent) on TV – but 20 percent of that TV time is online.

Based on a survey of more than 1,500 U.S. sports fans conducted in the third quarter of 2016, the study also shows that millennial sports fans with at least a “little bit” of interest in eSports significantly prefer their favorite eSports to traditional sports – 27 percent for millennials, versus 13 percent for non-millennial sports fans.

These changes are likely to have implications on viewership for professional sports leagues like the NFL, MLB and NASCAR, and networks like ESPN, Fox Sports and individual teams.

“The old model is under pressure,” says Alex Evans, Managing Director in L.E.K.’s Sports practice and a co-author of the study. “Traditional sports organizations rely on TV, especially cable TV, to attract new fans and to generate revenue now through ownership of regional sports networks. But they will likely come under increasing pressure to change their model, especially 5 to 10 years down the road. We are already seeing authenticated streaming in many local markets, and we are seeing leagues at different stages of developing their own direct-to-consumer platforms. There is likely a need to accelerate these efforts in order to stay ahead of the curve.  

TV pulled fans in – new viewing habits threaten growth

Millennial sports fans’ viewing habits are not just a threat to revenue – they also threaten growth. Traditionally, newcomers first discovered their favorite sport on TV, then became hardcore fans over time. When asked to list key reasons why they became sports fans in the first place, 30 percent of respondents across all age groups cited “watching games on TV growing up” as their top reason. That was equal to the number that cited “playing sports as youngsters.”

“This is no surprise,” say Gil Moran, Managing Director in L.E.K.’s Sports practice and a study co-author. “For years, sports programming has been part of basic cable, and more has been available via premium cable TV sports tiers. TV has been the historical conduit for sports fandom. So the decline in legacy viewership points to a decline in sports fandom going forward”.

Millennials are attracted to different – and non-traditional – sports

In addition, millennials are consuming different sports – they significantly prefer eSports, for example online gaming tournaments including The International and League of Legends. eSports are particularly popular among millennials who identify as casual sports fans and have at least “a little bit” of interest in eSports – 28 percent of these fans significantly favor eSports, and only 17 percent significantly prefer their favorite traditional sports. Avid sports fans – both millennial and non-millennial – were much more likely to prefer traditional sports (45 percent in each group).

“It’s encouraging that avid fans, young as well as old, are loyal to traditional sports,” Mr. Evans says. “But those younger casual fans represent growth potential – if traditional sports organizations can’t find a way to draw them in, the fan base will stagnate and will eventually decline as existing fans age out.”

Traditional sports organizations should consider embracing DTC digital, fantasy sports and eSports

Sports organizations that want to attract a new generation of fans may need to create offerings tuned to millennial tastes, including:

  • Direct-to-consumer digital offerings. These could be broad-based ones similar to ESPN or Fox Sports, league-specific networks similar to to the idea of a sports-centered digital subscription plan. Two-thirds of millennial sports fans said they would “definitely” or “probably” sign up for a digital subscription plan at the right price.
  • Fantasy sports. Millennial sports fans are heavy participants in season-long fantasy sports. Forty-six percent of millennial sports fans – both casual and avid fans – report that they participate in fantasy sports. That’s more than three times the level of non-millennial participation. And fantasy sports attract fans to real-life sports – more than half of fantasy football players (56 percent) reported spending more time watching actual NFL games. In addition, more than 70% of millennial sports fans said they were more interested in real sports (including NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, PGA, NASCAR and MLS) as a result of participating in season-long fantasy sports.
  • eSports. Unlike fantasy sports, which depend on content from traditional sports, eSports are in effect multiplayer video games that compete with real sports for time and attention. But eSports followers appear receptive to affiliated content and merchandising, ranging from documentaries and animated films to live-action and reality TV programming. Any of these could be cross-promotional opportunities for traditional sports organizations.

“All of these platforms are new and they present challenges,” Mr. Moran says. “For example, daily fantasy sports have faced legal and regulatory challenges, and are just starting to recover. But given their appeal to millennial fans, traditional sports organizations should consider engaging with them to determine which ones work best to recruit the next generation. In fact, the NBA recently announced a partnership with Take-Two Interactive Software, makers of the highly popular NBA 2K video game, to form an eSports league based on the NBA 2K series.”

About L.E.K. Consulting

L.E.K. Consulting is a global management consulting firm that uses deep industry expertise and rigorous analysis to help business leaders achieve practical results with real impact. We are uncompromising in our approach to helping clients consistently make better decisions, deliver improved business performance and create greater shareholder returns. The firm advises and supports global companies that are leaders in their industries — including the largest private and public sector organizations, private equity firms and emerging entrepreneurial businesses. Founded more than 30 years ago, L.E.K. employs more than 1,200 professionals across the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe. For more information, go to