The Changing Face of Sports Fandom

Evolution of Fandom
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Television rights have long been the crown jewel for leagues, able to command vast and ever-increasing fees from TV networks and streaming services eager to capitalize on the audiences that sports can deliver.

But not even sports are immune to the pressures from competing forms of entertainment, such as streaming and video games. Data provided by leading analytical firm The Maru Group for VIP’s “Sports’ New TV Formula” report shows that a new era of sports fan is emerging, with long-term implications for televised games.

Fans age 18-34 are the most likely to say they prefer watching highlights to full games across the NFL, NBA and MLB. The number of NFL fans 35-49 saying so drops substantially, but this isn’t the case for the MLB and NBA, with close to half these fans also saying they prefer highlights.

This will be a crucial battleground for leagues on two fronts: how to entice viewers to come back to full games and how to better monetize highlights without making them so cost prohibitive that fans give up on watching them and grow more disconnected.

Just over a third of young NFL fans say most games aren’t exciting until they’re nearly over. This rises to half of NBA fans 18-34 and more than half of young MLB fans. Likely tied to the preference for watching highlights, this suggests a growing disengagement with the core product — games — for a substantial number of fans.

Apathy stretches from individual games to considering the entire regular season boring. Close to half of younger MLB fans agree with this sentiment, with the sheer scale of a regular MLB season likely adding to this. As has been the case with all negative perceptions, the NFL has the lowest proportion of fans agreeing, aided by the shorter season and once-a-week schedule for teams, making games seem more special.

This perception rolls over to how fans see the playoffs. The NFL has single elimination games, whereas the NBA and MLB have 5- or 7-game series at each juncture of the postseason. It’s interesting to note that fans 35 or older are very unlikely to say the NFL playoffs drag on — unlike NBA or MLB fans of a similar age — two-fifths of 18-34s say they do.

In spite of this lack of enthusiasm for the televised product, younger fans do not see themselves as any less of a fan. Given what Maru/Matchbox’s data highlighted in the “Sports’ New TV Formula” report, younger fans are engaging with leagues in formats outside of TV: video games, podcasts, fantasy sports and gambling.

The new face of fandom that’s emerging is one that values full games less but still wants to keep up via highlights. It looks for new ways to engage with leagues on new generational terms. This has the potential to upset the gravy train that traditional TV rights have been for both leagues and network partners, as the audience splinters and is less easy to reach.

This doesn’t mean fandom is dissipating, just shifting. Smart leagues will adapt with the times, realizing that a fluid form of fan is here to stay. Video games offer year-round engagement, with sports games becoming an arena where entertainment hybridizes. Live games will remain important, but they will no longer be the only mass way fans interact with leagues and teams.

Read the full special report