Why sports media lost Millennials 25 years ago and how it can find them again

Blog author
Alek Jeziorek Staff writer
Why sports media lost Millennials 25 years ago and how it can find them again

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When exactly did the media lose Millennial interest?

The NFL is ramping up again. The Hall of Fame Game and the first week of pre-season games are behind us. And the start of the regular season is less than a month away. During a recent football related reverie, I thought of Super Bowl XXVIII.

It was the second time in a row that the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills faced off in the Super Bowl. By the end of that game, the Bills had reached 4 consecutive Super Bowls and lost. I have fond memories of Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman facing off against Jim Kelly that day. Recalling that the Cowboys won, I found myself wondering whether they shouted, “I’m going to Disneyland!”—a really bizarre and clever ad campaign by Disney. But I couldn’t actually remember. I never watched the game.

Instead, I played Madden ’94 on Super Nintendo all morning. And during the game, I played football outside with my neighborhood friends and a Nerf Turbo Screamer. Football was in the air, but I didn’t watch the game.

 Engage your millennial viewers by adding live-chat to your streaming platform

“I’m going back to Disneyland!”

You see, I am on the cusp of being a millennial. And even at a young age, I was already interacting with football through other media instead of actually watching the game. I grant, of course, that I am certainly not representative of every millennial. But I wonder how deeply ingrained is this mediated experience of football and other sports among people my age.

Could it be that the recent subscription losses from live TV and Millennial cord cutting have been stewing for over 25 years? And is the sports media industry only noticing now that the internet is in our pocket everywhere we go?

Sports media’s opportunity for growth lies with Millennials and those born in the 2000s

Given how early my childhood experience of sports had been mediated through video games and sports related commodities (whether Nerf toys or trading cards), I want to suggest that, yes, indeed the relatively recent trend of subscription losses has been a long time coming.

I am not sure it could have been predicted. But I think we can safely guess that sports TV or live streaming must look to engage and retain the younger audience—to get ahead of the curve of the mediated sports experience.

The numbers are very convincing. Just recently Viacom lost 3% of its TV subscriptions. Disney and its subsidiary channels have been steadily losing subscribers for a while. And, in April of 2017, ESPN (one of Disney’s channels) laid off 100 people just before the NFL draft. Folks working in the media are well acquainted with this problem, and, rightly, are trying to understand and address it. As are we at SendBird.

The sports industry is well on its way to engaging OTT platforms and digital distributors. BAMTech is a great example, and Disney very recently acquired a majority stake in the company.

They’re responding to the fact that sports media is doing poorly with ages 18-34.[1] In fact, Millennials report spending about 33% of their time on TV (compared to 41% for age 35+), of which 20 out of 33% is spent online (compared to 9% for age 35+).[2] Traditional media must evolve, following Disney’s enthusiastic example, with the attention and interest of younger generations.

Too much has competed for Millennial attention for too long. And, now, our smart phones, search engines, messengers and social networks—i.e., Apple, Google and Facebook—are dominating what we know now as the “attention economy.” So much so that there is even research advocating that we update anti-trust law to include laws modeled on both the old cash market and the emerging attention market.

If you’re interested, this law paper gives a good and sophisticated summary of the attention market. Basically, “attention brokers” develop compelling content to attract viewer attention and sell it to advertisers, replete with data segmenting the viewer’s demographic. The attention of viewers, like any resource, is limited. And it gives rise to a competitive market.

On average, nearly all Millennials and their younger compatriots do 4 other activities while watching TV.[3] That’s stunning. That means, for example, that they are watching a baseball game, texting with friends, looking at social media, sharing and consuming online content, and checking their fantasy sports team all at once. Wow.

With so much competing for the limited resources of our attention, I believe sports TV and online content must engage us and bring our attention back to the screen in order to cater to the patterns of the younger generations’ behavior. That means literally moving eyes back to screens and providing a social experience related to social media or adding to it. Luckily, there’s an opportunity to think ahead not just to now or next season, but, even further, to the time that the unfortunately named Generation Z matures years from now.

Existing Solutions for Engaging Millennials in the Sports Industry

The sports industry’s strategy for engaging millennials is split between two main domains.

  1. First, sports leagues are trying to bring millennials into the stadium for a live sports experience rivaling Disneyland.
  2. Second, the industry is launching over-the-top (OTT) platforms for distributing digital content to the home viewer.

Although I’ll deal mostly with the digital content, there are many exciting developments underway at stadiums near you because leagues are aggressively modernizing and making the stadium experience all-inclusive. I heard my favorite innovation from Bob Bowman, the MLB’s president of business and media. His team discovered that millennials prefer affordable pricing, and drinking and socializing with friends at a game. But, importantly, they don’t mind standing.

So his team came up with the Ballpark Pass, a subscription service for standing-room that is only accessible on smartphones. In Oakland, for example, you can access standing room to any regular season A’s game at any time for $19.99/month. That’s a brilliant deal. In fact, I want one now. No, two. One for me and a friend.

Distributing digital content is clearly aimed at engaging so called cord-cutters, or viewers who cancel cable TV subscriptions and replace it with internet content. This is largely seen as a permanent transition. Roughly 60% of Generation Z, Millennials, and Generation X consumers in the US, subscribe to paid video streaming services.[4]

There is some worry, of course, that OTT platforms will cannibalize the existing market of sports fans willing to attend stadium events. But the truth is that over 50% of sports fans (in the US anyway) are displaced—that is, they don’t live in the same state as their favorite team.[5] Given that fact and the size of the global market, I think there is only opportunity for digital content to supplement live sports. It’s a larger market many times over.

Social media has taken notice. They are now acquiring exclusive rights to broadcast sports. Recently, Twitter announced exclusive rights to broadcast the National Lacrosse League to its users for free, while the NLL simulcasts games to its viewers with a paid subscription. This only adds to Twitter’s now transformed deal with the NFL. Twitter lost its deal to stream Thursday night games to Amazon, but they will air official NFL content all year round. This year-round content is a good example of how the NFL is using OTT to maintain relevance by keeping fans engaged outside of regular season.

This year, Facebook signed deals to broadcast games in the UEFA Champions League, MLS, MLB, and World Surf League. Partnering with social media, of course, allows the sports industry access to a large pool of viewers. But I wonder what the mid- or long-future holds for the industry to have staked so much on social media instead of its own OTT platforms.

We’ve already written an article about the potential market effects of mega-messengers, like Facebook’s Messenger. The gist is that Facebook has tended in the past to increase its monetization efforts once advertisers or content producers have thoroughly depended on it. In the past, audience reach decreased at the same time that Facebook increased the cost of its services.

Whether or not you partner with social media will depend on balancing your near-term strategy with the mid- or long-term. But developing your own successful OTT platform and brand will depend strongly not only on acquiring viewers, but especially retaining and engaging those viewers through genuine interaction.

How can a live chat API integrate the social impulse into live sports?

Although there are doubtless many ways to do this, Sendbird builds a chat API for this very function—for engaging and retaining viewers by returning human interaction to digital media. We provide a brief guide to different use-cases here.

By building chat into your live video stream, you actually provide opportunities for viewers to return to your screen and chat about the game in real-time. But you also provide an avenue for much needed feedback, turning the interaction between you and the viewer into a conversation.

NCAA Football

Chat on your Mobile Sports OTT Platform

The numbers, if they can be generalized, are convincing here, too. About 84% of all consumers are on social media, and 70% have used social media to contact corporation in 2016.[6] Further, 74% of them found the interaction more satisfactory than interacting by phone. Chat can accomplish this in real-time because it is a two-way street.

You can reach customers directly for announcements or other promotions, perhaps bringing the most relevant content to specific audience channels or users depending on their demographic or interests. And customers can reach you. You can actually listen to customers to create custom content in real-time or receive feedback immediately. Any conversation that results only augments the social interaction.

And I am not necessarily talking about a chat-bot, though there’s potential there, too. Since we’re talking about public chat and not one-on-one messaging, one NHL representative can reach 100,000 or more users at once, which is a lot more scalable—a lot more possible— than one NHL representative having 100,000 conversations.

By engaging the audience, you can drive conversations about, say, the opening game between the Maple Leaves and the Jets. First, you can direct conversation about the actual live event (when it happens) and create a fully interactive experience. Next, you can bring the conversation to topics relevant to the NHL in general like a general season outlook or ask the viewers to respond to the top 20 NHL wings with their own list. Content generated from user feedback is always a boon. This could help continue the relevant conversation beyond the game, and, even, to times like now, which are outside the NHL season.

How can the sports industry tap into binge-watching?

I wonder, too, how sports can tap into the rising practice of binge watching. The patterns here suggest that small episodes within a larger series arc are necessary for this practice. Linking games within a story, or offering pre- and post-game material designed to contextualize an event within an on-going story, could expose how live games in the present could be related to games in the past or future.

I think of the long history of the Browns and their zealous fans. Every Cleveland fan knows the tragic trajectory of the Browns and this only binds them more strongly to the team. No matter how often they lose, every Browns fan wants to watch a long-awaited reversal of fate. One “Believeland” YouTube video, commemorating the Cavs championship in 2016, is subtitled “from Curse to Redemption.” That’s a plot line.

This isn’t about losing all the time. This is about story telling—the dramatic stories that Cleveland has been telling its sons and daughters since the days of Jim Brown.

Live Football

Believeland Trailer

It’s difficult to predict how technology will further bring millennials and the younger cohorts into contact with a more mediated experience of sports. But, if the current state of sports could have been seen at least 25 years in the past, then now is the opportunity to engage younger audiences in media relevant to their highly social-networked experience. Chat could be one of those ways.

If you’re representing a media company, contact us and share how chat can be adapted for you to engage younger audiences, Millennials or otherwise. We’d love to hear your ideas!

[1] Jeré Longman, “In Pursuit of Millennials, More Fun in Sports. But Still No Twerking,” New York Times; June 25, 2017.

[2] L.E.K. Consulting, “Millennials Abandon Sports on TV, Posing Threat to Teams, Leagues, Broadcast Partners, Finds Study From L.E.K. Consulting”; March 15, 2017

[3] Deloitte, Digital Democracy Survey, 11th edition,

[4] Deloitte, “Digital Democracy survey,”

[5] Deloitte, “Deloitte’s Sports Industry Starting Lineup”

[6] Deloitte, Digital Democracy Survey, again. See link above.

Categories: Insights

Tags: Insights