Gen-Z, Millennial Sports Fandom Not Decreasing

38—a next-gen media company that produces sports programming for Millennial and Gen-Z fans across social and digital platforms (think: Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube)—recently closed on $32 million in Series A funding. Coventure and GPS Partners led the round. CEO Brian Verne called the raise validation of the company’s overarching thesis. “There’s a massive misconception [because linear television consumption is down within the demographics], that fandom is decreasing amongst young people or that the next generation isn’t watching and talking about sports,” he said. “But from our vantage point, [sports] fandom is at an all-time high—it has just shifted [media channels]” (similar to the shift from radio to television in the 1950s). A director-level executive at one social media company agreed with that assessment saying, “The number of sports fans isn’t going down. The younger demographics are [just] getting their sports programming on digital and social platforms [instead of on linear TV].”

Our Take: For generations, sports fans have grown accustomed to linear television serving as their ‘first screen.’ That’s simply no longer the case—at least for those under 20. But just because the generation coming of age now is “behaving a little differently [than those who came before] doesn’t mean that they don’t love sports.” Verne explained, “The same sensibilities and motivations [that drove fandom in previous generations] still exist [within younger Millennials and Gen-Z].”

Social and digital technologies have made it easier for younger sports fans to “follow their passions.” The social executive noted, “There used to be four channels that decided what you were going to watch [and the sports you would become a fan of].” For coverage of more niche sports, fans would have to “buy fringe magazines.” Advancements in technology have changed the dynamic, and fans today have access to all sorts of sports programming. As a result, fandom within the Millennial and Gen-Z demographics is widely spread across many sports—which explains why WAVE has channels that cater to football, soccer, basketball, baseball and hockey fans, as well as those who follow fitness and weight lifting, women’s sports, gaming and esports, adaptive sports, gymnastics and cheerleading. It’s certainly plausible that this generation’s ability to closely follow niche sports contributes to the perception there aren’t as many younger fans passionate about big four (on a relative basis).

Historically speaking, live rights have been responsible for the majority of media revenue generated by the big four leagues. But, Verne says, with the next generation of fans consuming sports on social and digital channels, there is “an immense amount of value [for leagues and rights holders] in highlights.” Look no further than the reported nine-figure deal that the International Cricket Council signed with Facebook back in September 2019. Our industry insider agreed. Aside from the financial aspect, “Those clips are an important asset for leagues to reach fans, engage fans and grow their fandom,” they said.

Verne also believes that long tail programming (which in many cases currently sits on a shelf unused) holds value. He explained how WAVE reimagines partner I.P. and transforms old stories and narratives into “new hit programming formatted for core and emerging social and digital platforms,” helping rights holders to reach “hundreds of millions of net new young sports fans.” On Snapchat alone, the company reaches 50 million unique visitors/month.

The commonly held narrative is that young fans prefer ‘snacks to meals’—short-form content to full-length games. The social executive we spoke to wasn’t so sure. They explained that young people are only being offered short-form content and suggested that Millennials and Gen-Z would watch games in their entirety if the content aired where they reside. “If you put games in front of people, on the platforms they’re on, they will watch it.” The problem isn’t young fans are getting full on snacks, it’s that “the meals aren’t being served at the table Gen-Z is seated at” (see: 90% of 13-24 year olds are on Snapchat). Facebook’s experiment with Major League Baseball back in 2018 proved that point. The average age of viewers for those games was almost 20 years younger than what the sport draws on linear television.

It would be logical to suggest the pro leagues should simply sell secondary broadcast rights to some of the digital and social platforms to reach a younger audience. But with pro sports so heavily reliant on television revenues, there really is little choice other than to limit distribution. As the social executive said, “If you’re paying $1 billion for these rights you’re not going to sit idle and allow the games to air on platforms you perceive to be competition” (even if it is an incremental audience).

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