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Older fans may leap back into watching sports on TV post-pandemic, but networks are going to have a tougher time winning back younger viewers

LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson runs over Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick during the first half of a NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
  • Mike Shields, the former advertising editor for Business Insider who is now CEO of Shields Strategic Consulting, says that the future of sports television is incredibly uncertain.
  • He suggests that younger viewers may not want to turn to watching sports games on TV after the pandemic and are more interested in online gaming and esports that are available on Twitch and YouTube.
  • "The question is: Can TV networks like NBC and Fox, with billions on the line, find ways to incorporate more Twitch-like attributes — noisy stats and comment-filled screens — without alienating traditional fans?" he asks.
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In recent weeks, we've all become fond of speculating how everything will most assuredly be forever changed in media and advertising businesses when the pandemic is over (it will be over, right?).
We're only going to watch Netflix — unless we all cut Netflix. We're all definitely cutting cable. We're only going to shop with our phones while wearing masks and gloves. All brands are dead except Amazon. Kids will start school next fall in Minecraft. We'll never go to the movies or concerts or the office again. We may never laugh again.
One thing we're all absolutely sure about is that when sports come back — and they're coming back, even if Lebron has to spend six months living in Space Mountain — we're all going to watch in droves. Ratings will soar, fandom will swell, Dr. Anthony Fauci will throw out the first pitch at the World Series, and advertisers will have their favorite reach machine back.
Unless we're all wrong. And from my point of view, the longer sports are away, the more trouble live sports viewing is in. Especially as so many young would-be sports fans spend month after month living in Fortnite, entertaining themselves on Twitch and YouTube while simultaneously getting lost in TikTok and barely ever looking up at the TV.
"18- to 24 years-olds were already consuming sports in many different ways than you and I consume sports. And in many ways, that didn't necessarily involve watching the games," Octagon chief strategy officer Simon Wardle said.
That sort of fan behavior was happening before the pandemic took sports off the calendar for months across the globe.
"When we look at how fans are consuming sports, in the absence of live sports, we see that young fans have pivoted to every type of sports content out there. Whereas once you get beyond that 18-34 demographic, you see that the people who have really disengaged with sports and haven't found a way to fill the void are far more likely to be those older consumers who have looked for something else," Wardle said.
The problem is, sports leagues make a whole lot more money from selling rights to networks - who in turn use the sports to sell pricey commercial time - than they do from social media posts and the like.

There's no telling when sports will come back

I know what you're thinking — what are you talking about, Mike? Fans are all dying for sports right now! Millions of us couldn't wait to watch a documentary about a guy who's been retired from the NBA for nearly 20 years. People are checking out South Korean baseball and German soccer. We'd all love that unifying, rally-the-nation feeling that sports has served to provide in the past — particularly just after 9/11.
LHB's president and CEO Lee H. Berke isn't the least bit worried. He thinks the pent-up demand for sports is going to lead to massive viewership and pointed to the big ratings for the Michael Jordan doc "The Last Dance" on ESPN, as well as recent spikes for Nascar and a celebrity golf tournament as very promising signs.
"I'm not concerned about the interest returning," he added.
I have no doubt that guys like me — 40-somethings who grew up spending whole Sundays on the couch staring at endless games and endless commercials for Windows 95 and Bud Dry — will show up in big numbers.
But, here's the thing. My kids haven't even noticed (yes, I'm doing that thing where some old analyst guy uses his kids as a barometer for the entire country). I was already starting to worry if their generation would ever take to live sports viewing before this all happened, and I wasn't alone.
The NBA, which has an enviable of collection of likeable, high-profile stars and wild drama, was already thinking of shaking up its seasonal structure as it noticed more young fans interested in following players on social media than actually sitting through games. An early season ratings panic just before COVID-19 struck surely didn't help.
Similarly, Major League Baseball was asking itself some hard questions about its product as attendance has slid and games drag on endlessly.
And there's a real chance that MLB won't come back at all this year as the players and owners battle over money.

Young people favor active, social entertainment

Young people were already devoting huge chunks of their entertainment and leisure time to gaming — both playing and watching. Live streaming on Twitch has surged thanks to COVID-19, and gaming has spiked across the globe.
If you spend any time around people who are into gaming these days you know how inherently participatory and social the medium is (prominent VC Matthew Ball has chronicled this extensively).
There are ways to make sports viewing more dynamic and compelling (the expansion of legalized gambling seems to help).
But to ask a generation or two raised on constant engagement and interactivity and full media control to sit on their couches for three to four hours at a time, constantly interrupting by ads, you may as well be dreaming.
And since the quarantines took hold, not only are kids and gamers playing more, the audience for gaming and digital media has only gotten larger.
Not only are newbie gamers hanging out in Animal Crossing, non-gamers are watching their favorite bands on Twitch, Millennials are crashing TikTok. We're all watching more YouTube.

It's hard to see all of us going back to our old media behavior

"Since this began, people have essentially been pushed online," said Zach Oscar, marketing executive at Simulmedia who doubles as an esports expert. "I don't know that they care to come to jump back. I would guess that digital streaming companies will now have a new permanent market share."
Plus, as Oscar noted, when sports return, they'll largely be played without fans. It remains to be seen how that translates to the TV screen — but his guess is, "It's gonna feel weird."
Contrast that with digital platforms: "Twitch and YouTube always feel crowded," he said.
It's that communal, "We're not just sitting and watching" nature that traditional sports broadcasting in its current form struggles to capture.
The question is, can TV networks like NBC and Fox, with billions on the line, incorporate more Twitch-like attributes — noisy stats and comment-filled screens — without alienating traditional fans?
Or do sports leagues eventually have to move their broadcasts, or at least split them with the YouTube's and Twitches of the world?
Right now, major leagues are just scrambling to put out shortened seasons in a compressed time period, which may be a blessing, Wardle noted.
"This year becomes a bit of a test laboratory, where maybe leagues can make things a little faster-moving," he said. "If you are looking to draw in younger viewers right now, you need to look more like the places they are going to."
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