Have Millennials Changed Sports for Good?

Millennials (also known as Generation Y) have been the topic of countless news stories and business articles—how to market to them, how to share office space with them, what they want out of life, etc. While there are no precise dates for when this demographic starts or ends, Millennials were generally born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s to early 2000s. According to census data, they are currently the largest population group in the U.S., and they are having a major impact on many aspects of our culture, including sports.

Millennials as Youth Athletes

As youth athletes, Millennials demanded a different style of coaching and wanted different things out of the sports experience. With their distrust of authority figures and desire to be part of the decision-making process, not just told what to do, they forced coaches to change their dynamic. For many Millennials, fun and a sense of belonging were the most important aspects of sports, even more important than winning games and medals.

Millennials as Sport Spectators

As spectators with their own discretionary income and spending habits, they’ve forced entertainment giants to re-evaluate what it means to be a sports fan for this generation. Over the last several years, ESPN has lost 10 percent of its subscribers. Where did they go? In a sort of one-two punch, Millennials abandoned cable television at the same time they gave up interest in traditional sports. Studies show traditional sports are much less important to those aged 18-34 than they were just one or two generations prior. Following favorite NBA/NFL/NHL/MLB teams has been trumped by an interest in online video game tournaments and other e-sports (some of which don’t necessarily look like sports).

Even viewership of the past several Olympics has skewed older. Millennials may have been competing, but they sure weren’t watching from their living rooms. If you were watching, you likely had some gray in your hair. Ad Age reported that television viewership for the 2016 Olympics was the oldest-skewing audience since the Olympics were first broadcast on TV in 1960. The IOC hopes to change this trend. This drive to attract a younger audience pushed the Olympic Committee to add events that appeal to Millennial viewership: Big-Air Snowboarding was added to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Surfing, Skateboarding, and Sports Climbing are on the list for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Stadiums and sports-franchises are also being forced to create additional entertainment options at their venues (think play areas for children and bars that serve craft beers) to keep attendance from plummeting even further. Millennials don’t want to just sit and watch a full game.

Could some of this be because this tech-savvy generation likes their entertainment in sound-bytes, attention spans are short, and they are easily bored? Probably. They watch their “sports” on Youtube and other entertainment sites rather than through traditional broadcast and cable stations. The once effective / ultra-expensive Super Bowl ads on TV no longer reach this huge demographic.

Millennials as Parents

Though even the youngest Millennials have aged out of youth sports, the oldest among them will soon be signing up their own children for youth sports, or will they?

Turns out, Millennials waited longer to have children than prior generations. In its latest survey of birth rates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the 2017 rate of births per 1,000 women ages 15-44 fell to a 30-year low of just 60. Record low birth rates are further compounded by the continuous drop in sports participation by kids aged 6-12 (which isn’t likely to change anytime soon), indicating that if you have plans to organize any kind of youth sports team between now and 2022, you will likely have difficulty filling spots on your roster.

There’s little doubt that Millennials have left their indelible mark upon sports as we now know them—first as youth athletes, then as sports-fans (or more accurately, as non-sports fans), and now as they are just beginning their foray into parenting the next generation of young athletes What will they expect out of the sports experience for their own children? Only time will tell, but it will likely involve lots of technology, immediate access to results, more than a few Instagram shots, and a sense of greater purpose as a member of a team.

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