From Gen X to Millennials to Gen Z, each successive generation of teenagers became less interested in sports. Passionate interest in sports has declined by 25% between 1994 and 2019 for teenagers. The biggest reason? Increased competition from technology. The changes were already underway well before 2020. Then, COVID forced kids to stay home and spend even more time online. Most kids have had parts of three school years that have been significantly affected by COVID, and they know they missed out. Over the past two years, we’ve asked people whether they think they’ve been more or less affected by the pandemic than other Americans. Teenagers were always said to be the most affected. This may be surprising if you think of the impact based on health issues alone, but less so if you consider all the ways our lives have been changed. The youngest lost out on homecoming and proms, playing sports, going to concerts and movies, and just hanging out with their friends. The impact on these formative years will determine what children do for the rest of their lives. Yet teenagers aren’t the only children who have been affected. There were already serious questions about how the youngest generation would follow sports going into the pandemic, so we thought it was a good time to start exploring how younger kids (8-11 year olds) are playing sports today.
These children, members of the “Alpha Generation”, have always had access to smartphones, Netflix and YouTube. We expected this group of kids to be different, then COVID accelerated the change even more by forcing them to go home in isolation and join their devices. They didn’t have the same opportunities to play sports, attend games, or even talk about sports with their friends that kids enjoyed in the past. So it’s no surprise that sports are a low priority for most kids today. Following professional or college sports ranked last of the 26 activities we asked kids about. Watching sports on TV is only slightly higher at 23rd. Sports emerged as a priority only when it was “playing sports”, but even then it was only 15th.
The temptation is to embrace technology to engage this generation. After all, they are the smartphone generation who have been connected to their devices since birth. Social media, NFTs, and now the metaverse and augmented reality are popular solutions. Yet when we looked at the kids who are today’s biggest fans, the traditional “drivers” still hold sway. Children are more than three times more likely to be die-hard fans today if they play a sport, their parents are fans or have attended a game. With one important exception, the top drivers are essentially the same as they were for their parents and grandparents. They also require face-to-face connections.
The last engine is a nod to technology – playing video games. We saw a shift a decade ago as fans increasingly said that playing video games led them to become fans (rather than the other way around). In the absence of organized participation or parents who are fans, games can provide children with an introduction to the rules, teams and players. They also provide an enticing entry point because gaming is the #1 activity enjoyed by 8- to 17-year-old boys today. Yet video games still often require pre-existing knowledge for kids to play in the first place. Games also work best in combination with other drivers.
Each of these activities in isolation can form the building blocks of greed, but the combinations are the glue that creates meaningful lifelong relationships with leagues or teams. Children who have a driver are three times more likely to be avid sports fans than those without drivers. Children with two or more drivers are seven times more likely to be avid fans than those without one. Most drivers require at least one important face-to-face experience: 1) playing sports, 2) connecting with parents who are fans, or 3) attending games. The challenge is that these traditional face-to-face drivers were also the most affected by COVID, having been eliminated or restricted to children in the past two years.
Parents will play the biggest role in ensuring the greed of this youngest generation. They influence the sports their children play and attend. The first sports and teams kids follow are usually the ones their parents love. Yet there are still ongoing health concerns from COVID, the risk of injury in sports, the appeal of low-cost technological alternatives, and now rising costs due to inflation. We need to provide parents with more affordable and accessible options if we expect this generation to enjoy sports as much as their predecessors. New technology can make sports experiences better and keep kids engaged once they become fans, but traditional face-to-face drivers are essential to building desire for kids who don’t know life without smartphones.