From Gen X to millennials to Gen Z, each successive generation of teens has been less interested in sports. Avid interest in sports declined by 25% between 1994 and 2019 for teens. The biggest reason? Increased competition from technology. Changes were already in motion well before 2020. Then COVID forced kids to stay home and spend even more time online. Most kids had portions of three school years that were significantly affected by COVID, and they know they missed out. Over these past two years, we’ve asked people if they believe they’ve been more or less affected by the pandemic than other Americans. Teens have consistently said they’ve been the most affected. That might be surprising if you think of impact purely based on health issues, but less so if you consider all the ways our lives were changed. The youngest lost out on homecoming and prom, playing sports, attending concerts and movies, and simply hanging out with their friends. The impact on those formative years will define what kids do for the rest of their lives. Yet teens aren’t the only kids who have been affected. There were already serious questions about how the youngest generation was going to follow sports heading into the pandemic, so we decided it was the right time to begin researching how younger kids (8-11-year-olds) are engaging in sports today.
These kids, members of “Generation Alpha,” have always had access to smartphones, Netflix, and YouTube. We expected this group of kids to be different, then COVID accelerated the shift even more by forcing them home in isolation and onto their devices. They haven’t had the same opportunities to play sports, attend games, or even talk about sports with their friends that kids enjoyed in the past. So it is not surprising that sports is a low priority for most kids today. Following pro or college sports ranked dead last out of the 26 activities we asked kids. Watching sports on TV was only slightly higher at 23rd. Sports only emerges as a priority when it is “playing sports,” but even that ranked only 15th.
The temptation is to embrace technology to engage this generation. After all, they are the smartphone generation who’ve been tethered to their devices since birth. Social media, NFTs, and now the metaverse and augmented reality are popular solutions. Yet when we looked at kids who are the biggest fans today, the traditional “drivers” still hold power. Kids are more than three times more likely to be avid fans today if they play the sport, their parents are fans, or they’ve attended a game. With one important exception, the biggest drivers are essentially the same as they were for their parents and grandparents. They also require face-to-face connections.
The final driver is a nod to technology — playing video games. We saw a shift a decade ago as fans increasingly said playing video games led to them becoming fans (rather than vice versa). In the absence of organized participation or parents who are fans, gaming can provide kids with an introduction to rules, teams, and players. They also provide an enticing entry point because gaming is the No. 1 activity boys 8 to 17 enjoy today. Yet video games still often require existing knowledge for kids to play in the first place. Games also work best in combination with other drivers.
Any of these activities in isolation can form the building blocks of avidity, but combinations are the glue that create meaningful lifetime relationships with leagues or teams. Kids who have one driver are three times more likely to be avid fans of a sport than those with no drivers. Kids with two or more drivers are seven times more likely to be avid fans than those with none. Multiple drivers require at least one important face-to-face experience: 1) playing the sport, 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, as they were either eliminated or limited for kids during these past two years.
Parents will play the largest role in ensuring the avidity of this youngest generation. They influence the sports their kids play and attend. The first sports and teams that kids follow are typically the ones that their parents love. Yet there are still lingering health concerns from COVID, risk of injury playing the sport, the appeal of inexpensive tech alternatives, and now rising costs from inflation. We have to provide parents with more accessible and affordable options if we expect this generation to enjoy sports like its predecessors. New technology can make sports experiences better and keep kids engaged once they are fans, but traditional face-to-face drivers are essential to building avidity for kids who don’t know life without smartphones.
Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at [email protected]