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Reaching the Next Generation of Fans

Everyone knows it's time to reimagine how professional sport engages the next generation of fans.

These fans have more entertainment options than ever before, and research shows they value cool products over cool experiences. They prefer mobile screens to televisions and have a strong attraction to digital video (long and short format). Their participation in organized sports isn't growing, and leaders across sport know that if participation doesn't grow, fan bases won't either.

It's no surprise that leaders view these generational shifts in behavior as both a massive opportunity and a major threat. In response, brands and properties are pulling from a playbook that includes the following options:

1) Change the product. There's a lot of talk about changing the pace of games and even the format of many traditional sports. Many suggest that making the games shorter will cater to the "shrinking attention spans" of younger fans. Some of these changes are creeping ahead. For example, the NHL changed the format of overtime and Major League Baseball added pitch clocks and limited mound visits. The PGA added a wrinkle to its product by introducing "walk out music." The Basketball Tournament has also introduced a new end-of-game rule change—a race to a final score with no clock called the Elam Ending—which Mark Cuban considers a "great idea," while also conceding "We couldn't do it in the NBA, but it could be fun in the D-League."

2) Create shoulder content and embrace the creators. The Big 3 combines hoops with lots of music sets, so the experience is about more than just the game. Amy Trask, Chairman of the Big 3, said this is by design, and the entertainment bar is high. Trask said the Big 3 wants to "create a festival atmosphere." Similarly, NASCAR places an added focus on its pre-race shows, which track operators view as an enticing benefit for its attending fans. Having additional things to do at a sporting event is important, but being allowed to participate in the creation of the event is equally important for younger fans. Technologies that let fans create highlights or be the commentator like their favorite YouTube influencer is key. SportsCastr and Spalk are examples of technologies designed to give fans tools to create personalized sports media, and we expect to see a lot more.

3) Change the delivery. The NBA now steams G League games on Twitch not only taking advantage of a new delivery channel, but the digital flexibility of that platform to experiment with different types of commentators and announcers. Formula E is also aggressively pushing digital platforms touting a combined 318 million social video views so far this season.

"With a clear digital strategy and an always on content approach, these impressive figures are a result of speaking the same language as our fans and constantly experimenting with new and innovative tools across each platform." - Alejandro Agag, Founder & CEO of Formula E

4) Change the price point. Major league baseball now bundles tickets for standing room only passports and "kids come free" with a paid adult. The Vegas Golden Knights promoted their inaugural playoff push by giving season ticket members lower priced playoff tickets in exchange for not reselling them. It goes beyond changing price point for many leaders. It's about creating accessibility outside the stadium. Charlotte Jones Anderson of the Dallas Cowboys points out the Dallas "Star" complex is designed to do this. Give free opportunities for fans to engage with the brand.

5) Develop the global fan base. Embrace changes that promote the game on social. PGA now allows fans to bring phones to their events to amplify the media reach. Wimbledon is relaxing their mobile phone policy for the first time as it also competes for spectators' attention. All the leagues understand that this means supporting youth sports and increasing participation. Video games and competitive gaming like NBA 2K and Madden draw in new fans.

"We hope to inspire a generation of Chinese football fans through the unique lens of Copa90 content and bring the passion of these fans to the attention of a global audience." - Andrew Collins, Founder & CEO of Mailman

6) Experiment with esports. Most professional sports organizations have some official investment or partnership with esports and competitive video game events. This strategy is designed to explore this new medium as well as improve their chances to discover what develops crossover fandom between video game titles and professional sports teams.

Takeaway: While these moves show there are some novel companies and formats emerging, many executives know there is no guaranteed path forward. Many are justifiably focused on how the leagues and properties can balance the need for innovation while preserving the integrity and history of their sport. The rub: no one can afford to wait. The competition is global, and the next generation of fans risk not being sports fans at all.

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