Last Sunday Disney’s ESPN+ offered streamers an analytically focused broadcast of the early afternoon Ravens-Titans Wild Card matchup, geared toward hardcore NFL fans. Two days earlier, John Kosner and Ed Desser wrote an op-ed for Sportico outlining the streaming revolution that is coming to sports media.
Among younger generations, at least, you might say it’s already here.
In a partnership with Sportico, Harris Poll surveyed nearly 2,000 people on their sports viewing habits. The data reveal that more Millennials (ages 25 to 39) and members of Gen Z (younger than age 25) use streaming rather than television broadcast as their most common platform for viewing live sporting events.
The generational divide is stark. Among those who watch live sports, more than three-quarters (77%) of Boomers (older than age 56) most commonly watch a TV broadcast, as compared to 57% of Gen X (ages 40 to 56) and just 35% of Millennials and Gen Z.
Television is not obsolete—half (51%) of the general public watches live sports on TV broadcasts—but many use alternative platforms even if TV is their primary outlet. Nearly a quarter (24%) of all consumers watch on a paid, official streaming service, while 21% watch on a free, official streaming service and 19% watch on social media.
Only 5% of the public watches live sporting events on an unofficial or pirated streaming service. Boxing fans (11%), Millennials (9%) and NBA fans (8%) use pirated streaming services more frequently than the general public. Furthermore, 12% of Gen Zers watch live sports via illegal streams, while only 37% of that age group watch on a traditional television broadcast.
Some younger fans are eschewing larger screens entirely. Though 64% of Millennials watch live sports on a television, a hefty 41% watch on their phones. A similar ratio exists among Gen Zers (48% to 31%). Notably, the three groups of sports fans we analyzed—boxing, NFL and NBA fans—were each more likely to watch sports on a phone than on a computer or tablet.
Per Newton’s Third Law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and the reaction to increased phone and streaming use has been cord-cutting. After 2.9 million households canceled their pay TV subscriptions in 2019, the largest providers lost another 3.8 million subs in the first half of 2020 alone, according to Leichtman Research Group.
Three-fifths (61%) of Americans currently subscribe to traditional cable TV, but 16% say they plan to cut the cord eventually, meaning that less than half (45%) of households currently subscribe to and plan to keep traditional cable TV. That number drops to 36% for Gen Z.
Meanwhile, 29% of the public plans to increase their number of streaming services in 2021, while only 15% plan to reduce. Millennials (41%) are more likely than other generations to be planning an increase, indicating that younger generations are more enamored with streaming, but Gen Zers may lack the disposable income to add subscriptions.
Either that, or they plan on mooching off of their parents for the foreseeable future.
Since the pandemic began, more Americans feel generally less connected (38%) rather than more connected (24%) to their favorite sports team, compared to one year ago. Some fans, though, are weathering the pandemic sports year better than others. NBA Fans (38%) are slightly more likely than NFL Fans (31%) to feel more connected.
Additionally, Millennials stand out among the generations: 23% feel “much more connected” to their favorite sports team, compared to 14% of Gen Xers, 10% of Gen Zers and 4% of Boomers. Notably, only 15% of Millennials don’t watch any live sporting events, versus nearly one-quarter (24%) of Gen Z.
Cable TV is one proven way of connecting to fans: cable subscribers are much more likely (33%) to feel more connected to their favorite team than those without cable (13%). Connecting with Gen Z, less than half of whom watch live sports on television, may require a different approach.
CBS’s successful Nickelodeon NFL broadcast last weekend may spawn similar experiments in engaging the younger audiences through TV, but at some point leagues may have to make more radical changes than end-zone slime eruptions and meet Gen Z fans where they are; that is to say, not on their couch in front of a television.