Millennial Think Tank: The Future of Sports

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This week we focused our Millennials’ attention on major professional sports; the NFL has reigned supreme for at least 20 years, but we had an inkling that things might be changing amongst Millennials.  Before we delve in, I’ll introduce our panel:

You can watch or listen to the entire hangout, or read the recap post below:

Some Facts About Sports

  • 2014 was Soccer’s biggest year in the US as far as attendance at professional games AND viewership.
  • College Football attendance is on the decline.
  • The NBA ranks 2nd after the NFL among 12 – 17 year olds (Gen Z)
  • 73% of American men, and 55% of American women, regularly watch the NFL

Who watches what?

To gauge where our panels’ sports passions lie, I asked the following:

How many watch the NFL regularly? 4 of our panelists said yes

How many people watch regular season baseball? Only 1

How many people watch golf? Surprisingly 5 of our panelists watch golf.

How many people watch the NBA regularly? 3 said yes

Questions about Golf

Because we know that Golf has not been attracting Millennials, or even GenXers for that matter, I had a lot of questions about golf. But first I wanted to get our panel’s overall opinion about golf in 60 seconds or less; here’s how they answered.

Albert: I think it’s a sport where you make a lot of business deals. I think it’s a misunderstood sport; I paid attention to it because of Tiger Woods. Now there is no one I’m rooting for.

Hessie: I do watch and enjoy it. I enjoy Sergio Garcia (forgive her), and Michelle Wie are winning.

Joe: I watch a few tournaments a year; I typically watch the Masters. I only play golf a couple of times a year – partly because it’s expensive and inaccessible. I also don’t like that golf courses consume so much water (Joe lives in NM). Great sport, kind of fun to play – totally out of touch with the modern world. I like watching major tournaments – there’s drama, there’s passion and tension… but all of the other stuff that makes up golf is what turns people off.

Kelly: Golf is game, not a sport, it’s like darts. It’s actually a great tool to bring people together – it’s fun, kind of like happy hour. Most people aren’t going to be great at it.. so it’s low pressure. My perception of it is based on who I see playing it regularly. It’s played by people who are out of touch. It’s a place where the 1950’s mindset still lives. There is racism, sexism, classism… it’s huge. Working on the golf course gave me this whole new perspective – I didn’t realize that this attitude was this prevalent. Half of the people who play here (at the course he works at) think like that.

Salina: It’s an expensive sport. We do use it to bring people together – we get drunk and have fun. You can’t even celebrate after a success in the field – you have to stay calm. There is definitely a gender bias there.

Satnam: I don’t golf because I don’t have the patience for it. I do love watching golf – I watch all of the majors and I love Rory McElroy. It is the rich people’s game – usually rich people don’t give a crap about anything.

Hessie: The aura of golf, how you’re supposed to present yourself.. it’s so pretentious.


Next we moved onto the NFL, the league most haunted by bad PR. There have been a rash of stories about the terrible behavior of its stars, so I asked:

Has Social Media impacted your opinion of the sport?

Satnam, our most avid NFL fan, said that nothing has impacted his viewership. Despite the bad stories, he’ll still watch. He said the bad press has opened eyes to how the NFL hasn’t kept up with taking care of issues, but it doesn’t impact how he consumes the game as a fan.

Satnam does not follow NFL stars on their own social feeds.  Selena does follow her sports heroes personal profiles on social, avidly, but only the NBA stars that she loves. She does pay attention to the NFL in general online because she’s always checking ESPN for her other sports.For the most part, she ignores all of the bad things coming out about the NFL, just like she ignores a lot of the news because the bad stories are the only ones featured.

Kelly says that social media has greatly impacted his awareness of developments in the NFL; 10 years ago only hardcore NFL fans would have known about most of the domestic violence and other issues. He also brought up the PGA President being fired for sexist tweets as an example of Social Media impacting all sports.  He thinks it’s positive at times, and named the exposure of Ray Rice as an example, but that it often goes too far. The PGA President called 2 golfers ‘squealing school girls’ on Twitter, which he sees as immature, but not necessarily blatantly sexist, and he thought losing his job was too great a punishment.

Joe jumped into say that the Tweet was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back for the PGA President; I had to add that social media often acts as that last straw. Joe is a casual sports fan, but would be a much more involved fan if the organizations who manage most professional sports ‘got it together’ in regards to these huge issues, like domestic violence.

Albert also brought up the issues around violence in the game of football; he won’t let his kids play in the future. He also referenced the NFL’s non profit status, and the fact that they make tons of money and sweep so many issues under the rug as being a real negative for him. He compared football games to Roman gladiator fights, and the fans similarly – watching a violent fight to the death for entertainment. With all of that being said, he still watches and is in four Fantasy Football Leagues.

I had to go back to Satnam, the most hardcore football fan, about the issues concerning player safety that Albert raised. He saw it from a different angle, and said football fans hate seeing the ‘softening’ of the game as the NFL places restrictions on how the players hit etc. He thinks the players have to take responsibility for their own safety too, and that violence is part of the game.


Selena has watched professional basketball since her young childhood; I smiled when she described the Shaq/Kobe years as ‘back in the day.’  What Selena really appreciates is the ‘show’ that the athletes put on in the NBA – it is entertainment and athletics. She sees the League as diverse in its fan following, and inexpensive compared to other professional sporting events.  For comparison to the cost of attending other professional sporting events, here’s what we came up with:

NBA – $60 for a ticket, maybe $125 total evening out including drinks and parking.

Golf – anywhere from $20 – $100 a round depending upon the course, +$15 cart fees, ending up at $100 – $150 plus equipment costs.

NFL – $200 average for a regular season ticket, up to $400 if a great team is coming to play for ticket cost alone.

Getting back to the NBA, I asked Selena specifically about the Donald Stirling incident; she and the panel agreed that the NBA handled it perfectly. Joe referenced the NBA players’ comments on social media around that time, and how it was apparent that they appreciated the League’s response in dealing with it swiftly.

I asked the panel specifically if any of the panelists had heard the NBA players described as ‘thugs;’ something David Stern had to deal with years ago, and they all said absolutely not.


One thing that is very clear to all of us is that Golf has a major problem, but it’s entirely fixable. Most of our panel enjoy watching the PGA, and see the game as exciting. Even the Millennials who see the game in general as exclusive still said they enjoy the actual act of playing golf with their friends. Since Millennials in general enjoy experiences and socializing, golf has a lot to offer. But obviously, from the comments that came out of our hangout, the game has a lot of work to do in order to pull younger people into the game as participants.

Football still has a hold on fans’ imagination, even our Millennials, but things may turn. Many of our Millennials expressed concern about a range of things.

The NBA has certainly resurrected itself from the troubles it experienced quite a few years ago, and stands poised to capitalize on the mistakes of the NFL.

More generally, our panel wants online viewing of sports. Millennials will pay to view their favorite sports, but they don’t want to pay for the other ‘garbage’ that they don’t want. Kelly goes as far as listening to sports on the radio to avoid paying cable fees.

Satnam watches sports primarily on TV; he follows sports on social, but watches 80% on TV. Albert watches his sports on TV at the bar, rarely at home. He will have his ESPN app open all of the time to stay connected. Selena doesn’t watch any TV but watches all of her sports online. Joe doesn’t watch TV at all; if he could watch sports on his phone or tablet he would.

Millennials want to consume sports like they consume all of their entertainment, often on mobile and on demand. They do not like the ‘game’ cable television plays, trying to bundle everything into a giant, more expensive package instead of allowing them to buy only what they want.

Regarding the future of sports, we could only discuss a few of the major professional leagues in our short hour, and for now it appears that the NFL is safe. However, when I asked what sports we needed to tackle next the response was: soccer, cricket, and even curling. As we move into sports that are lesser known in North America it will be interesting to see if any of them have a chance at dislodging a few of the majors.

Photo credit: on1stsite. via photopin cc.

8 thoughts on “Millennial Think Tank: The Future of Sports

  1. susansilver says:

    I’ve only followed a few sports preferring to play rather than spectate. I really appreciated what the panel had to say. I’ve been exposed to Golf, because of my father, but I appreciated Kelly’s and Salina’s point of view. They bring up some very critical issues about how the game is perceived and the attitudes that contribute to that perception. 

    I will have to admit, after talking about the violence of these sports, I feel a bit guilty about being a  Hockey fan.  I didn’t realize until the bit about the NFL and what Albert had to say about player injuries.   It is a high risk, high reward profession with a very limited time span for earning power. I just feel that this argument is only the tip of the iceberg and that there is certainly more to discuss in the future. 

    Great panel this week!

  2. JoeCardillo says:

    susansilver The perceptions and attitudes thing is big, I think part of what’s going on is the shift in power…it used to be the association / leadership of a professional league had a lot of say, e.g. the NFL defined what was good / important culturally and controlled the conversation around tradeoffs whereas now that’s not possible. 
    Same goes for golf. The tradeoffs of not building courses that are environmentally friendly, not combating racism / sexism…well, the PGA, golf courses, and local golf associations no longer get to decide how the tradeoffs work and if they want to attract audiences they’ll have to build the nuts & bolts + brand of the sport with audiences instead of delivering a product and saying take it or leave it. Obviously it’s not hard to see where I stand, I like the idea of continuous customer development. It’s much easier than shoving things down the throat of the market, and there’s value in it for everyone.

  3. JoeCardillo says:

    This one was particularly interesting for me, since I’m not a sports fanatic.
    I’m in favor of and believe that transparency is fairly inevitable, those sports and sports brands that embrace it as a way to hold themselves accountable and mandate real, sustainable growth are going to win in the long term. I wonder how much of the problem is really guts & vision at the top, since the real problem here for many sports is the whole “we’ve always done it this way” instead of “we’re always looking for ways to grow and develop.” 
    Also, we didn’t have anywhere near enough time to get into Nascar, but the initiative is fascinating.

  4. hessiejones says:

    As a GenX mom, I see the behaviour of my kids: GenZ who would rather play sports than watch sports. Nate is a huge fan of soccer and hockey but he’d be more inclined to go outside and shoot  pucks at the net than have to sit through an entire hockey game on the television. 

    albertqian brought up a good point about the violence in sports. I do believe that parents will not encourage their children to pursue sports like football or hockey given the increasing incidence of concussion and brain injury. The sport needs to change at the professional level — it already is within house league hockey. No longer is body checking allowed. I believe this will soon be adopted even at the Rep Hockey levels. The reality is that what was once deemed acceptable “violence” has escalated to the point where people are blinded to what is considered entertainment. It’s the reason I don’t watch boxing or UFC.

  5. susansilver says:

    hessiejones albertqian All great points Hessie. My little nephew (6) is the same way. He’d rather play than watch! He’s good at it too (if I can brag a little).

  6. susansilver says:

    JoeCardillo That is fascinating on the part of Nascar. It means that they acknowledge that their sport has a responsibility to the environment. That can do a lot for building awareness around climate change because of the fan following that Nascar has. I’ll be following along now and see what happens and how they do.

  7. Holly says:

    I’m sorry, but it’s difficult to take seriously a “think tank” that includes more people who watch golf and the nba than baseball and football. That is not representative AT ALL. Normal millennials do not care about golf AT ALL beyond *maybe* a VERY occasional, casual round. And everyone I know thinks the NBA is a complete joke and fully rigged. Football is clearly very popular, though is definitely losing popularity. And they have serious problems looming in the future because kids just aren’t playing football as much anymore due to parental concussion concerns. Football is also almost completely dependent on ad revenue from once a week “TV events” for a very small number of games per season. Consuming media in that way is quickly going the way of the dinosaur.

    And baseball… I sincerely believe that baseball is going to (eventually) regain its #1 spot from football. Revenue is currently 7 fold what it was after the strike in the 90s. There is no sport that can replace or objectively compare to baseball. It is completely unique. The strike of the 90s was devastating to the sport’s popularity, but there is a post-steroid small ball renaissance happening now. The biggest challenge baseball faces is adapting to HOW millennials want to consume the sport. As you mentioned, they want it available on their devices and DO NOT want to pay for cable. That is the biggest sticking point MLB has to address. But professional baseball has existed for 146 years and has weathered many economic and cultural shifts. MLB also attracts the most talented baseball players in the world. (People in other countries actually play baseball. Football… not so much.)

    As for soccer, it is gaining popularity, but it’s difficult to overestimate the number of people who say they like soccer because they think it makes them seem cool. That is a lot different than people who actually spend any money whatsoever on the sport. Also, MLS in the US will not attract the world’s top talent anytime in the foreseeable future, for reasons I think are probably obvious. My city has one of the most (possibly the most) popular soccer team in the country, but they are still a distant 3rd in popularity behind football and baseball.

    • Hi Holly,

      You are certainly correct regarding Millennials across the board with Golf, AND with GenX as well. They may WATCH Majors – they aren’t playing. Golf actually lost 650K golfers last year.

      As far as our Think Tanks, we actually have a GenX, a Boomer, and a Blended one as well. We founded them because we were FED UP with generational stereotypes, and we often find that the hype is flat our wrong. Our standard format is to tackle a topic starting with stats from a reputable research company, such as Pew Research, and then delve into a qualitative discussion on our Hangouts. We are also formulating our own surveys so that we can reach ALL of our Think Tank members, not just the ones on our panel that week.

      Regarding the NBA, I’m not sure you’re accurate on that (and I don’t know about normal Millennials because we have learned they don’t think as a monolith on much of anything) but the NBA is certainly more popular than it was say 10 years ago.

      On soccer, I think you’re right – it’s still up in the air as to how real this American (puppy) love affair is.

      Are you a Millennial? Would you be interested in coming on a think tank episode about sports? We’d love to hear from you.

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