Many traditional sports are seeing declining participation rates and a declining number of fans. In order to stop the rot, many are experimenting with different new formats which should appeal to the new fan. The question is whether these new formats will be coming to the rescue. We give our verdict on which of these new formats in traditional sports will be winners and losers. What will be hot and what will not?
In October, we wrote a short blogpost (New formats in traditional sports: winners and losers) on several traditional sports that were seeing declining participation rates and fans in several parts of the world. Because of this decline many sports are experimenting with new formats. As many people were interested in this subject, we decided to do a part 2. This time we give our verdict on cycling, triathlon, speedskating, road cycling swimming
Fans are important for the future of a sport
Without an audience, there is no real reason for the existence of a sport. If there is no interest, there will be little incentive to be active in a certain sport. From whatever angle you look at it, fans, whether being active or passive, are the main drivers behind the success of a sport. Without fans, there is no real conversion into participation. In this perspective, it is important to know that the present fan is changing big time!
Why does the present fan change? Mainly because of the change in generations. Babyboomers and GenXers (the older generations) no longer form a majority, but many sports federations are still managed by representatives of these groups. Often you hear these federations commenting like this:
“Our sport has been around for so long! I am sure it also will weather the current storm.”
It is a statement you hear quite often and highlights the extreme conservatism in many sports. It’s a very arrogant and naive way of looking at it if you ask me.
Traditional sports should adjust their offerings
I might not be the typical representative of my own generation (the babyboomers) but even I am often bored with long broadcasts nowadays of your average cycling race, football match or long distance skating event. It feels often like watching the grass grow. It means that I have turned away in some cases and definitely am watching fewer times at such sporting events. Why is this, I was wondering.
The answer probably is that our lifes have become faster and that we are getting so much more information in a shorter timespan. This will not change! GenZ and GenAlpha are the living proof of this. It is dangerous to neglect the impact that these generations will have on future sports. This behaviour includes both watching (live and at home) as well as participating in sports.
GenZ in brief
Short attention span and interesting content
Let’s quickly summarize some of the habits GenZ and GenAlpha have. First of all they have a much shorter attention span (less than 8 seconds) watch fewer games and if not sufficiently interesting, they will switch to something else immediately. To watch growing grass won’t do the trick for them (or for me). They are the youtube generation, i.e snappy funny and interesting content, highlights and interesting background! That is their preference. In general they like a good story.
Tech, social media, independence and chilling out
GenZ is also called the tech generation, they eat, breathe and sleep with it. Let that be a lesson, if you want your sport to be popular! GenZ also loves social media and influencers, they like to share and value the opinion of stars. Additionally, GenZ can be considered as pragmatic, independent, hard working and funloving. As far as sports is concerned, a healthy lifestyle is engraved into their minds. Sports form an integral part of such a style. Hence Gen Z is particularly interested in practicing sports rather than watching it. Finally they love to chill out with friends. Keep this all in mind, when you consider the future of sports.
The above trends should be of no surprise as nowadays the world has turned global and many other alternative interesting options are available anytime and everywhere! With plenty of opportunities and alternatives available, the sporting arena has changed. Therefore it is especially important for traditional sports with a substantial market share to acknowledge these trends.
Also interesting to read: How GenZ will change the world of sports
Cautious strategy required
So what to do in order to allow for these trends? Some sports try to find the answer in entering new geographic areas. In my opinion, this is disguising the real problem and not sustainable in the longer run. Other sports are experimenting with new alternative formats. Theoretically, these should appeal more to newer generations and stop the rot. This requires a cautious approach in order not to lose the existing (ofter older generation related ) fanbase.
The older generation often is happy with the current existing formats. The younger tends to be atrracted more by a mixture of short, spectacular and furious action combined with entertainment and a festival like atmosphere. In addition to this, a modern event should be backed-up by technology and social media opportunities. Without these, no deal! Which sports will turn out to be winners and which will be losers on the basis of their current efforts? Below we investigate a number of traditional sports and how they deal with sone of these trends.
Triathlon – Verdict: mildly positive
Triatlon is faced with several problems
Huh? Triathlon? You mean that running, swimming, biking event? Yep! Talking about long events! Triathlon beats them all! At least if you talk about the full distance ironman one! There are a few problems surrounding the sports at the moment. Yes, triathlon has been growing tremendously for many years but as of late growth in participation levels seems to slow down.
So what problems are we talking about besides lacklustre growth? Firstly, fan engagement! When did you see a triathlon event on television? Good chance, you can’t remember! Let alone that you ever attended one in real! If there are no fans, there is no coverage and there are no sponsors! Conclusion: the sport is just not known with the mainstream public.
Why is this? Well, because it takes far to long to watch, it’s boring and there is nothing to see for spectators. In fact athletes are on ever lasting bikerides and running trails and only the transitions offer somewhat of a spectacle. Furthermore rivalry is limited and audience entertainment virtually non existent. Barely ingredients for a healthy future I would say, certainly not as far as GenZ is concerned. Remember GenZers have a short attention span, and like short and snappy content, they like to chill with their friends and want to have fun.
Original formats won’t do the trick
Isn’t there anything good about triatlon as far as they are concerned? Ofcourse there is! It’s healthy, you can participate in it together with friends and the latest tech is required. If triathlon can address the negatives and can make the format more spectacular, there is no reason to believe the sport will be dead. One just has to accept that original formats won’t work!
Super League could do the trick
The latest initiative is the Super League triathlon and it might just do the trick. Watch the video below that briefly explains the format.
This new format now exists for a couple of years and has shown tremendous growth sofar. It’s shorter, faster and more furious for a start! It gives fans an action packed and very close-up experience. That’s a very important prerequisite for these earlier mentioned new generations. As only the best elite athletes participate, it is easy to identify with these stars, which act as influencers and role models and promote a healthy lifestyle.
The superleague is all about encompassing a lifestyle that represents fitness, fun, friendship and experiences. As it takes place at some of the world’s most beautiful spots, which regard this event as marketing for their location and want to pay for it, part of the funding is in place. This all is a package that is a hell of a lot more attractive than your ordinary bread and butter triathlon. It ticks a lot of the GenZ boxes.
So far so good, but can the success achieved sofar be leveraged towards the mainstream public. The crunch question will be whether triathlon is prepared to embrace this new concept and attract new sponsors and most importantly attract media partners (on-line and TV) that are willing to support this new format. The judges are out and we are mildly positive.
Speed-skating – Verdict: negative
Aging and boring
I am Dutch, so I should like speedskating. Most kids have been brought up with it and basically the vast majority in The Netherlands can skate. To some extent, it is kind of a national pastime! I still can remember the time I was a kid and watched all the big skating events on national TV armed with paper and pencil in order to write down the lap times. I could watch the entire event with ease.
Fast forward to the present! I have changed…..in fact a lot! When looking at skating nowadays, I think most of it is boring as hell! In fact it is worse than seeing grass row. To just watch athletes for 12 minutes circling an iceskating rink may appeal to some, but it won’t do it for me. Yes, the sprinting events appeal to some extent, but that’s about it. How come? In contrast with the old times, there is so much more on offer now.
Imagine now, you are a GenZ. Do you really bother to watch long skating events? Don’t be silly! There might be a lost young Dutch GenZ soul or two, who enjoys watching it, but generally it is a safe assumption that the average audience of speedskating is aging and very rapidly so!
From a global perspective it is even worse. Speedskating is primarily a Dutch and Norwegian sport, with a few other countries joining the elite once in a while. However, if the US is barely able to come up with sufficient participants for long distance skating, you can at least lift an eyebrow or two. Don’t expect for any moment that there are US kids watching speedskating on TV or online.
So how about visiting live events? That’s not a lot better I am afraid. In most countries, you can often count the total number of visitors and I mean this literally. The exception is The Netherlands. In Holland there are still quite a few spectators, but watch closely! Yes, you are right…..they are mainly older people, mostly dressed up in orange. They truly enjoy seeing their heroes passing by. They sing along with the odd orchestra during breaks, but that’s about it. No other major entertainment, no interactivity with the fans, social media opportunities etc. Do you really expect the post 2000 generation to visit such events? Nope!
It doesn’t tick any boxes for GenZ
So what is the ISU doing to attract GenZ and give the sports new incentives? Well, not a lot I am afraid.
They have introduced a couple of new formats over the last few years such as the pursuit and mass start. Does that do anything about the fun factor? No, it does not! Skaters are still doing their thing. At least these formats are taking less time and are faster. The massstart even gives some real visible competition, where the winner takes all. But this is barely enough
Let’s quickly go over what GenZ wants and speed skating offers and see if there’s a match. They like tech, skating does not offer it, at least not to the fans. They have a short attention span…..only the sprint might appeal to some extent. Does it deliver show, spectacle and fun with chill-out opportunities? No way, Jose! At least, I can’t see it! Is there any storytelling, interesting online content going on? Very limited, it really should come from some of the Dutch skaters with local star status, but that’s about it!
Be creative guys and do something, get your act together! Think out of the box! Skating is something which can appeal to the new Gen! It embodies health, nature and fun. Build in that rock and roll factor and connect the dots! Take short track as an example or do something! If not, I am afraid competitive speed skating will sooner rather than later be finished. Verdict: negative
Road cycling – Verdict: negative
Cycling has it all but lacks a pro-active governing body
Let’s face it! In principle cycling has everything going for it where GenZ is concerned. It is outdoors, it is healthy, it can be adventurous, it is increasingly high-tech, it can and is being gamified (see this Zwift video), you can do it on your own at your convenience or with your buddies, it has its role models and influencers and it can be leveraged into social media. Moreover, cycling is gaining ever more popularity as more and more people take the bike instead of the car and certainly within cities. What more do you want you may wonder!? Easy, a more pro-active governing body!
Ofcourse we are talking road cycling here! In a broader perspective I believe cycling has a lot going for it. Participation levels are unlikely to come down as cycling fits all the important trends. However, this mainly concerns cycling for fun and leisure purposes, not for competitive road racing. That’s where the main problems can be found. Read the two statements of two famous professional cyclists below.
‘For me cycling is a boring sport, and as a fan I only watch the last five kilometres’Peter Sagan
‘It may seem boring, but that’s modern cycling ’Vincenzo Nibali
Not interesting to GenZ viewers and fans
That says it all, doesn’t it? It does not only seem boring, it actually is! Again, I used to watch a lot of cycling when I was young and the offering was relatively limited. But really, let’s face it, for a large part of the race nothing happens! It’s a waste of your time! Do you really believe for a second that GenZ will watch cycling from beginning to end of a ride/stage! If so, you have been living under a stone.
Let’s turn to the live fans now. You still see them along the roads cheering their favorite riders. But what’s there to see? A peloton passing by in a couple of seconds……That’s it! Are you kidding me? Do you really believe our youngsters will be game? Yes, the starting and finishing places do offer some fun and games and you have to give it to the riders, they are often approachable to some extent, offering the so much needed influencer and star status roles. Peter Sagan is an excellent example of someone who does appeal to GenZ. He has this so-called X-factor. But that’s barely enough. To offer a good product, a lot more has to be done.
How to make road cycling more interesting
In order to make things interesting to younger spectators (and bare in mind, they are already the biggest generation right now), you have to make road cycling more explosive, fast and furious and above all a lot more fun. It means shorter stages (and maybe more than one a day), it means stages on circuits where you can see the riders passing by more than once, it means AR and VR brought into the equation, it means entertainment and fun everywhere etc etc.
The Hammer Series is a series of cycling races in which teams compete against each other to determine the winning formation, instead of individual riders. It consists of three disciplines; the Hammer Climb, Sprint and Chase. All of which take place on a short circuit, covered multiple times. In the Hammer Climb and Hammer Sprint, the riders fight for points for their teams every time they cross the finish line. It is a Weekend of cycling events with a bike expo, mass participation ride, family events and concerts in a festival kind of atmosphere.
Now we are talking! That’s at least a decent initiative in which is being attempted to innovate cycling road races. I am not saying this is the solution but at least it is a good start! The Hammer Series is being developed by Velon, which produces live rider data, videos and social media content designed to increase engagement with professional cycling.
UCI and ASO main problem
In spite of this initiative, I have my severe doubts. The format nor the teams are the main problem. In fact Velon is owned by 11 WorldTour teams which do encourage change. The problem is with the all-mighty UCI and ASO which are the Federation and the main tour organisers, which in fact monopolize the sport. They frantically want to hold on to their regulating and organising positions, preferably for their own commercial benefit. That’s where the problem is and why innovation seems far away. As long as this is the case, I doubt whether we will see much change. This is precisely why my verdict for the time being is negative!
Swimming – Verdict: positive
Swimming has a lot going for it
On to swimming and that is an interesting one, particularly if you compare it with cycling! Swimming is one of those Olympic sports that have been around for ages. For many, many years we haven’t seen any major changes. However, as of late, there are some encouraging signs.
Similar to cycling, swimming has a lot going for it when taking GenZ into account. You can do it on your own or with friends, it is healthy, there are loads of swimming pools (hence low entry barriers) and technology is playing an increasingly important role (wearables and AR goggles etc). Moreover, we all have to learn it at a young age. Hence participation (organised and unorganised) seems not to be the problem.
How about (organised) competitive swimming? Clearly, that is a more difficult question! Watching 8 swimmers trying to be the fastest does not appeal to many, Especially the longer distances seem to be taking pretty long and certainly if you have to sit out all the series. The finals seem allright and especially the shorter distances are ok. But if this is sufficient? Clearly, we have seen some changes which make it a little bit of fun. Introducing swimmers in a flashy atmosphere has been a good start. However, in order to have a real impact new high octane formats have to be introduced.
Some encouraging new initiatives
The good news is that some encouraging new initiatives have been introduced of which the international swimming league seems to be the most promising one. It is an annual professional swimming league, established in 2019. It features a team-based competition format with fast-paced race sessions varying from relays to skin races. The regular season starts in October and the Final Match is held in December. The first edition was considered to be a big success and I have to admit, I enjoyed watching it!
In any case, it was a lot more showy, fun and competitive than your average swimming competition. Speed, mixed (men and women) international teams, show and only the best of the best. Obviously the International Swimming League is kind of a break out initiative, but the FINA responded in the right way! Although initially it felt threatened, it did approve of the competition and did the only thing it could do. It started its own Champions Swim Series. Swimmers happy, viewers happy, fans happy! At least, change is in the making and that is positive for swimming! Verdict: positive!
It’s interesting isn’t it? Often the problem seems to be with the federations. There are plenty of ideas around but if federations do not have an open mind and have a culture of nepotism, they are doomed to lose out in the end. The swimming and triathlon federations seem to be open to change, whereas I have my doubts whether the cycling and skating federations are sufficiently eager to implement innovation to be ready for the future.