Many traditional sports are seeing declining participation rates and a declining number of fans. This is not only because of Covid, but structural, as fans and participants are changing. In order to stop the rot, many sports federations 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 and stop the rot. 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?
The sports fan is ever changing
Without an audience, there is no real reason for the existence of a sport. Fans, whether active or passive, are the main drivers behind the success of a sport. Without fans, there is no interest and no real conversion into participation rates. In this perspective, it is important to know that the present fan is changing! Many traditional sports are under pressure because of the change in generations. Babyboomers and GenXers (the older generations) no longer form a majority, yet many sports federations are still managed by representatives of these groups. Often you hear these federations making comments 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 it underlines the enormous conservatism in many sports. It’s an extremely arrogant and naive way of looking at their sport and ignores the change in generations. I would recommend you to read my blogpost on these new generations as it explains how different they are.
Traditional sports should adjust its offering
I believe it is dangerous to neglect the impact GenZ and GenAlpha will have on future sports. The fans of these generations have a much shorter attention span and watch fewer games. If not sufficiently interesting they will switch immediately to something more interesting. This behaviour includes both watching (live and at home) as well as participating in sports. Additionally these generations love technology. Without integration of new technologies into a sport, it is in danger that the new fan will lose interest. So use it or lose it!
These trends (see recent blogpost on the main trends in sports) should be of no surprise as nowadays the world has turned global and many other alternative interesting options are available anytime and anywhere! With plenty of streaming 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 and to act accordingly.
Cautious strategy required
Some sports try to find the answer by 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 should stop the rot. However, it 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 (see my recent blogpost on GenZ) 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, it 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, that’s the big question. Below we investigate a number of traditional sports and their ways of approaching these trends. In a future blogpost, I will discuss some more.
1. Soccer – Verdict: negative
Declining participation rates in traditional strongholds
It seems that soccer is about the most traditional and conservative sport around. The sport appears to hide itself behind its global presence and its popularity over the last hundred years.
“Why would you change a winning formula? Soccer is still showing growth!”,
seems to be the general belief. However, expansion in particularly Asia and in women’s soccer is hiding the decline in traditional strongholds such as Europe and the US, where participation rates are declining. It is a dangerous sign! Often declining participation rates are an early indicator of the future popularity of a sport.
There is more! FIFA’s core values such as integrity, solidarity and courage sound nice but are not always reflected in practice (think Qatar, bribery etc). This does not appeal to many and certainly not to the new generations that like fairness and inclusion! Particularly the younger generations are value driven in this perspective. Last but not least, soccer is not an ultimate example of innovation, to put it mildly! Goal line technology and the much discussed VAR have been the only big changes as of late.
Also interesting to read: The future of soccer: 12 intriguing predictions
No format changes either…..
Over the years, we haven’t seen any major changes related to the game either. In my opinion is this where the biggest danger can be found. Soccer is popular and has the potential to remain popular, but only if changes will be adopted. There is plenty to think of! Innovating the offsite rule (either abolishing it or tweaking the zones), a shotclock, icing, unlimited substitution etc. I am not saying, these are the answers but at least it would be nice to see some experiments.
Over the last 40 years we haven’t seen any major changes in the rules. I doubt whether GenZ will be as interested in soccer as my own generation. Participation numbers seem to prove this. GenZ is all about fairness, speed, technology, high intensity and fun. They have a short attention span. If something is turning out as too boring, they say goodbye and are out! That’s where the danger is.
No real pro-active governing bodies
I doubt whether soccer is willing to implement these changes. In order to do this, it is essential to have a pro-active governing body. FIFA and UEFA are far from it. They are ultra conservative bodies and unlikely to change anytime soon. In contrast to for example hockey and rugby, we have witnessed little change and even no real experiments in the game. That’s why I have serious doubts on the long term future of the sports. Clearly clubowners and stadiums might come up with solutions attracting the younger generation as fans. However, the game has to modernize as well. If not the average age of the soccer fan will rapidly increase, an early sign of decay. My verdict: loser
2. Rugby – Verdict: positive
Still showing growth
Rugby seems to still gain in popularity. The last held worldcup in 2019 was a great success in Japan. Simultaneously participation rates, in especially newly emerging rugby countries are ever increasing. Not surprisingly, World Rugby’s mission is to grow the global rugby family. Sofar it has done a great job! The number of active players is growing rapidly and 9.6 mln men, women and kids are playing the game now. Teamwork, Respect, Integrity, Enjoyment and Discipline are the core values of the sports and these are being lived by!
Nevertheless, rugby seems to be fully aware of the challenges ahead. Yes, it has chosen a strategy to expand the game globally. However, it also fully realises the traditional stronghold countries in 15’s (the number of players in a team) are a blessing, but also make it difficult for other nations to enter the world stage. It therefore has chosen rugby 7’s as a platform for future growth. 7’s is a variant of rugby union in which teams of 7 are playing seven minute halves.
The seven format is becoming increasingly popular as it requires creativity, speed and agility, whilst still getting ferocious from time to time. As the games are fast and furious and the scrum does not eat away too much time from the clock, the sport should tick the boxes for younger generations. It is a sport everybody can play and hence explains the fast growth in participation rates amongst women and kids.
Rugby 7’s, which were introduced during the last Olympics, seem to perfectly complement traditional 15’s rugby, the choice of the traditional stronghold grassroot nations and older Gens. The balance of tradition (15’s) and innovation (7s) should do the trick longer term. Hence I believe, Rugby will continue to grow. My verdict: winner
3. Tennis – Verdict: neutral
Cautious approach required
Tennis appears to be in a difficult position. The average age of both actively playing participants the game and the average fan is ever increasing. Hence, the problem is that it is dangerous to suddenly switch to formats that are attracting younger generations as you do not want to entirely alienate your current fanbase. Hence the crunch question is what to do.
Connecting the old and the young
Tennis is actively experimenting on how young and old can be connected. In this perspective the Laver Cup has been promising. This event connects the heroes of the game such as Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and John Mc Enroe with the stars of the present generation such as Nadal, Federer etc. Values such as Connection, Togetherness and Trust push the right buttons with both the older and younger generations. It is team(Togetherness) vs individual sports! It’s a bit like the Ryder Cup in golf! You rout either for Europe or for the rest of the world. Engagement and a festival atmosphere do tick the boxes during this event.
So far, so good! But what about the action? That’s where I believe the culprit can be found in this event. Matches have to be shorter in order to remain attractive. I am of the older generation and used to watch tennis a lot. Not anymore! It is just taking too much of my time! If such is the case for me, imagine how GenZ is looking at the sport.
Changes to the game have to be made
Experiments are going on with Tie Break Tens (TBT), Fast4 Tennis and thirty30tennis . All should significantly shorten the match. In TBT only tiebreak matches are being played mainly with traditional rules. The first player reaching 10 points, wins! It means, fast matches and no room for mistakes. In one evening a knock out competition can be played with plenty of action and show in a great atmosphere.
Fast 4 Tennis also uses rules that are common in the traditional format. However, there are a few exceptions in order to shorten the match time. A set is won if a player wins 4 games with 2 games difference; there will be no deuce; there will be a tiebreak when it is 3-3. Thirty30 tennis also shortens the game as every game is short and sweet, starting at 30-30.
If you ask me, I prefer TBT over Fast 4 tennis and thirty30! For purists this may sound like blasphemy, but tennis needs to take some action to attract the newer generation. I believe tennis is aware of the danger as the recently released Nextgen ATP finals (new rules and format) also suggest. Winner or loser? I am sitting on a fence here. The judges are still out! It is more a question of how quick the sport is prepared to implement dramatic change on a structural basis. If they do, I am in! My verdict: neutral
4. Cricket – Verdict: negative
A big but mainly local sport
Cricket is a fantastic sport and with more than 2.5 bln fans worldewide, it is one of the biggest sports in the world! That may come as a surprise in case you are not living in one of the traditional cricket strongholds of the world (Australia, Asia and Great Britain). However, simultaneously this is one of the main problems of the sports. In the traditional cricket countries, the sport is part of life and everybody knows the rules.
However, in non-cricket countries, the majority does not know the rules and regards the sport (rightly or wrongly) as long, boring, not transparent and somewhat elitist. As cricket seems not overly ambitious in expanding the sport abroad and participation rates in some traditional countries are declining, I have my doubts whether the sport will be successful in the longer term.
Further changes needed to attract new fans and players
As younger generations do not have the time to study the rules and have a short attention span, it will be difficult to attract these new groups, particularly outside the so called ‘cricket stronghold countries. Cricket has introduced 20/20 in order to address some of the main issues. It is a great innovation, but a match still takes at least three hours, which still appears too long. The duration and rules of the match are probably hurdles that are too big to overtake unless the sports is willing to implement further changes.
Whereas Rugby is willing to organize a world cup outside its main markets, Cricket is organizing its world cups in its stronghold countries like England, Australia and Asia. Whereas Rugby uses its short and spectacular seven’s format in order to become more popular, cricket does not seem to actively conquer the world outside its main countries. I believe in order to be successful with the younger generation, cricket has to introduce further changes related to the speed and duration of the game, as well as actively promote the game in the rest of the world.
One format which now seems to gain some traction is the “100” format, which contains 100 deliveries. This should reduce the length of a game to say 2 hours. However, there seems to be a lot of opposition. This battle between the purists and the ones willing to adjust to the changing consumer environment will probably take too much time. The average age of the cricket fan is ever increasing. In order to reverse this trend, it is either changing the rules or shortening the game or becoming a much smaller local sport. I fear for the last as the sense of urgency seems to be absent. My verdict: loser.
5. Golf -Verdict: neutral
Global expansion still driving the numbers
Similar to other traditional sports, the noble sport of golf is experiencing the same kind of problems. Yes, participation numbers may have temporarily increased on the back of Covid, which has been a blessing for outdoor sports. However this is disguising the underlying trend. In traditional golf countries, participation was down before Covid, whilst the age of the average fan was and is still ever increasing. Similar to several other sports, it is global expansion that had come to the rescue; in Asia both the number of players and fans is increasing rapidly, reflected by the number of Asian players to be found in the Official Golf World Rankings.
But changes required in order to reverse underlying trend
As said, geographic expansion is only a temporary bandage. Sooner or later, certainy when the effects of Covid have disappeared, the real issues have to be addressed in order to reverse the underlying trends in those countries where golf has seen its peak. In my blogpost on the future of golf, I have explained on which alternative strategies can be used to attract the younger generation to participate again.
New formats are necessary
In this perspective it will also be important to introduce new formats to the game that are attractive to these younger groups. The main current televised formats take 4 days before a winner is known. That is just way too long. GenZ and GenAlpha do not have the time for this and couldn’t care less. They don’t want to see a player taking almost a minute to make a shot. They see this as plain boring. They want something which is short and sweet, is spectacular to watch and which they can enjoy together with their friends.
The introduction of Topgolf is a step into the right direction, but traditional golf also needs new tournament format. The Ryder Cup certainly ticks a few of the boxes of GenZ. It is a spectacle, it is man against man, country against country and it takes place in a party atmosphere. The problem is that it only takes place every other year and still lasts too long.
European Tour and PGA are trying and experimenting…..
So what have the PGA and European Tour come up with in order to make things a bit more attractive?
The European Tour has experimented with GolfSixes in the past. It features a 32-player field consisting of 16 teams of two, each representing a nation, competing for money. The 16 teams are divided into four groups. All four teams face each other over a six-hole match with three points for a win, one for a draw and none for a defeat. In the event of a draw, a play-off is played to determine the winner. At the end of the round robin section the top two advance to day two which is a knockout phase with match play until a winner is left. There is a show element involved by a nice introduction of the players, whilst a shot clock in play.
The Belgian knockout was another experiment, also featuring a knockout system combining stroke- and matchplay elements, with ultimately one winner surviving. The latest experiment has been the Scandinavian mixed, where male and female players play are competing playing from their own tees. The winner is the man or woman with the lowest combined score. Although this does little to the duration of the tournament, it does underline inclusion, something which is important to the younger generation.
So what about the PGA Tour. It also tries. It has introduce team play during the Zurich Classic, whilst skins were also re-introduced. In Australia the PGA Australia is experimenting with Blitz golf. It does, what its name suggests and seems to favor a single-day format, meaning the fans who attend get to see the beginning, middle and end. Moreover, a lot of effort is being put in fan experience. We have to wait and see, as the judges are still out, but so far so good.
It remains to be seen whether any of these formats will turn out to be successful. I believe more has to be done in order to attract new fans to matches. Given the succes of Topgolf, I would suggest to introduce a knockout tournament to be played in one evening in a stadium. The fans can chill, watch the players and enjoy the show. They even might be lured to play the real deal. If golf wants to make some drastic changes, I am positive. However, as long as I do not see any major change happen, I remain doubtful. My verdict: neutral
This post has been updated and was originally published on october 19, 2019