New formats in traditional sports: winners and losers

New formats in traditional sports: winners and losers

Many traditional sports are seeing declining participation rates and a declining number of fans. In order to stop the rot, many of them 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?

The sports fan is ever changing


Without an audience, there is no real reason for existence. Fans, whether be 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. In this perspective, it is important to know that the present fan is changing! Many traditional sports are under pressure because of changing 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 underlines the extreme conservatism in many sports. It’s an extremely arrogant and naive way of looking at it!

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, watch fewer games and if not sufficiently interesting they will switch to something else immediately. This behaviour includes both watching (live and at home) as well as participating in sports.

These trends (see recent blogpost) 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 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.

Cautious strategy required

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 should 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 (see my recent blogpost) 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. Below we investigate a number of traditional sports and how they approach these trends. In a future blogpost, I will discuss some more.

1. Soccer – Verdict: negative

Declining participation rates in traditional strongholds

Soccer is about the most traditional and conservative sport around it seems. 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 like Europe and the US, where participation rates are declining. It is a dangerous sign! Often declining participation is 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. This does not appeal to many! Particularly the younger generations are value driven. Last but not least, soccer is not an example of innovation, to put it mildly. Goal line technology and the much discussed VAR have been the only big changes as of late.

No format changes either…..

Over the years, we haven’t seen major changes related to the game either. That’s 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 things are boring, they say goodbye! 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 you need 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 seen 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. My verdict: loser

2. Rugby – Verdict: positive

Still showing growth

Rugby seems to still gain in popularity. The current worldcup is a great success in Japan, whilst 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 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 rough 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 of 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 nations and older Gens. The balance of tradition and innovation should do the trick. 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 people who are actively playing the game as well as the age of the average fan is increasing. The problem here is that it is dangerous to suddenly switch to formats that are attracting the younger generations. In fact, you do not want to entirely alienate your current fanbase either.

Connecting the old and the young

Tennis is actively experimenting on how young and old can be connected. In this perspective the Rod Laver Cup is 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 like as Nadal, Ferderer etc. Values such as Connection, Togetherness and Trust push the right buttons with both the older and younger generations. Team(togetherness) vs individual sports! It’s a bit like the Ryder Cup in golf! You rout for either Europe or the rest of the world. Engagement and festival atmosphere do tick the boxes.

So far, so good! 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 that 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) and Fast4 Tennis. Both should 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.

If you ask me, I prefer TBT over Fast 4 tennis! For purists it sounds like blasphemy, but tennis needs to take some action to attract the newer generation.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 changes 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, 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 fortresses 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 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 take 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. In traditional golf countries, participation is down, whilst the age of the average fan is ever increasing. Similar to several other sports, it is global expansion that is coming 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, the real issues have to be addressed in order to reverse the 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 conducted 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 too long. GenZ does not have the time for this and couldn’t care less. They don’t want to see a player taking almost a minute to take a shot. They see this as plain boring. They want something which is short, which is spectacular and which they can enjoy with 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.

European Tour and PGA are trying…..

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. 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 draws a play-off will be played to determine the winner. At the end of the round robin section the top two advance to day two and the knockout phase which will be knockout 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 also features a knockout system combining stroke- and matchplay elements, where in the end there will be one winner, who survives. The PGA Tour also tries. Recently it featured team play during the Zurich Classic, whilst skins were also re-introduced.

It remains to be seen whether these formats will 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

Published by Jan Kees Mons

I am Jan Kees Mons. Just call me JK, that’s easier I guess. I am a Dutchman living in the heart of the city of Amsterdam. Right now I am living on my own. However, not for much longer, as I plan to live together with my lovely girlfriend.