Younger Sports Fans Are Still Tuning In, and Will Be First to Return to Stadiums

And they'll be willing to embrace new technologies to get back in the game

people watching sports on their sofa
Since fans likely won't be able to attend games in the near future, leagues are experimenting with bringing live sports to them. Getty Images
Headshot of Ryan Barwick

Stadium seats still sit empty, but professional sports leagues are looking forward to eventual recovery. And younger audiences will lead that return, according to a new survey from sports marketing agency Octagon.

Despite the global pandemic, younger fans—between ages 18 and 29—never stopped paying attention to their favorite teams and athletes. That’s thanks in large part to the fact that younger fans are more digitally inclined, which should come as no surprise. More than 82% of sports fans between the ages of 18 and 29 have continued to engage in “sports-related activities” during the pandemic, which include everything from watching classic games on ESPN (which 29% of younger fans tuned into, compared to 19% of older fans) to following athletes like Tom Brady on social media.

Meanwhile, only 60% of those over 30 said they’ve continued to engage in sports-related activities. While they’ll (probably) still tune in every Sunday once sports resume, there’s an opportunity for brands and advertisers to reach an audience that never tuned out sports, even during lockdown.

The data comes from Octagon’s new survey of more than 1,250 sports fans on May 15, nearly two months after the NBA paused its season, the beginning of the global sports industry coming to a screeching halt.

When sports return—with the assumption that fans won’t yet get to cheer in person—younger fans are also more willing to adjust to whatever solution leagues and networks devise. Among fans ages 18-29, 27% believe that augmented and artificial fan reaction and noise would help the viewing experience, versus 18% of total fans polled. Younger fans were also more willing to welcome virtual audience replacements such as robots in stadium seats or holographic fan replacements.

The results of the survey also showed that perceptions about younger audiences and brand loyalty might be changing. Forty-three percent of fans ages 18-29 claimed to be more loyal to sponsors that are continuing to promote sports during the pandemic compared to just 29% of those older than age 29. Nearly half (45%) called the content released during the absence “entertaining” versus 33% of older sports fans.

“I think a lot of the times in the past, the research showed that these younger audiences weren’t necessarily brand loyal,” said Cristina Ackas, Octagon’s vp of research. “Through sports sponsorships, this digital content has created even greater loyalty [among] younger consumers to the brands they love and the brands sponsoring the teams they love. We’re seeing, with the absence of sports, it’s working.”

Most importantly, when leagues allow fans to return, younger audiences will lead the way, as they’re more comfortable braving a post-Covid-19 reality. Of those asked, 35% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they would attend a sporting event as soon as they were able, versus just 18% of those older than 29.

Forty six percent said they would go to a game within the first six months of reopening versus 37% of those older than 29. Of course, younger fans are likely less concerned about the coronavirus, given its greater impact on older demographics.

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.