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Time to Change the Channel

Gen Z is driving big changes in Sports Broadcasting

Much ink has been spilled over the death of linear TV.

As streaming services have exploded in popularity in recent years, and new digital advertising channels have emerged to challenge the dominance of prime time, countless news outlets and industry analysts have heralded the imminent downfall of television as we know it. If the most melodramatic voices are to be believed, traditional broadcast television will be completely replaced by digital streaming options in the not-too-distant future.

And yet, somehow, those rabbit ears persist. Despite the prophecies of its imminent downfall, linear TV still accounts for over 60% of viewership, according to a 2019 report by Omdia. Older viewers in particular still prefer to watch traditional linear TV.

And within that group, live sports is an overwhelming favorite – an astonishing 89 of the top 100 live broadcasts in 2018 were sports. 77% of boomers prefer to watch these events live. And while that number dips dramatically to 35% for millennials and Gen-Z, sports programming remains the most popular linear TV offering for all ages. Thanks largely to sports, it is fair to say that the death of linear TV has been greatly exaggerated (at least for now).


It’s clear that sports will continue to be a tent-pole for traditional broadcasters; as vaccine rollouts pick up and leagues return to their normal schedule, the built up excitement for live sporting events may even usher in a record year for the networks.

But even with these promising, short-term figures, it is still important for broadcasters to keep their eye on the long game. Yes, its popularity among older viewers (in particular for sports) means that linear TV is not going anywhere soon. But as more zoomers opt for the convenience of streaming over live TV – and as Gen-Z becomes an increasingly influential sector of the economy – these gains may prove short-lived. In order to ensure long-term popularity among a key, on-the-rise demographic, live sports broadcasters need to adapt to the demands of Gen-Z. Demands such as… 


Don’t fight the streamers: Join them.


The greatest watchword for Gen-Z viewing habits is, of course, streaming. Streaming has disrupted practices across the entertainment industry, finding particular popularity among younger audiences, and sports is no different.

65% of millennial and Gen-Z sports fans use some sort of streaming service to watch sports, according to a recent Harris Poll survey. The biggest deciding factor seems to be convenience, especially for younger viewers who are accustomed to having entertainment at their fingertips at all times. Although better picture quality still leads many viewers to watch sports on their TV, the rollout of 5G may soon change that. No one who is paying attention to the industry has any illusions: streaming is the future.


It would be understandable for incumbent broadcasters like ESPN and Fox to feel challenged by the rise of streaming. After all, if Hulu, Youtube, and other streaming platforms are gaining viewers, the networks are losing them… right? Some choose to see it this way, but others view streaming as an opportunity to expand current content offerings to a new generation of fans. Some networks, like Fox, have released a sports-specific streaming app for free to cable subscribers, allowing them to watch games on their devices. ESPN has launched a more robust, standalone platform – ESPN Plus –  which allows subscribes to stream current and past games, along with a library of original content and other perks.


The ESPN Plus model is particularly interesting, because it highlights how networks can use streaming to enhance their linear TV experience rather than replace it. Although live broadcasts remain popular among a broad audience, making games simultaneously available via an official streaming service can help attract a younger audience and build brand loyalty.

In addition, more niche events may make sense to only broadcast digitally; a Verizon Media study found that 51% of fans use streaming services to view sports that are not available elsewhere.

Broadcasters should also not see these platforms as solely limited to coverage of games. They can also be the perfect place for fans to seek out sideline footage, post-game discussion, highlights and more supplemental content.

Gen-Z viewers are interested in becoming closer and more engaged with the teams they follow; a streaming service could be the perfect way to make that happen.


Embrace the community.


There is a misconception that, because of their predilection for digital viewing, Gen-Z is less interested in the traditional camaraderie of watching sports. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, while 53% of boomers surveyed by Deloitte preferred to watch games alone, that number dropped to 31% for younger viewers. These Gen-Z and millennial fans not only want to enjoy the game in the company of their friends and family, but also want to participate in a wider fandom community via social media.

78% of young viewers polled by Imagen reported “double screening” – engaging with other fans on social media – during or after broadcasts. Clearly the social aspect of sports is important to Gen-Z, even if they have new ways of expressing it.


Many broadcasters have already begun to explore social media as an additional channel to reach Gen-Z – again, as a supplement to live broadcasts, rather than a substitute for it. ESPN, for example, has launched new shows exclusively on Facebook Watch that average over 1.5 million views per episode.

Designed to engage younger viewers, these programs feature an interactive element, including polls and Q&As, in order to help Gen-Z fans feel more connected to players and fellow fans. Even the leagues themselves have gotten on board this trend: the NFL partnered with Instagram’s Playmakers Program in November of 2020 in an effort to connect with younger fans. The NFL/Instagram deal is particularly interesting, as it allows Gen-Z college students to give direct feedback to the league on how they most want to connect with their teams. Major networks could learn a lesson from this initiative, and find new ways to connect with a diverse, enthusiastic generation of sports fans.


Always be innovating.


One of the most important lessons that broadcasters should take away from the extensive research done – and we say this at the risk of sounding repetitive – is that new technologies do not have to be a replacement for linear TV. There is still a multi-generational desire to watch live sports while it is being broadcasted, both for the sense of community it creates, as well as the superior picture quality of television. Again, this popularity may be lower among younger viewers, but if networks take advantage of certain cutting-edge technologies, they may have a chance yet at winning over Gen-Z sports fans.


There are many exciting technologies that sports broadcasters are poised to adopt in the coming years, but there is a common trend behind most of them: personalization. To put it bluntly, Gen-Z viewers have higher expectations for their entertainment, and they are unwilling to compromise on them. Approximately one third of all sports fans are interested in gaining more control over their sports viewing experience (including switching between different camera angles, choosing which announcers they hear, etc.), and this number goes up even higher for zoomers: Nearly 50% of Gen-Z sports fans would prefer to view an individualized highlight reel of a game, to take just one statistic. If traditional broadcasters want to win over younger viewers, they need to start offering more personalized experiences.


One way to do this is through emerging AR and VR technologies, which could be particularly beneficial for sports broadcasters. VR could allow fans to virtually sit in the front row of their favorite team’s stadium, to name just one use case; personalized AR displays could also allow fans to view stats on the screen while they watch, particularly significant with the recent legalization of sports betting. While many in the industry are understandably skeptical of the viability of these new technologies – VR has been hailed as the future of live sports for several years, now – there is no question that broadcasters must consider every available option in order to attract Gen-Z audiences. Although linear TV is not going away any time soon, the broadcasters that win Gen-Z loyalty in the future will be the ones who adopt innovative practices now.

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