It’s Father’s Day and virtually no fathers in the US will be taking their sons and daughters to a sports event.
And while society is gradually reopening and more sports – youth and pro – are hoping to get games going, 2020 will be a year that kids all over the US miss out on opportunities to become bigger sports fans, if fans at all. It’s a scary proposition for sports business. Many leagues are already coping with a rising average fan age and a generation of kids growing up not idolizing the star athletes on the field or court, but instead their favorite YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok follows.
So, as a Father’s Day and a summer arrive, what can the sports industry do to ensure kids in both in the 21st century will fall in love with a favorite team, athlete, and the experience of going to a game or watching it with friends or family?
As is the case with many of the most difficult challenges, it’s instructive to think about the underlying emotions, behaviors, wants, and needs that lead kids to become sports fans in the first place. There are no clear answers to solve this challenge, but there are clues as to where and how to begin trying.
I think back to my own experience, falling in love with my first and favorite sport – baseball. I was an avid player, thanks to a pops that never said no to catch or a trip to the ballpark for some batting practice, but not every baseball fan grew up playing. But what made me a MLB fan, a lifelong fanatic for the game and the league?
It’s the unique experiences that stick with me the most. There was a magical World Series run for the hometown team at age 10 – but, remember, sports marketers can’t rely on wins and losses. But that’s not what sticks most today — it was the trips to Spring Training to see the players up close, a pilgrimage to ballparks on the east coast, and going to baseball camp to work with MLB players.
We always say that every game is a chance to create a memorable experience. That applies even more so to the youngest fans in attendance, whose hearts are open and passions still developing. Right now, a lot of sports organizations are trying to create that memory for every kid in attendance. They’re also straddling the line between giving kids memories and giving parents something with which to entertain and distract their kids.
There’s value to creating a memorable experience, something kids will post about on their social media, message their friends about, and talk about the next day at school. But what about the experiences that seep into the soul, latching on with emotion for eternity? Those experiences aren’t easy to create and execute, but that’s what makes them special. Those may not be as scalable, but they’re worth thinking about if it each means creating a lifelong fan, with lifetime value.
Develop a kids arm
During the pandemic sports teams all over the world produced a plethora of activities for kids to help parents entertain their children with families stuck at home 24/7 — coloring books, word searches, mazes, Where’s Waldo adaptations, crossword puzzles, and more. Many co-created these with corporate partners, taking sponsors along for the ride.
But kids still spent most of their time with phones and tablets in hand, watching YouTube, TikTok, and children’s shows on-demand. If parents can stick some headphones or air pods on their kids and get some time to sleep or relax, especially during this quasi-quarantine, you can bet they’ll take it.
What role can the sports industry play? For years now, sports teams and have started to resemble media, entertainment, and content companies. What does Peppa the Pig look with NHL Flyers mascot Gritty instead of the animated British pig? What if my generation didn’t grow up watching Recess and Rocket Power, but also a cartoon about a well-known athlete, team, mascot, or youth sport? Or maybe it’s partnering with the influencers and entertainers already capturing attention of kids more intentionally.
For decades of sports marketing, the straightest path to fostering youth fans was through their parents. But today kids of all ages are consuming more media per day that generations past consumed in a week or a month. And therein lies a potential opportunity for organic infiltration.
A common staple for sports teams nowadays are kids clubs. They vary in size and sophistication, and typically involve tickets to a game, some swag and merch, an event or two, and maybe a sponsor gift or experience. But with so many kids becoming creators and some fancying themselves as influencers, is there an opportunity to turn those kids clubs members (or via a new initiative) into ambassadors for the team?
Every avid youth fan, from an avid fan family, is a potential ambassador; most importantly, an active ambassador and changes are there a few talented or aspiring creators among them. There is a partnership there, with mutual benefits for both sides. Now is the time to explore it.
Millennials are the parents now
The notions behind millennial marketing became so ubiquitous over the past decade they, ironically, started to become memes. But there is something to be said that millennials, the first generation to have the Internet in its adolescence, are the ones raising their kids now. And that means something.
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, it’s worth considering what millennials value. Experiences are an important component, in contrast to ‘things’ that may have held more importance in the past. But now they have kids. How can teams create experiences, while accommodating the parents — group experiences that are designed for families? VIP experiences that include separate activities for kids? Millennials are growing up, so can the marketing and experience tactics to engage them.
What kids want
What else can we learn from this generation? Their lean-back experience still involves engaging, messaging, chatting, listening, participating, sharing. Trying to win 100% of their attention is a fool’s errand and trying to win 100% of their attention split between their screens and IRL experiences isn’t any easier. Instead, fulfill the need to connect without trying to dictate it. The younger generations are complex, but they’re more socially connected than preceding generations, just in different ways.
Plenty of dads will pass down the passion of their teams and their favorite sports to their kids. But that love is not as hereditary as it once was, there are too many other outlets and options competing for attention. And it’s certainly not any easier with a pandemic sweeping the world and the sports world for much of 2020.
Hopefully more than a few fathers out there are playing catch with their sons and daughters today and a love for sports will be kindled, ensuring the generations to come will keep the power and passion of sports alive.