Silver Linings To Gray Clouds: The Pulse Of The Sports Fan In Early 2016

In his February 2016 Media Post column, SLRG President Jon Last speaks to how, despite some skittishness towards the overall U.S. economy, fans aren’t willing to give up their passion for sports.

For the past seven years, we’ve taken the opportunity to survey fan attitudes on sports trends, consumerism and the state of the economy in the opening weeks of the new year. Our Winter Sports omnibus (available with our compliments in the downloads section of our website) is an annual gut check on topical and other exogenous factors that can portend the year ahead for sports marketers. This year’s study of over 2,400 blindly screened sports fans isn’t without its share of shifts, trends and surprises. Here’s what’s caught our attention as we move beyond the Super Bowl.

Personal Optimism Defies Economic Concerns

For years our research has shown a resiliency among sports fans that transcends larger issues. Going back to the tragic events of 9/11, we saw sports fans and weekend warrior athletes snap back faster than the public at large, when asked about intent to travel and confidence in air safety.

In 2016 we see gray clouds on the horizon, where those surveyed demonstrate four-year lows in agreement that the year ahead will be better than the one that just passed, with strong agreement dipping below 50% for the first time in that same time period. This is compounded by a four-year low in optimism about the U.S. labor market, as well as about one’s personal financial situation. Granted, the data was collected amidst a rather volatile period for the financial markets, but, clearly, the American sports fan is anxious as the presidential election cycle heats up and questionable economic news permeates the airwaves.

The paradox lies in that, at the same time, fans assert a three-year low in budget consciousness, less difficulty in making difficult decisions about discretionary purchases and rejection of the notion that one will scale down their lifestyle in retirement. In a companion study that we conduct among U.S. golfers, 2016 marks a recognition that discounting will be less rampant at the same time that one’s expectations for per-capita spending on 11 of 12 categories of golf equipment have shown a meaningful increase over years past.

Are these contradictions? Hardly. In assessing the new data, it strikes me that we are again witnessing a classic case of sports fan resiliency. One’s individual passion for the meaningful escapes and oases from the frenetic pace of the day-to-day that sports presents, trump (pun not intended) greater macro concerns.

The implications for sports marketers is that messaging emphasis should remain on fans’ personal investment in teams and properties, the escapism and consistent value provided in live sports (more than two-thirds of those surveyed would rather attend a sporting event than watch on television or streaming service) and the unique engagement that good sports marketing can provide. So, while our research may suggest no immediate warning signs, the macro-level malaise bears watching, particularly later in the year as we approach the election.

What Else are Fans Thinking?

MLB and NHL were big winners in some of the format changes introduced in their most recent seasons. Less than a third of baseball fans strongly agreed that MLB games take too long. That’s down markedly from 63% who expressed that sentiment in 2014 and 48% last year. Kudos go out to the league for acknowledgement of the issue and the institution of the clock between half innings.

The NHL seems to have a hit with the new 3-on-3 overtime format, with nearly 6 in 10 strongly agreeing that it has been a great change for hockey. Concurrently, approval ratings for Commissioner Gary Bettman maintained their watershed level, achieved a year ago.

Attitudes towards college sports are a little less favorable. Results show a 10-point year-over-year drop (to below 40%) in those strongly favorable to the ability of the College Football Playoff to identify the best team in college football, while a three-year high of two-thirds strongly agree that there are too many bowl games. Less than one in five feels that conference realignment has been a positive.

There’s much more within the data, and I’ll provide some additional perspective in subsequent postings. Safe to say, the year ahead should be an intriguing one in sports marketing. Of particular interest will be the ultimate fate of Daily Fantasy formats. On that end, nearly 6 in 10 fans that we spoke with rejected the notion that “government regulation of daily fantasy contests is necessary to protect the public interest.”