Although it goes without saying, the sports market in the United States is gargantuan. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry with teams, franchises, arenas, merchandise, entire television networks, and magazines. If you can find a way to monetize it, the professional sports industry has done it. It wasn’t always this way; the commercialization of sports culture was a slow process. You can go online now and watch grainy footage of Babe Ruth stepping up to bat when baseball was the biggest and most popular sport in the USA. They were simpler times, when athletes were expected to go play the game, maybe hang around for a press conference, then go and live the rest of their lives. In today’s culture, we’ve venerated the athletes so much that they’ve almost become their own class of citizens – with millions and millions of dollars.
Still, as much as people like to complain about the pay athletes receive, they don’t seem to realize they get contracts with crazy money because they really do have an insane valuation thanks to the growth of the sports industry. It’s highly competitive and although each sport has its own unique fan base, there is a massive segment of the population that follows all of the traditional 4 major leagues in North America – the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. The leagues battle for the attention of the casual sports fan and hopefully maintain their attention on the sport that they’re promoting – but is this the way it’s always going to be? A 4-way battle between the big dogs for sports supremacy? Maybe not.
The future is, after all, in the children. Finding out what sports kids like the most is a pretty good indicator of what game will be hot in the future. Baseball was once ‘America’s pastime’, but nowadays (although baseball is still very, very big) it’s been completely overtaken by football. Preferences change, and maybe one day all of those rabid NFL fans will look just as old timey and out of touch as the old man in the park who exclusively follows baseball.
No need to worry though, if the results of a recent ESPN survey are any indication, football is king and here to stay. Interestingly enough, some pretty surprising results were uncovered. The poll asked kids aged 12-17 what they were an ‘avid’ fan of – which sport(s) they followed regularly – and some of the results might shock you. In fact, depending on what sport you religiously follow, it might even scare you. The subjects were able to categorize themselves as 'avid' fans of multiple leagues, and the percentage values represent how much of the total sample stated they were fans of a particular sport - if they were even a fan of any sport - and so the numbers don't add up to 100% Here are the 7 different leagues that came up in the study.
7 NHL – 8.86%
After a decade with 2 separate seasons scratched thanks to a lockout of the players by the team owners (one shortened significantly and one cancelled entirely), NHL commissioner Gary Bettman should probably be taken out back and sent the way of old yeller. In 1995, 2 years after Bettman became NHL commissioner, around 16% of 12-17 year olds said that they were an avid fan of NHL hockey. Today that figure sits at around 8.86%, reflecting interest among American youth that’s nearly been chopped in half. The NHL, while still wildly popular in Canada and much of the northern United States, has serious work to do if it ever wants to regain the lost ground in the rest of the United States that Bettman and his ace team of management gurus have let slip away.
6 MLS - 17.98%
Probably the most surprising entry on this list, the MLS (Major League Soccer) has made huge strides since its initial founding in 1993. The recent success of the MLS has a lot to do with the increasing popularity of soccer itself in North America, which was long an afterthought compared to the sports of the traditional ‘big 4’ (hockey, baseball, football, basketball). 17.98% of 12-17-year-old sports fans described themselves as avid fans of the MLS, which is great news for the future of soccer on this side of the Atlantic. The MLS has experienced its greatest success by expanding into markets that the other leagues have mostly ignored – particularly the pacific northwest cities of Portland and Seattle. The MLS has continued to rapidly expand, and in 2017 the MLS will be host to 22 teams, up from 19 presently. The new franchise will be in Atlanta, Orlando, and a 2nd team for New York City. David Beckham may also exercise his right to start a franchise at a discounted rate in Miami should everything go according to plan. In short, the future is bright for soccer in North America.
5 MLB – 18.04%
This is the part where diehard baseball fans should be concerned. The fact that the MLB – the original American major league sport – is more or less level with the MLS among youth audiences (18.04% down from around 25% in 1995) does not bode well for the future of the sport in the United States, at least on a professional level. There’s no doubt that baseball is and continues to be immensely popular, but the current sports industry has never been more competitive when it comes to attracting fans and viewership and perhaps the MLB has taken its status as America’s pastime for granted. Baseball is far from dead though, and if the MLB can connect with its youth audience they’ll be more than capable of reversing the trend.
4 NCAA Basketball – 23.82%
It’s all basketball and football from here on out folks, and this is where things get very interesting. Do more kids follow NCAA basketball than the NHL, MLB and MLS? Short answer, yes, as surprising as that may be. College-aged amateur basketball players can pat themselves on the back knowing that 23.82% of all adolescent sports fans follow them avidly. The results aren’t that surprising when examined in the context of recent years though, when the NCAA’s ‘March Madness’ tournament has attracted considerable media attention – even Warren Buffett laid down a billion dollar gauntlet to anyone who could correctly pick the outcome of the entire tournament.
3 NCAA Football – 27.53%
Looks like the next few years are a great time to be a college athlete. NCAA football is a big hit among the 12-17 year old bracket, with 27.53% of them saying they’re big fans. Again, it’s not really that surprising when you think about the crowds that some of these college games attract. There are many areas in the United States that don’t have an NFL franchise nearby, but they definitely have a college team that they’re passionate about supporting. The increased popularity of NCAA sports (both football and basketball) does raise some questions, though. If the schools are making big money off of the players, are they really ‘amateurs’? Shouldn’t they be paid for their services? The current paradigm seems to be one of extreme wealth in the NFL and chump change for college players, even though they both have huge fan bases. The increasing popularity of college sports might really change the tone of sports culture here in North America, but only time will tell.
2 NBA – 30.11%
We’re finished with the colleges, now it’s back to the big leagues. Since its peak popularity in the late 90s – Michael Jordan, anyone? – the NBA has had its ups and downs. Among the 12-17 year old demographic, its popularity peaked in 1998, then began a long, slow crash until about 2010, when it picked up steam again. The presence of once in a lifetime players like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant have injected some much needed starpower into the league, and it has reflected in the NBA’s increasing popularity among American adolescents. 30.11% of young fans can’t be wrong, so the NBA must be doing something very right.
1 NFL – 38.81%
As if there could be any other answer. While there have been some surprising and interesting shifts in fan preferences over the last few years, they’ve all been among the ‘other’ sports/leagues – there’s only one king. The NFL is the undisputed owner of the hearts of American sports fans, has been for some time, and will almost certainly be for the immediate future. Judging by the passion that the fans have for it, sometimes it seems like there are two seasons in the continental USA – football season and pre-season. The 12-17 year old demographic is just as invested in the NFL as virtually every other group of fans, which means that the NFL’s dominance is bound to continue for many, many, many years to come.