(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When our son switched his NBA allegiance from the Houston Rockets to the Golden State Warriors, my wife, a lifelong Rockets fan, was aghast. But a new report suggests this type of disloyalty is about to become commonplace, with enormous implications for the sports market.
The business of sports is no longer a sideshow to the sports themselves. In 2018, the value of the global sports market reached almost $500 billion, with more than 100 sports franchises worth $1 billion or more.
With the stakes so high, understanding fan loyalty and behavior is crucial. In his book “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are,” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explores why he is a die-hard Mets fan and his brother Noah hates baseball. Examining Facebook data on who “likes” baseball teams, he found that the probability of being a male Mets fan depends crucially on your year of birth, with those born in either 1962 or 1978 being the most likely to root for the Mets as adults. The reason, he argues, is that fan behavior solidifies at around age 7 or 8, and the Mets won the World Series in 1969 and 1986. World Series wins also affect 19- and 20-year-olds, but only with about one-eighth the force they exert on an 8-year-old. Stephens-Davidowitz likes the Mets because he was the right age in 1986; his brother was not.
These patterns may soon fade, however, because the core consumer of sports is changing. The new report, from the Sports Innovation Lab, co-founded by former Olympic gold-medal-winning ice hockey player Angela Ruggiero, suggests we are entering an era of the “fluid fan,” whose allegiances and attention shift rapidly. In the U.K. already, almost half of younger fans now support more than one soccer team — something that would have been hard to imagine decades ago.
Ruggiero suggests that one possible reason for the shift could be lower youth sports participation, which could lead to less attachment to one sport and team. The data on this phenomenon are mixed, though. Over the past few years, according to the Aspen Institute, total youth participation on a sports team in the U.S. is up, but fewer kids are participating regularly. Eight million high school students in the U.S. — almost half of enrolled students — participated in school sports last year. That’s up from less than a third of high school students in the early 1970s. Given the ambiguities in the data, it’s hard to see this factor as the key cause for change among sports fans.
A more important driver is likely the proliferation of entertainment options and the expanding variety of sporting events that are now easily watchable. Major League Soccer, in the U.S., is expanding rapidly, and FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, has voted to increase the number of teams in the World Cup to 48, from 32. New leagues such as the Premier Lacrosse League have been established. Meanwhile, esports are growing rapidly; their revenue is projected to exceed $1 billion this year.
Content and distribution providers are offering wider and easier access to this explosion of sports. And that’s before we even get to the entertainment options outside of sports. Ruggiero argues that the sports market has been moving from a local broadcast model to, first, a more global network model and, most recently, a distributed model in which content is even more diversified and may be consumed in bite-sized packages. With so many choices, a recent McKinsey article points out, “fans are watching fewer and shorter sessions,” and “sports fans of all ages are clicking away from low-stakes or lopsided games.”
Thus, die-hard fans are being replaced by fluid fans. In other words, Stephens-Davidowitz may have figured out what causes fans like my wife to become die-hard just when those like my son are making that entire phenomenon obsolete.
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Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the chief executive officer of financial advisory at Lazard. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010, and director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.
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