Young Audience Flees TV, Creating an Uncertain Future for Sports

Anthony Crupi
·5 min read

While it would be premature for anyone to start digging TV’s grave, the ongoing depreciation of the traditional cable bundle and what amounts to a generational indifference to a habit that goes back more than 60 years have made it prudent for advertisers to start sizing up cemetery plots. If the wholesale defection of teenagers from the TV-watching ranks amounts to a real logistical nightmare for anyone trying to sell lip gloss, bubblegum and benzoyl peroxide, the collapsing young-adult audience is bad news for just about everyone with a vested interest in being in business 20 years from now.

According to Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report, TV is losing whatever fascination it may have once held for members of the adults 18-34 demo. In the third quarter of 2020, the 18-34 crowd averaged just 452 minutes of live TV viewing per week, which works out to about an hour and five minutes per day.

That marks a 23% drop compared to the year-ago period, when Millennials and their younger siblings at the far end of the Gen Z range averaged 583 minutes of TV consumption per week, and a 34% fall-off versus the third quarter of 2018 (684 minutes).

Things really start to look bleak the further back you go in the data. Compared to the same three-month period five years ago, the time adults 18-34 spent in front of the tube last summer was down 77%, which means that young adults are now watching nearly 1,500 fewer minutes of TV than they did in 2015. In other words, the members of the population who are meant to succeed the people now aging out of the all-important 18-49 demo have slashed their TV consumption by what amounts to more than one entire day (24.9 hours.)

That young adults are cutting way back on their use of live TV is a matter of considerable vexation for the sports world, which is scrambling to reach younger viewers across an atomized digital-media landscape. Not only has the shrinking pool of Millennial viewers accelerated the aging process of the NFL, MLB and NHL fan bases, but the younger adults who do engage with live sports via TV are snacking on games much the same way they graze on YouTube clips and TikTok videos. And because TV ratings are predicated on duration, the impressions generated by younger viewers who routinely tune in for the last two or three minutes of an NBA game aren’t doing ESPN or TNT any favors.

Even the most-watched show in primetime is having a hard time reaching younger fans. NBC’s Sunday Night Football this past season averaged 2.43 million adults 18-34 per game, and while that amounts to a massive turnout in this day and age, it was also 21% smaller than the year-ago audience (3.06 million).

In terms of the U.S. population matrix, the 18-34 set accounts for 55% of the greater 18-49 demo—the metric against which the vast majority of TV ad inventory is bought and sold. But as far as overall TV usage is concerned, the people in the back half of the dollar demo watch nearly two-and-a-half times more live TV than their younger counterparts. So even though there are more members of the 18-34 set, the consumers who make up the 35-49 sub demo still manage to watch 10 hours more live TV per week than they do.

You don’t have to be Whitney Houston to believe the children are our future—time is a linear progression, and once the fans at the grey end of the age continuum begin to, um, move on to other things, they’ll have to be replaced by their more junior peers—but the rapid devolution of the cable bundle is making that future an even more uncertain state of mind. Per Nielsen, total multichannel penetration has sunk from nearly 86% in 2015 to 75.5% at the end of the first quarter of 2021, and the traditional wire-line cable/satellite TV bundle has shrunk from a foothold of 86% of TV homes six years ago to just shy of 67% now.

As the sports universe scrambles to meet the kids on their own turf, the TV networks that serve as gatekeepers for the leagues’ media distribution will have to find a way to meet the demands of the streaming future without diminishing the value of the legacy business model, which still generates tens of billions of dollars in ad revenue and affiliate fees. We’ll dig deeper into that balancing act in a subsequent dive into sports’ youth movement.

In the meantime, we’re reminded of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s lament from a few years ago, when he acknowledged that the future of sports may be a lot more uncertain than anyone might care to admit. “For all of us, the next generation is different, in terms of the way they think about sports,” Manfred said at a 2017 industry confab with the heads of the NFL, MLB and NHL. “They don’t play sports as much as we did, and you know, the best way to get a fan is to get a kid to play, and so that’s a challenge.”

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