Keeping with the Times: Sports Plays Catch-Up with Younger Digital Audiences

Cover image for Keeping with the Times: Sports Plays Catch-Up with Younger Digital Audiences
Photo of Alistair Taylor
by Alistair Taylor

Sports as a product is feeling the squeeze of the peak attention economy. Sports fans in the traditional sense are ageing, and appealing to a younger digitally-native audience is a fundamental issue that rights holders can no longer ignore. Sports rights holders have realised the importance of their virtual (gaming) counterparts, acknowledging that they are taking much of the attention of a large proportion of their fanbases, but also nurturing expected future fans who do not interact with the real-life version of sports. Key to this dynamic is the current spread of distribution deals—which makes viewing fragmented and expensive for fans, due to rights holders’ legacy approach to award rights to the highest bidder regardless of reach. Sports are rapidly losing future fans to e-sports and gaming in general – now is the time for traditional sports to fight back.

Young audiences playing football games rather than watching the sport

While less than a third of English Premier League (EPL) viewers are aged 16-34, this demographic accounts for 58% of FIFA players in the UK. With 16-34 year olds accounting for 26% of UK pay-TV subscribers, the current and historic EPL rights deals failed to address this younger demographic. Long-time EPL broadcaster Sky in August 2019 put highlights for the first time on its official YouTube channel – not only adding an incremental ad-supported revenue stream, but also targeting untapped audiences on a digital platform.

Addressing younger audiences, especially male Madden players, is an NFL prerogative for future-proofing its fanbase. In September 2018 it switched approach to target reach over revenue (albeit warning streaming insurgents to overcome latency), when allotting future rights tenders. With 73% of US Madden players in Q3 2019 male and 18% aged 16-24, this is a key demographic for the ‘real’ NFL to target and retain as fans. Understanding where this demographic exists outside of Madden is a clear imperative for the NFL.

Rights holders cannot continue to chase revenue 

Back in August 2019, La Liga withdrew its tender for UK rights and the French Football League (LFP) decided to suspend future editions of the Coupe de la Ligue in September, due to waning interest among broadcasters for the property. Both could be early indicators of a deflating sports rights bubble.  As broadcasters and streaming services prioritise what content they allocate resources to at a time of economic uncertainty and heightened competition, rights holders cannot afford to overvalue their assets. Rights holders focusing on historic growth trends for valuing rights domestically and internationally must now appreciate the change in consumption habits, and the increased adoption of digital platforms for content consumption. Rights holders seeking revenue only as a prerequisite for allocating their rights will not successfully navigate the evolving video landscape, and risk putting their premium content behind closed-off paywalls, suffocating reach and therefore income in the mid to long term.

This report features insights from our recent report, US and UK Sports Fans | Reaching Digital Natives. To inquire about subscription access to our reports, send us an email at

The discussion around this post has not yet got started, be the first to add an opinion.


Add your comment