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Why focussing on older fans and participants can be beneficial for sports events

The world’s population is ageing, with profound consequences for society and the economy. And yet serving older fans, participants and customers is barely mentioned in conversations within the sports industry. Kevin McCullagh spoke to sports marketers and ageing industry experts to find out why, and what opportunities may be being missed.

The sports industry is obsessed with youth. Engaging young audiences, promoting grassroots participation, creating content for the latest social media platforms – so many of its preoccupations are aimed at the youngest demographics.

It’s a rational focus: get them interested early and they’ll be interested for life, the thinking goes. And there is so much competition for attention these days that sports must work hard to plant seeds in young minds.

But it runs counter to one of the biggest global macro-trends – the ageing population.

There were 962 million people in the world over the age of 60 in 2017, according to the United Nations. This will more than double by 2050, to 2.1 billion. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, the total value of consumer spending and taxes among Americans aged over 50 is $7.1tn (€6.3tn) per year. “That makes it larger than [the economies of] Brazil, Russia and India combined,” says Peter Hubbell, former executive vice-president and board director at Saatchi & Saatchi, who now runs BoomAgers, a New York-based agency that specialises in marketing to the over-50s.

We spoke to sports industry and marketing experts to find out why this trend is having so little impact on sport, and what opportunities it might hold for the sector.

Youth bias

One of the main reasons older people receive less focus from marketing and business is because they don’t spend as much as younger people. In the US, consumption peaks between the ages of 35 and 54, declining steadily thereafter.

But the increasing older population, and other factors – including the continued impact of the 2007-08 financial crisis on younger generations’ income and spending – is challenging the old assumptions.

Hubbell thinks that some irrational factors and outdated thinking are at play in the sidelining of older people by marketers. “There is tremendous inertia around marketing to the 18-34 and 35-49 cohorts…marketers just reload and keep buying their 18-49,” he says, referring to the acquisition of advertising inventory that targets these age groups.

And the old idea of brand loyalty is being undermined by modern consumer behaviour such as comparing prices and product reviews online. “That long-held belief that, if you get a young man who’s shaving for the first time and you get him to use a particular brand of razor, then he’ll use that razor for the rest of his life – at one point of time that might have been true. But…there is so much transparency in the retail transaction now that brands are diminishing in importance and loyalty is diminishing in importance.”

Makoto Chogahara, a professor at the University of Kobe in Japan who specialises in sports and health issues related to ageing populations, has charted an evolution in the attitudes of older people towards sports participation. Researching engagement with sport by older people in Japan, his team identified three broad categories: ‘health sports’, ‘leisure sports’ and ‘masters sports’.

Masters sports are characterised as seeking high performance through competition. Chogahara says: “The typical activity is event participation…the major interests are skill level, challenge or a sense of achievement.”

A 2015 survey showed that 32 per cent of the 50-plus population in Japan are interested in participating in masters sports. Participation in competitive sport is not the young person’s game it once was.

Eager participants

Mass participation is the sports industry sector that has arguably engaged older demographics most successfully. Distance-running and triathlon events attract large numbers of wealthy 40-plus-year-olds. The average age of registrants for Ironman’s annual World Championship was 43 in 2017. The organisation provides rankings for the fastest finishers in age bands up to 85-to-89, for both men and women.

Mass participation is a sweet spot for older demographics for several reasons.

“It’s only mature audiences that, one, have the financial resources to have these experiences and, two, have the time to do this,” Jonny Murch, chief executive of Redtorch says. Redtorch works with several sports federations and provides research and analysis into the demands and interests of the people that attend and participate in events like the World Masters Games.

The more demanding and prestigious events like Ironman are costly in cash terms – for registration, equipment and travel – and in the time required to prepare and train.

Hubbell points out that one of the buzz-concepts in modern business, the ‘experience economy’, whilst usually considered a Millennial phenomenon, chimes with the psychology and behaviour of older consumers:

“Boomers are very experiential. Material things don’t seem to matter anymore. You’ve spent your whole life amassing material things…sure, when I was in my 20s I’d have loved to have been driving a Porsche. But [now] I’d rather spend my money on going somewhere and doing something cool.”

Masters sport

The International Masters Games Association is one of the organisations riding the growing wave of interest in sports participation among older demographics. The primary goal of the Swiss non-profit, which has close links to the international federations and the Olympic world, is to promote lifelong participation in sport. It does this by running large, multi-sport events that are open to older amateur athletes – usually over 35 but it varies by sport. Its events are run to a high standard in aspects such as the quality of venues, judging, timing and so on.

The IMGA has organised the World Masters Games since 1985. Its events portfolio has swelled in recent years to include a European Masters Games (first edition 2008), a World Winter Masters Games (since 2010), an Americas Masters Games (since 2016), and an Asia Pacific Masters Games for the first time in 2018.

The next World Masters Games, in Kansai, Japan, in 2021, is expected to be the biggest ever. Kansai’s organisers are projecting 50,000 participants, 30,000 from Japan and 20,000 from overseas – an increase of more than two-thirds on the 28,000 that took part in the previous edition, in Auckland in 2017.

“There is definitely growth,” says Jens Holm, chief executive of the IMGA. “If you refer to our games in Auckland…we had to turn away athletes because there was no more space.

“We’re having more and more requests from cities around the world. That’s of course linked in to the fact that it’s very financially efficient for them to host Masters events.”

Masters Games athletes are typically wealthy and travel with their families to the event, making a holiday out of it and spending plenty of money on hotels, dining and sightseeing. The 2017 WMG attracted 27,030 visitors to Auckland and generated an inflow of money into the city’s economy of $42.7m, according to the IMGA’s official post-event report.

But although Masters Games are lucrative for host cities, they are not so for the organiser. They were originally run as for-profit, commercial events, but the organisers went bankrupt twice before settling on the current, non-profit incarnation.

Because Masters Games are sophisticated, multi-sport events with multiple venues, they are more costly than many mass participation events, such as marathons or triathlons. The biggest revenue streams come from hosts – about two-thirds of the $36.3m generated by the 2017 WMG came from New Zealand government bodies – and participant registration, which generated $8.2m in 2017.

Holm is blunt: “If you look at these events from an operational point of view, you’re not making any money. If people understood how expensive it is to run an event…you really have to run it as a non-profit.”

A Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2016 with the IOC is considered to have provided game-changing boost to the Masters Games’ standing and profile. Among the developments since, the two sides are working on getting Olympic host cities to become Masters Games host cities, and Rio de Janeiro has been appointed host of the 2020 Pan-American Masters Games.

The next WMG, in Kansai in 2021 has the ingredients to be a milestone. Japan is the oldest and most rapidly-ageing major nation. By 2030, one third of its people are expected to be aged 65 or over, and the population is even expected to decline from 127m in 2014 to 107m by 2040. Government, business and other sectors of society are putting a big focus on adapting to this change.

Japan’s national and regional governments have thrown support behind Kansai 2021. A national sports promotion plan published by the government two years ago linked Kansai with the two other upcoming major events the country is staging – the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – identifying them as vehicles to develop the sports sector. The WMG is now working with the RWC and the Olympics on joint promotions and other activities.

Kansai has secured an impressive slate of sponsors. At the time of writing, it had a roster of 21 – including Japanese sports brands Mizuno and Asics – and was on course to generate at least ¥800m (€5m/$6m) from sponsorship.

Different ways

Sports organisations that want to attract older fans, customers and participants must get to grips with some important characteristics and behaviours of older people.

From some angles, reaching the 50-plus segment is simple – they spend a lot of time with traditional forms of media, including television and print. But it’s also possible to reach them via digital media, particularly Facebook.

“There’s another bias here, that is: people of age can’t understand technology,” Hubbell says. “…Boomers don’t get enough credit for the amount of time that they spend on social media. The Boomers actually spend more time…on Facebook than their Millennial counterparts.”

Boomer behaviour on social media is a little different to that of younger users. Hubbell continues: “It’s not always being on, 24/7. It’s not walking out of the subway and checking to see if anyone’s posted anything in the last two minutes when you were offline. The Boomers will have a nice dinner, take a glass of wine upstairs to their computer and…spend two hours on Facebook.”

When it comes to creating content for older demographics, Murch’s team at RedTorch has learned some lessons from helping the IMGA promote the Master Games:

“The more mature readers are much more engaged with longer, informative articles,” he says. “They’re already well educated on the sport. They’re less interested in gimmicky pieces of content…the listicle, Buzzfeed-style stuff that may appeal to a younger audience that’s more interested in ‘snackable’ stuff.

“We’ve noticed that older audiences engage better with raw video footage. They’re less interested in graphics and flashy video edits which the younger users are interested in.”

Live events, Hubbell says, must provide older customers with a streamlined, comfortable experience. “What does the fan experience look like for a person of age and how can I streamline that?

“I went to the NHL Classic game on New Year’s Day here in New York. I sat in traffic in that parking lot for an hour-and-a-half and I was fuming. In my 20s I’d be like ‘Hey, this is cool man, I’m at the Winter Classic. Guess what, I’ve been to enough sports events now, how are you going to make it easier for me? How are you going to make it easy for me to order food? Are you going to have the types of food that I eat?’.”

Hubbell points to the Desert Trip rock festival in California in 2016 as a good case study in designing a major event for an older audience. With a line-up featuring the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Roger Waters, the gig was aimed squarely at Boomers. Event design tweaks for the older crowd included food from regional and national restaurants, shaded dining areas, ticketed ‘culinary experiences’, and proper, flushing toilets instead of ‘portaloos’.

The result of this emphasis on serving the older audience’s needs? The biggest revenues for a single concert in history – $160m, generated from a crowd of 150,000.

Murch says: “I think it’s clear that there’s an older demographic that has the time and money available which younger demographics don’t have. And the question is what is the best way to tap into that and connect with that in a way that doesn’t disrupt how you’re communicating to younger audiences. I think the creation of masters events and the opportunity to generate communities of Masters athletes is a brilliant thing. It’s never going to be a big spin for TV revenues, but I think from an event-hosting and sponsorship perspective there are definite opportunities that rights-holders should explore.”

Peter Hubbell says that while younger generations must be a big focus for marketers and businesses, any modern brand would be remiss to ignore the huge value of the older generations:

“There is no doubt that Millennials represent the future of marketing. There’s two billion of them, they’re digital natives, they’re growing…but the reality is that the majority of them are still five to 15 years away from their peak earning and spending years, which means they represent the future of marketing, but the future isn’t here yet.

“The smart brands are realising: ‘We have got to embrace both’. Embrace the consumers of the future…but then also figure out who your high-potential Baby-Boomers are.”

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