Maximising and maintaining popularity and engagement is one of the principal challenges (and opportunities) facing sports bodies. Nothing is more important than building a strong, sustainable fanbase and encouraging and high levels of interest and participation among young people who will, in theory, be hooked for life.
But as sports bodies try to grow relevance among young people, they are also increasingly moving out of their comfort zone. Sports organisations often have traditional structures –which are perhaps not best-suited to tap into this market.
Although has been a stream of innovations and new ideas, it is questionable whether these organisations will ever be able to keep up with fast-moving youth trends and compete with other, more dynamic industries such as gaming, television and social media. It is, perhaps, more likely that they will find themselves playing perennial catch-up.
Of course, it is understandable that sports organisations want to focus on the young as they need to protect their futures. But in doing so they must be sure not to miss a trick by neglecting the older generations whose financial clout and influence shouldn’t be underestimated.
From a commercial perspective senior citizens have a disproportionate level of disposal income. In the US, for example, baby boomers (those between 50 and 70 years old) are estimated to have more than 70 per cent of the country’s disposal income (Nielsen), while the daily average spend of the same age group is almost double that 16-25-year-olds (U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics). While young people must be catered for, seniors can be more lucrative for sports seeking to generate income which can then be invested into a range of development projects and programmes.
It’s also important to consider that, as the world’s population grows older, this segment of the market is increasing as a proportion of the total.
According to the World Health Organisation, the percentage of the world’s population over 60 will nearly double between 2015 and 2050, from 12 per cent to 22 per cent. From 2050 onwards, this will almost certainly grow again. From a simple arithmetical point of view, sports organisations should at least be reflecting the size of market in the scale of the attention and focus they give to seniors.
A further striking point of attraction for sports organisations is that this growing, affluent market is also the one that faces least competition for attention. If you look at the strategies of sports organisations today, most will contain numerous references to youth and young people, but very few to older people or adults. Meanwhile, esports and gaming – often cited as chief competitors to traditional sports for the attention of younger people – are clearly less focused on older generations.
Crucially, this is not an either-or situation for sports organisations. It is not about choosing short-term gain over long-term growth.
It’s worth remembering that members of older generations have a major influence and impact on which sports, if any, young people watch, attend or play themselves, with studies showing family history to be the biggest factor of fandom behind location of residence/hometown (Deloitte).
In addition, implementing positive programmes for older people is an almost universally valued and offers offering great PR opportunities. Put simply, channelling older people can be a more effective strategy for sports organisations to encourage youth interest than going to the youth directly.
There is of also, of course, an important moral reason why sports should seek a presence in the lives of seniors. Older people across the world are more prone to social isolation and loneliness than younger generations. More than a third of Americans between 50 and 80, for example, feel a lack of companionship at least some of the time, with significant health consequences (University of Michigan). Sport can play a role here, maybe the role, in offering opportunities to older people to be less sedentary and bring them a sense of community and friendship. Isn’t this, after all, what sport is for?
So, what does all this mean? Well, adapting one’s sport for older generations does not need to be costly. It can mean smaller changes, such as adjusting how and what you communicate, or more fundamental changes, such as new formats to encourage participation among older people. Either way, sports organisations can take a range of measures which can be more economical and less risky to reputations than many youth-targeted efforts.
As participation rates decline across the board, sports organisations are naturally looking to the future and looking for ways to engage with younger people. But perhaps a more astute approach for sports organisations looking to counter this is to focus equally, if not more, on getting older generations invested in their sport. By catering for the adults of today, sports organisations may just ensure they have the adults of tomorrow.