TV sports: men, women and Millennials. The data are here!

I am a huge fan of website FiveThirtyEight: they are always ready to provide the hard data that does some useful mythbusting. But I think their tweet above missed the boat…badly. [Edited to add: To be clear, the author of the piece (Mona Chalabi) did highlight most of the issues below. I think she should have made the point that the TV ownership angle had a distorting effect, but the misleading tweet was likely written by someone else at FiveThirtyEight.]

Bad Data Analysis

I know Twitter has a tight character limit, but the correct version should read “About 1 in every 14 adult men in the United States WHO OWN A TV don’t watch nationally televised sports.” The ESPN information only applies to TV owners. Well, everybody has a TV these days, right?

No. As of 2011, 96.7% of American households had a TV set.

  1. That’s almost everybody, but it’s not everybody! With about 115.8 million households in the USA as of 2014, the 3.3% who were non-owners would translate into nearly 4 million homes without TVs, or nearly 9 million people.
  2. The 2011 number was 96.7%…but the ownership figure used to be 98.9%. If it had declined 2.2% by 2011, and given ongoing trends around TV and digital, I would estimate that the 2014 number is likely to be under 95%, with 94% being probable.  That suggests up to 7 million US homes without TVs, or 15 million people. That’s more people than there are in Belgium or Ontario.

I expect FiveThirtyEight to get that kind of thing right. [I need to emphasize that the data is about people who watch ZERO sports. This isn’t little sports, it is none.] It is particularly important in this case, because most TV executives believe that live TV sports are the current anchor for their business. For almost all audiences, sports is ‘must see TV’, largely not available on PCs, tablets and smartphones. Many of those who don’t own TVs are likely to also not watch sports, nearly doubling the population of non-sports watchers. I would say the more accurate headline would be “about one in every seven adult men don’t watch nationally televised or online video sports.”

Gender Divide? We Don’t Need No Stinking Gender Divide!

woman and TV sports

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that they published the post and gave us the exact number. But the fact that almost all American men watch TV sports isn’t exactly shocking news – perhaps the only surprise is that the number is as high as 13 out of 14, or 93%. But the tweet completely missed the much more surprising news: the percentage of TV owning men who don’t watch TV sports is exactly the same (over the last four quarters) as the percentage of women who don’t watch TV sports! Say what? The cliché of the sports widow is ubiquitous, in the media, and even in stock photos. [You have to click on that link from the 538 article: the sheer number of photos depicting angry women being ignored by sport-loving men is hysterical.] We all know the cliché is a bit exaggerated: my ex-wife loves TV sports, my mother-in-law watches nearly every Blue Jays game, Canadian Twitter exec Kirstine Stewart (no relation) is a mega fan of multiple teams, and many of my social media female friends comment on sports as often as the men, and as knowledgably.

But still…there must be some gender gap, right? Nope. From the article “The figure is the same for women: On average over the past four quarters, 7 percent of adult women in the U.S. said they hadn’t watched any sports on TV.”

This is news! All kinds of TV content appeals differently to different demographics, including gender-specific preferences. That both women and men watch TV sports in such overwhelming numbers has deep implications for the future of TV, of TV advertising and TV subscriptions. But it’s not the most important aspect of the post.

This chart is:

age sports

The Kids Are Alright. But They’re Not Watching TV Sports.

Americans as a whole are watching more traditional TV, and adding over the top services like Netflix and YouTube: internet video has (so far at least, and for most people) been largely additive and complementary to traditional TV, not substitutive and competitive.

For the last fifty years 18-24 year olds have always watched about 25% fewer minutes of TV per day than average: they are young and active and out socializing. But something new (and terrifying for TV executives) has been occurring just in the last few years: while the population as a whole still watches about the same amount of traditional TV, 18-24 year olds are watching less, and they now watch 35% fewer minutes per day than average.

TV Table

That sort of drop in media engagement is very similar to what happened to print newspapers and younger audiences about 10 years ago, and broadcast executives are rightly concerned that the same fate awaits them. But they have a ray of hope: when I meet with them, both in Canada and around the world, they have great faith in the power of live TV sports “Yes, the kids aren’t watching a lot of TV. But sports still matters, and they will watch that, and pay for cable, and pay for sports packages. Maybe not now, but as they get older.” And that matters, since About half of the programming costs on the average US cable bill go for sports programming.

If we look at the FiveThirtyEight chart that shows the non-sports watchers by age, we can lump together the 35-54 year olds and the 55+ demographics, and say that only about 4% of TV owning Americans 35+ watch no TV sports. Averaging the men and women from the 18-34 year old group allows us to further state that 13.5% of Americans in that age group watch no TV sports. Put another way, 18-34 year old Americans are more than three times as likely to watch ZERO sports as all other adults.

It would be very interesting to see that non-sports number for 18-34 year olds over time. Maybe it has always been about 13-14%. But I doubt it. I have a theory that I am working on, but haven’t had any data to support it. Until now.

Historically, younger demographics didn’t watch a lot of sports: heck, they were too busy playing baseball or football to sit inside on a nice sunny day and watch it on TV. But mum or dad brought them to the games, at least once or twice. My Dad never had seasons tickets, but he took me to 3-4 hockey games. I will always remember the Montreal Canadiens playing the Detroit Red Wings at the old Forum in 1972! As a result, I cheered for the Habs for decades, even after I left Montreal.

But for a variety of reasons, the cost of bringing a son and daughter to the game – across all of hockey, baseball, basketball, and NFL football – has risen sharply in the last few decades. My estimate for the cost of a single Leafs game (buying tickets from scalpers, and based on average ticket prices) for a family of four was roughly C$2,000, including tickets, food and parking. Per game. We have other stats, showing that hockey participation by kids is falling like a stone: due to costs, inconvenience and concussions, 90% of Canadian families choose for their kids not to play hockey as of 2013. There are similar stats for baseball, football and basketball in the US.

So here’s my theory. A generation of young people is growing up not playing the sports that are most popular on TV. Their parents are increasingly unable to take them to games in person. And, not surprisingly, these same kids are going to be less likely to be TV sports watchers.

Don’t get me wrong. Millions of boys and girls will grow into millions of men and women who are just as addicted to TV sports as their parents. Tens of millions. Hundreds of millions. Just not as high a percentage as in the past.

What will happen if the percentage of TV owning Americans who watch zero sports goes from 7% to 14%? And if the coveted 18-34 year old demographic goes from 13.5% who watch no sports, to 25-30%? A majority of Americans will still watch sports, and even a majority of young Americans, but much smaller majorities than today. That won’t happen this year or next, but could happen by 2025 or 2030.

If that is the case, do YOU think the prices that TV pays for sports broadcast rights will be as high as they are today?


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