Young people are turning off sport on the box -- something that will strike fear into television executives who hoped live matches would be immune from the diversions of Netflix and video games.
European broadcasters like Sky Plc and Telefonica SA pay billions for sports rights and rely on the games' allure to attract people to their more expensive broadband and television bundles. Walt Disney Co., the owner of ESPN, and broadcasters including NBC also use sport to build audiences and sell advertising.
But there are signs it doesn't hold the same spell over young people as their parents. Viewers between the ages of 18 and 24 were the least interested in sport as a genre, according to a survey of 31,000 people across 10 countries carried out by research firm Ampere Analysis.
The trend was most pronounced in the U.S. and U.K., the most advanced markets in terms of internet adoption and alternative sources of information and entertainment. In those countries, interest in sport among young people diverged the most from the average for the country as a whole. (France and Poland were the two exceptions, where young people are more interested.)
It's important to stress the data are patchy and have limitations. Nielsen, which tracks and dissects U.S. television viewing figures, says it's yet to study young people and sports in depth, while publicly available figures for other markets are much scarcer. Ampere's survey is based on online surveys that may not represent the population as a whole.
But disillusionment among the young does help to explain the decline in audiences for English Premier League soccer, something Gadfly explored here, and, potentially, the slump in viewership for the NFL season. Some have blamed the presidential election and boring games for for the latter's problems -- but Nielsen data show American football's struggle to attract younger viewers goes back much further than this year.
One thing is indisputable: Young people have far more entertainment options now than in decades past and spend less time in front of the box. From Snapchat to Candy Crush, young people are developing new media consumption habits at a rapid clip.
Piracy may also be at work. Anyone with a minimum of tech savvy and a high-speed broadband connection can find illegal streams of most sports. Young people may also watch sport differently. They're happier to dip into games, watching snatches of video on their phones or following along on Twitter.
There's one final source of the disillusionment among young people: the sports leagues themselves. In recent decades, many decided to sell the rights to their matches to pay-TV companies. But in taking the extra money, Formula One and the English Premier League limited their audiences to only those people willing to pay.
It's telling that the age groups most loyal to the sports were the ones who watched on free television years ago. Like many clubs on the brink of relegation, the audience for televised sport is ageing and it isn't being replenished at the same rate. Its glory days may be behind it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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