For those who still believe baseball is as American as mom and apple pie, just realize that the red, white and blue sport has some significant gray streaks.
Major League Baseball’s television audience is among the oldest in professional sports, according to data recently released by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Magna Global. The average age of a baseball viewer is 57, up from 52 in 2006. There won’t be a youth movement, either, as just 7% of baseball’s audience is below age 18.
In one way, baseball’s in great company. Of the 24 professional sports that the SBJ and Magna looked at, all but women’s tennis has seen the average age of viewers increase. On the other hand, the only sports with an average age higher than baseball’s are Nascar (58), men’s tennis (61), horse racing (63), figure skating (63) and any form of golf (63 to 64). They’re also the only sports drawing fewer young people, with the under-18 crowd ranging from 6% for women’s tennis and figure skating to a dismal 3% for golf.
Don’t laugh, football fans, because it isn’t as if your sport is looking much better. While the average NFL viewer is 50, only 9% of the NFL’s audience is kids under 18. Blame devices and attention spans all you’d like, but NFL viewership dropped by 8% on average last year, with Sunday and Monday night games down 10% to 12%.
Table: Where are the kids?
The average age of viewers of all but one of these sports has gone up in the past decade.
Granted, football still draws 16.5 million viewers on average and remains a ratings juggernaut, but a mix of aging audiences and reduced viewership can have considerable implications for sports broadcasting. Consider this: ESPN currently pays $700 million a year for the rights to Major League Baseball and $1.9 million annually for the rights to various National Football League properties. However, it pays just $45 million a year for the rights to Major League Soccer and US Soccer and, before renewing its deal in 2014, paid roughly $500 million for rights to the National Basketball Association.
has watched viewership drop from 100 million in 2011 to roughly 87 million this year. It’s gone through multiple rounds of layoffs — including 100 high-profile staffers earlier this year — while charging cable and satellite subscribers more than $9 a month just for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. It has bet big on live sports, but is starting to put its money toward sports with growth potential. The network pays just $42 million a year for the rights to college sports championships in everything but football and basketball and has already seen ratings for both the College World Series and Women’s College Softball World Series balloon this year. The SPJ didn’t include either among its age rankings, but ESPN has tracked digital streaming of those events to gauge younger viewership.
Since 2014, when ESPN and Turner Sports entered a nine-year deal that pays the National Basketball Association $24 billion for the right to air its games, the NBA Finals have averaged between 19.9 million and 20.3 million viewers each year. Those are numbers the league hadn’t seen since the last time Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to the NBA Championship in 1998. They’re also bolstered by an NBA viewership with an average age of 42 and kids accounting for more than one in 10 viewers (11%).
The biggest growth potential, however, comes from soccer. Major League Soccer’s average audience of 308,000 last year is small by just about any standard, but up nearly 20% from a decade earlier. Fox Sports 1’s MLS average of 188,000 is similarly tiny, but more than double what the former Fox Soccer drew during its last year of MLS broadcasts in 2011. Most tellingly, the 696,000 that the MLS drew to five Fox network-television broadcasts last year was the league’s highest viewership ever — on any channel.
MLS viewers are an average of just 40 years old, and 15% are younger than 18. The only other leagues with that kind of following among kids are also soccer related: The English Premier League (43 on average, 10% under 18), international soccer like Fox and ESPN’s UEFA Champions League coverage (39 on average, 13% under 18) and Mexico’s Liga MX (39 on average, 17% under 18).
Fox pays just $30 million a year for its rights to MLS and $53 million for FIFA World Cup coverage, while NBC pays $160 million annually for the English Premier League. All of those rights deals come up for renewal in five years, right around the same time as NBC and Fox Sports’ combined $740 million deal for Nascar. With Nascar’s audience aging rapidly and its ratings slipping, its nine-figure deal starts to look bloated compared with what Fox, NBC and even ESPN are paying for rising soccer viewership and a younger core audience.
Nascar, Major League Baseball and even the NFL have long been able to slide on big U.S. viewership and even bigger television contracts. However, as a new generation cares less about designated hitters and pit stops than it does about the Cleveland Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors rivalry and Real Madrid’s Champions League run, all-American sports programming is being dragged into a more cosmopolitan era.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Esquire. Notte received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.