It isn’t every day that you bump into a 27-year-old program director in a top-30 market. Ryan Porth is a name to know in the sports talk radio business. He’s the PD of ESPN Radio 102.5 The Game and 94.9 Game 2 in Nashville, TN.
Ryan’s career path is uncommon. He earned a big promotion in the span of 10 days, one which typically takes years to achieve. I had a chance to connect with him and discuss his unique career path, future goals and his thoughts on the best and worst parts of sports talk radio.
Q: What was it about the sports talk radio business that initially interested you in pursuing it?
RP: When I was born and raised in Cincinnati, the voice of the Cincinnati Reds, Marty Brennaman, was an idol of mine. I used to play imaginary baseball in the backyard and act like I was Marty Brennaman. So as a little kid, I always wanted to be the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds and that desire to work in sports broadcasting stayed with me through middle school and high school. I always knew it was what I wanted to do.
A few years after high school, I got a part-time job here at ESPN 102.5 The Game. That was July of 2012. Five years later I’m the damn Program Director of this thing. It’s crazy to think about. To have a job like this at my age, I pinch myself every day. To be working in the industry that I’ve dreamed of working in my entire life is a real blessing.
Q: Having started at The Game and worked your way up, does that impact the way you look at talent? For example, do you prefer seeing homegrown talent get a promotion rather than taking a look at options outside of your market?
RP: Being here for so long, I’ve seen many people move up the ranks — and it’s mostly been with producers — but I do believe in the theory of promoting from within if you can. You know their strengths. You know their weaknesses. You know everything about them. You can put them in the best position possible to maximize their strengths. That’s one risk with someone out of the market – you don’t know them as well on a personal level.
I’m very fortunate that since I was hired as Program Director, in the last 10+ months I haven’t had to make a change on the air with our lineup. All the guys that I inherited for the live shows from the morning show to the midday show to the afternoon show offer something a little different, and it’s been a pleasure working with them.
I think promoting from within is a trendy way to go. That isn’t to suggest that I won’t consider someone out of the market, but with your on-air talent, you want them to have the backstory knowledge of the Titans, and the Preds, and the Vols and everything that’s a hot-button issue in this town. In Nashville, it’s important to know the history of sports in this town. That goes with any town and radio station. I’m lucky to have a really good staff on board.
Q: It was crazy with the Preds last year. I went to a couple of those watch parties. Broadway street was completely shut down. It was a really, really cool thing. Could you see an MLB or NBA team in Nashville? How big of an impact do you think it’d make in the city and on the sports talk radio scene?
RP: If Major League Baseball or the NBA were to come here, it would only benefit our business in terms of having even more things to talk about. For where the city of Nashville is right now, I think having two pro sports teams with the Titans and the Preds, plus Nashville SC and the Nashville Sounds, is kind of a perfect mix. But with 80 to 100 people moving to Nashville every day, I can see in a decade or two it expanding to meeting a Philadelphia or Detroit in terms of having all the pro sports teams in town and being a hotbed for sports even more than it is now.
Q: Knowing the dynamics of this city, which do you think would make a bigger impact here, the NBA or MLB?
RP: I think Major League Baseball would make a bigger impact because of the timing in which the sport is played. The NBA would be going up against the Preds and I don’t know how successful a team would be here especially with Memphis right down the road. The Grizzlies are kind of viewed as Tennessee’s NBA team.
However, with Major League Baseball — while you do have the Braves, and the Reds, and the Cardinals within a stone’s throw of Nashville — I can envision an American League team working here in the future when the city grows more. I think Nashville in 10 to 20 years will be in a much better position for MLB than it is now.
Q: I hear a lot of negativity about sports talk radio. With all of the bellyaching of ‘this sucks’ and ‘they talk too much this’ and ‘they do too much that,’ what do you think is really, really good about sports talk radio right now?
RP: Whether it’s a negative topic or a positive one, connecting with fans is the most important thing in sports talk radio in my mind. Whether Butch Jones is on the hot seat or the Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final, you want to have that connection with the fans.
You’re not going to make everyone happy in this industry, and a listener doesn’t have to agree with everything that a host has to say. But if a host can connect with the listener and make them understand where they’re coming from with their opinions, it makes for great radio. We’re also fortunate at ESPN 102.5 The Game to have two popular former Titans figures – wideout Derrick Mason and GM Floyd Reese – who can take fans behind the curtain on their experiences in the NFL and provide unique insight the listener can’t get elsewhere.
In the social media world that we live in now, it’s a different world than it was 10-15 years ago. You can get a lot of people’s opinions right there on Twitter and Facebook, but the medium of radio is still powerful. The mic that our hosts turn on every day is still powerful and the way that sports talk radio hosts can connect with listeners as they drive to work or lunch, with hosts wearing their emotions on their sleeves as if they’re a fan themselves, is one of many positive things about sports radio right now.
Q: What do you think could be better about sports talk radio?
RP: The one thing that I think people can fall victim to is hot-take radio. I think it only works for so long. Not only in sports talk radio but with TV, it can be a little overbearing at times. That’s something that a lot of listeners or viewers would appreciate seeing or hearing less of. We’ve got an afternoon host, Jared Stillman, that has a lot of opinions about everything in Nashville, but I wouldn’t consider him among the hot-take sports talk radio hosts. He’s just a Nashvillian that wears his emotions on his sleeve. I think those are the type of things that make sports talk radio great. Having a hot take just to have a hot take on something in the sports world, and doing that too much over time, can wear on the consumer.
Q: When you target new talent or hear a host for the first time, what characteristics appeal to you most?
RP: I’m a diehard Cincinnati Reds fan. I remember turning on ESPN 1530 after Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series. Mo Egger, who’s one of my favorites in this country in terms of talking sports, said something along the lines of, “I’m paid to know what to say, but I don’t know what to say right now.” It was real emotion, expressing exactly what the entire Reds fanbase was feeling at that time. If a sports talk radio host can connect with listeners and fans in that way, that is one of the best qualities in a host.
You have to be compelling and discuss topics that will make the listeners think, whether they agree or disagree. I think likability is another really good quality for radio hosts. Especially in the south where Southern hospitality is a real thing. Nashville is a different market from anywhere up north where it’s a heritage sports town. Everything is a little bit more laid back in Nashville and having some likability is an important trait in radio hosts. You don’t necessarily need them to like you, but you need them to like listening to you, and enjoy listening to you, because you obviously want to keep them listening. You don’t want to scare listeners away, because they may not come back.
Q: Likability and relatability are important everywhere, but might be even more important in Nashville. Do you think that what separates a good host from an excellent host can range based on the region they’re working in?
RP: I think so. A good host can handle the x’s and o’s of sports talk radio well. They can tease well. They can set up topics well. They can interact with callers well, but an excellent host has to have those intangibles of connecting and forming a relationship with the listeners without actually knowing them on a personal level. Making a listener feel like they’re in the studio with them, or sitting at the bar with them listening to your hosts share what they’re passionate about – those things help put you over the top as an on-air personality in my opinion.
Q: Some topics these days can be divisive. That can damage a host’s likability and relatability. Whether it’s the anthem protests or the sign at the Red Sox game, “racism is as American as baseball,” do you have a certain tactic or approach with your on-air staff about do’s and don’ts when addressing those subjects?
RP: I’m pretty lucky to have a lineup of hosts that know the right and wrong of what to say in those situations. When it comes to political stuff like that, no radio station wants their hosts to say something that will hurt the credibility or likability of a host or the radio station as a whole. But at the same time, giving hosts that freedom of speech when it’s necessary, when it’s valid, I think is important as a Program Director.
A lot of people use sports to escape from some of the crazy happenings going on in our country. There’s a good chance they have no desire to hear about politics when flipping on a sports radio station. So that’s what we try to offer our listener in times like those – talking about the Preds or Titans, or sports in general, to provide that escape.
Q: How do you balance big national stories with your local content? Is there a specific message you relay to your staff?
RP: In the last year, we’ve had the the Chicago Cubs win a World Series. That was a huge national story that our hosts talked about. Maybe not at length, but they talked about them winning it all. While there are Cubs fans in Nashville, they’re not considered a local team at all. But that was a huge story in sports and when those things happen, I think it’s important to talk about them.
At the same time, if there are other storylines going on nationally that we can relate to locally — for instance, if Jon Gruden says that Jameis Winston should be an NFL MVP candidate. Having our hosts take that and frame it in a way where they’re saying, “Jameis Winston, if he’s an NFL MVP candidate, then why isn’t Marcus Mariota?” Just doing things like that — finding that local connection where it can still be a good listen for the people who are tuning in just for local news or local sports talk.
There are so many outlets now where you can get national talk. We’ve got 102.5 The Game, but we’ve also got 94.9 Game 2, and 94.9 Game 2 is mostly the ESPN Radio syndicated lineup. So, we’ve got Mike & Mike in the Morning, and Russillo, and Le Batard, and Paul Finebaum in the afternoon. All of them talk about national storylines. Finding a way to connect the two — local and national — to bridge that gap, is an important thing for our local hosts to do.
Q: In Nashville, you’re up against 104.5 The Zone. Some view it as a huge challenge or a mountain that you’ve got to climb. What are the opportunities that it presents from where you guys are and how you’re going head-to-head with an opponent in the same town?
RP: I think the opportunity for us is the fact that we have a little bit of a different strategy in terms of on air. 104.5 The Zone, while they do talk their fair share of sports, they also like to dip into pop culture, entertainment, and things of that nature. For the listener that wants deep sports talk, they know they can come to 102.5 and we’re going to be talking about the local teams. We’re going to be talking about the Preds. We’re going to be talking about the Titans. We’re going to be talking about the Vols and anything else that is hot in this town. That’s our identity.
We don’t pump ourselves as Nashville’s Best Sports Talk just because it’s a catchy line. It’s something that we all believe in. We truly believe we deliver the best sports talk in this town. When it’s Preds, we have the best Preds talk. When it’s the Titans, we have the best Titans talk. When it’s the Vols, we have the best Vols talk. That’s something that we pride ourselves on. Their model has been successful for them and I respect them for that. At the same time, there are many listeners out there that just want sports talk and that’s what we try to deliver to them on a daily basis.
Q: Having transitioned from APD to PD, when you look back, what’s the biggest area of your personal growth that you’re most proud of?
RP: Well, it was a very quick transition. August 15th last year was my first day as Assistant Program Director. Then on August 26th, I became the interim Program Director. So, I had a grand total of 10 days under my belt as an Assistant Program Director. We were going through a lineup change at that time and I was the EP of our afternoon show, Jared & The GM. During those 10 days I didn’t have any time to learn how to be an Assistant Program Director.
I was put in a position where I went from Executive Producer of the afternoon show, and within two weeks I was steering the ship. It was a scary few weeks stepping into a role where I was learning everything on the fly. Fortunately, I had a great support staff and still do to this day. As a 27-year-old Program Director, I still learn things every single day. Hopefully, a year from now, I’m in an even better position in terms of knowing little nuances of how to be a PD. I feel like I’m light years ahead of where I was at this time last year when I was just worried about keeping us on the air.
I’d say the biggest thing in transition that I’ve had to learn is how to interact with each of our talent. Every single cat is skinned a different way. Learning how to handle the on-air talent, push their buttons and try to get the best out of them is something that I’ve had to learn very quickly. Luckily, as someone who was in the building for 4+ years before the change, I think I benefited because I knew most of our on-air talent already. I wasn’t a brand new PD at a brand new station. I’d say talent coaching and interaction are the biggest things for a Program Director to tackle and I’ve tried to make that a big focus of mine over the past year.
Q: What are your future goals in sports talk radio?
RP: The dream of being the radio voice of the Cincinnati Reds will always be there. If I’m 60 years old and haven’t been the radio voice of the Reds, I think I would still love to do that. Obviously the path that I’ve gone down in radio may not lead to that and I’m okay with it.
To be honest, I have no idea where this whole thing is gonna take me. I’ve been appreciative just to have 5+ years in this business in this building — to develop relationships and friendships that I’ll have forever. If something comes up nationally in the future, then I’m sure I’d consider it. If something suited my strengths well outside of radio, maybe I’d consider that too. But I love Nashville. I may be biased, but it’s the best city in the country to live in. It’s home and I don’t really want to change that.
I just take it day by day and see where each one takes me. Hopefully I can continue to add to what I’ve built during my last five years in this business.
Nothing Is Easy In the Cold, Not Even Broadcasting
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end!
No matter what you may think, doing play-by-play for any sport is a difficult thing. The great ones make it look easy, but it’s not. Prep work dominates things leading up to the broadcast, getting notes, nuggets and entertaining tidbits take up time. Then once you’re prepped, some stadiums are better than others to broadcast. Some booths are easier to work than others.
Then there’s the forgotten element, the weather.
How will you handle inclement weather of any kind? Warmth, rain, snow and oh yeah, the dreaded freezing temperature. Before we get into it, here are a few of the less-than-ideal conditions my fellow broadcasters have had to deal with over the years.
THE FOG BOWL
During the 1988 playoffs between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, a dense fog rolled onto the field during the game, making it nearly impossible to play or see. Numerous players complained they couldn’t see 10 yards in front of them. Both teams were forced to use their running game because receivers couldn’t see long passes. The broadcast was called by Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw on CBS.
“We couldn’t see anything—absolutely nothing,” CBS-TV play-by-play broadcaster Verne Lundquist told the Associated Press. “We had to look at the TV just like everyone else.” Lundquist’s color man, Terry Bradshaw, told viewers the game should have been suspended.
THE FREEZER BOWL
At -9 degrees Fahrenheit, the 1982 AFC Championship Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers proved to be the second-coldest game in NFL history. It was so cold that Bengals QB Ken Anderson suffered frost bite on his right ear. The temperature was not only -9 degrees, but the wind chill was measured at -58 degrees, by far the worst in league history.
THE ICE BOWL
The 1967 NFL Championship between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys became known as the “Ice Bowl.” It remains the coldest game ever played in the NFL, at -15 degrees with a wind chill of -48 degrees. Lambeau Field’s turf-heating system actually malfunctioned before the game, leaving the turf rock-hard. Officials actually had to resort to calling out plays and penalties because when referee Norm Schachter blew his metal whistle, it actually froze to his lips.
The last two are examples of something topical since last week’s “Super Wild Card” game in Buffalo was played in extreme temperatures. At kickoff, it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill made the temperature feel like minus-5. A far cry from the above games, but come on, it was freezing cold out there.
The CBS Sports NFL announcing team of Ian Eagle and Charles Davis said Saturday’s game between Buffalo and New England was the coldest work environment they’ve experienced during their broadcasting careers.
“We kept the windows closed in the booth until one hour before kickoff,” Eagle told The Athletic. “When we finally opened them, I had a sense that it would be manageable. I was wrong. CBS rented some industrial heaters for the night, but unfortunately, they were no match for the Western New York frigid air. It really hit me in the third quarter. I started shivering and actually had a few moments where my jaw got locked up mid-sentence. It was by far the coldest I’ve ever been calling a game.”
Davis recalled two games he called at Lambeau Field that were similar, but not as bad as it was in Buffalo.
“It helped that the evening was relatively clear, and the winds minimal, but make no mistake about it, ‘the Almighty Hawk (wind)’ made its presence felt and I kept drawing on one thought — everyone involved was cold, and they were persevering,” Davis explained to Richard Deitsch.
“In addition, we were watching history be made in front of us by the Bills offense — seven drives, seven touchdowns, something that had never been done in the NFL playoffs. Beyond impressive, and it definitely helped us maintain focus. I’m not sure anyone would choose to do a game under those conditions, but there was definitely a sense of pride among our team that we all worked to the best of our abilities on a night that would test all of us.”
Davis said that there was no way not to think about his discomfort. He gave credit to the stage crew in the booth that helped to keep him and Ian Eagle warm. There was also a jacket involved, a familiar one given to Eagle during the game, leading to an excellent exchange between he and Davis just before the third quarter started.
Charles Davis: Where did you get the jacket?
Ian Eagle: What jacket?
Eagle: Oh, this? Yes, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, you might have noticed, wore this a few weeks ago and it hit the internet by storm. Kurt saw that we had this assignment. Kurt now runs a program “Warner’s Warmers,” he just sends the jacket out to whoever needs it. I feel like, I want Jiffy Pop Popcorn. This thing is very warm. This is the same jacket. Kurt sent this to me. Let me tell you, not all heroes wear capes, they wear “Silver Bullet Puffers.”
Davis: Let’s talk about the game for a minute. Kurt, a brother would like a jacket too…
I’ve never really experienced calling a game in that extreme weather, especially after all the years I’ve called baseball games. But being in the Midwest, even those early days in April and sometimes into May, cold temps are a factor.
I think the coldest game I ever called was a game with the Cubs where the temperature at the start was about 31 degrees with a wind coming off the lake. We debated on whether or not to open the windows in the booth. One voted no, one voted yes, so the compromise was the window near the play-by-play guy was cracked open just a bit. Games just sound different with the windows closed. It’s not as clean. It sounds like you’re doing a game in a closet. But sometimes self-preservation comes first. The same goes for extremely warm weather too.
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your pen isn’t working all that well, and how do you score a game without taking your gloves off? In those conditions, as Eagle was saying, your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end! I know it sounds exaggerated but in the moment, its not.
People sitting at home still want you to call the game. They are looking for the same information you would have given if it were 40 degrees instead of 40 below with the wind chill. It’s a big ask, but the broadcast crew has to find a way to adjust to the conditions and do what they are there to do. It helps when everyone understands that. It’s not to say that you can’t talk about the way things are in the booth or on the field from time to time. But don’t let it dominated the airtime, as tempting as it might be to do so.
Just think, if you’re cold in the booth, what’s life like for the sideline reporter?
Ben And Woods Aren’t Doing a Show For One Person
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show.”
There’s no confusion about where their allegiances lie. And when it comes to being relatable to the audience, there’s few things Ben and Woods do better than buying season tickets at Petco Park, wearing Padres hats and cheering for the lone professional team in San Diego.
Some hosts choose to never openly root for the teams they talk about on an everyday basis. Steven Woods and Ben Higgins strive to never hide who they are on the air. They’re Padres fans and they’re not afraid to show it.
“I was in music radio before and sometimes it was hard to hide my disdain for some of the music that I played, so I just decided not to,” said Woods. “I just let it out there. People I think appreciate authenticity and if I didn’t like a song I’d tell you. But I still had to play it, right? With the Padres, it’s why I never sit in the press box, because I can’t cheer in there. I bought season tickets so that I can go and scream at the players like I want to. I think it resonates, because there’s fans listening in the car that want to see them do well too.”
“I do believe in journalistic integrity,” said Ben. “But to me that means you have to be honest. You have to be honest in your opinions and you can’t be afraid to be critical. No one is more critical of a team than their own fans. They are the most critical people of all. I don’t wanna be the fan that constantly criticizes, but at the same time, why would you listen to a show that is just relentlessly positive and gives you a white wash version of what’s not really reality? Every team has problems and it’s our job to point them out or nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
When you think of baseball towns, New York, Chicago and St. Louis are probably the three cities that immediately come to mind. But in a football world, San Diego has emerged as a new baseball town with the Chargers recently leaving for Los Angeles.
If you have any doubt that San Diego is now a baseball city, just listen to Ben and Woods on 97.3 The Fan from 5-9 am every weekday morning. The duo has no issues with doing three-plus hours of Padres talk, even during the offseason.
That’s not a new thing. Ben and Woods have always conducted the show the way it is now. They want to talk baseball, but they also want to hit off-topic content that will give the listener a chance to laugh on their way to work.
That’s been the case since the show was at Mighty 1090. Ben and Woods were at the station as the morning show when it folded in 2019. That was an incredibly trying time for both talents.
“It was pretty heartbreaking to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I had a brand new baby and the show was going great. We were on the rise and then it went away. It was shocking. It was also scary. I think uncertain is the best word. We believed in our product and we knew there was a market for it and there was a station that just so happened to need a morning show. The timing was pretty serendipitous.”
“I had been a listener for 15 years before I ever worked at that station for the first time,” Ben said. “And then you get there and you feel like, wow, we’re here and then all the sudden it’s gone. It wasn’t overnight, at some point we lost the signal transmission then we went streaming and it was kind of a slow death over the last few weeks. Ultimately it just ended one day. It was a very strange thing. The fact we got picked up at 97.3 The Fan, got back on the air so quickly was really great.”
Things are going extremely well for Ben and Woods at 97.3 The Fan. They’re thriving in morning drive with a unique show that’s different from any other in the market. Sure, they’ll talk about sports, but their focus is more on the overall entertainment of the show.
“It’s morning drive, you’re there to entertain,” said Woods. “You do have to get really creative. We get very creative, because we have to. We take a lot of risks, more so than people would like. The way I look at it as no one remembers us talking about the NFL Playoffs. But they do remember the time we played a 17-minute Bob Dylan song in its entirety on the radio and sat through it. I remember that and always will. Nobody is ever going to say, ‘man, nobody breaks down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like you guys’. But they’ll remember, ‘holy crap, you guys literally played a 17 minute Bob Dylan song it’s entirety’.”
“When we started it was 95 percent sports and I was afraid to do anything else,” Ben said. ”We started doing segments like Ben reads raps, there was a really good response and I started to warm up on OK we can branch out a little bit. Now, if there was a day we didn’t have a non-sports topic I would say that was a weird show.”
“Rest assured, Opening Day comes, we’re blowing out every bit we have, period,” Woods said ”We’re one of the few shows in town that has no problem doing 3 1/2 hours of just Padres talk. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself a little bit. I always call it punting. It’s an easy thing to say, hey, the playoffs are this week let’s get the local beat writer on from every single team and we’ll interview them. Like anyone here gives a rats ass what the Packers beat writer has to say. There may be one guy, but I’m not doing a show for one guy.”
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show,” laughed Ben.
One of the reasons the show has the identity that it does, is because of Woods’ background in multiple formats of radio. No, he’s not a sports radio lifer, and in a way, it’s probably greatly benefitted the show. He’s taken his creativity from the music side and perfectly blended it with his love for sports.
“I like sports radio more because there’s a lot more creativity,“ said Woods. “ I didn’t get to pick the music I got to play at all. Not even a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of chances to talk so for me, as a creative person, this is tremendous. We can do whatever we want and our bosses are pretty cool about giving us a lot of leeway. I’ve learned how audiences react. I’ve learned how to keep an audience. It’s energy, it’s being compelling, breaking balls, having fun. Guy’s driving to work in the mornings, he wants to get a snicker or a laugh, he’s not looking for breakdowns of defenses and things like that.”
Ben and Woods is much more than just the two hosts in the chair every weekday. The cool thing is that anyone that listens to the show knows that. Paul Reindl is the executive producer of the show and has a talent and relationship with the hosts that anyone would dream of.
“He’s the worst,” laughed both Ben and Woods. “Paulie is great. We were able to get away this weekend and after we drank like 40 beers and whiskeys, I was like bro, I’m so proud of you and you’re so valuable to the show. But he’s an unsung hero behind the scenes. He has an uncanny ability to bring sound drops almost intuitively. He’s got pages and pages of drops we’ve collected over the years. He’s just an awesome producer.”
Sports Are Learning To Meet Gen Z Where They Are
“The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity.”
Should sports radio be concerned about where audiences will come from in the future? It is an interesting question that we talk about here a lot. It is also something that the New York Times tackled indirectly last week.
A column from Joe Drape and Ken Belson declared this generation of kids “The eSports Generation” and went on to explain just how disconnected from traditional sports they really are.
An alarmist might ask if this is the beginning of the end of traditional sports leagues. Someone a little more level-headed, like Joe Ovies, may want to dive a little deeper to see what leagues are learning and how they are adapting.
Joe hosts The OG in afternoon drive at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. He is always interested in how changes in technology and consumption patterns effect sports and his audience. I saw him tweeting about the New York Times piece last week and asked if he would want to write a little something for us.
“Meet your audience where they are.”
How many times have you heard that phrase in the last 5 years from a consultant, manager, or any number of Barrett Media posts as content consumption trends continue to spread out over a variety of platforms? Turns out the same applies for pro sports leagues, who are fearful that an entire generation of fans will be lost and their traditional business model will crater as a result.
The New York Times recently highlighted what sports marketers are doing to win over Generation Z, which typically applies to kids born from 1997 to 2012. The Times hits the usual beats.
There’s a reference to Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, an esports star who is also a traditional sports fan, who the NFL hoped would be a Pied Piper for youth fandom. There are examples of MLB, famously stingy when it came to fans using their content on social media, now working with TikTok influencers. And of course, highlighting the NBA’s wide ranging approach to online engagement and their franchise run NBA 2K esports league. Most of the article was based on a recent SSRS/Luker on Trends report, which conducts regular surveys about sports and society.
The issue for pro sports leagues isn’t that Gen Z kids aren’t “passionate” enough about sports. It’s that Gen Z is more likely to admit they simply don’t like sports.
“Only 23 percent of Generation Z said they were passionate sports fans, compared with the 42 percent of millennials (defined as 26 to 41), 33 percent of Generation X (42 to 57) and 31 percent of baby boomers (57 to 76) who identified themselves as passionate. More striking was that 27 percent of Gen Zers said they disliked sports altogether, compared with just 7 percent of millennials, 5 percent of Gen Xers and 6 percent of boomers.”The new york times, Jan. 12, 2022
Also factoring into the waning interest in sports from Gen Z is the dramatic decline of youth sports participation. There is a larger discussion to be had about the role of parents and specialization in this decline, but we can address that topic another day. As it relates to pro sports leagues today, the drop in youth participation absolutely impacts the level of interest in kids who might want to watch the best in the world of sports do their thing.
“Participation in youth sports was declining even before Covid-19: In 2018, only 38 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
In June 2020, the pandemic’s early days, 19 percent of parents with kids in youth sports said their child was not interested in playing sports, according to a survey conducted by The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. By September 2021, that figure was 28 percent.
On average, children play less than three years in a sport and quit by age 11, according to the survey. Why? Mostly, because it is not fun anymore.”the New york times, Dec. 19th 2021
The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity. Meeting up on the playground or at a friend’s backyard for a pickup game has been replaced with meeting your friends on a Discord server and deciding if you’re going to play Halo or Call or Duty after school.
If you have kids in the age range that I do, none of this should be a surprise. You see it every day and don’t even think twice about it. But if you do stop and think about how frictionless it has become to be online all day with your friends, you start to realize the impact of never being bored or getting dragged to things by your parent because there were no other options.
Watching sports and going to sporting events isn’t frictionless. It’s a pain in the ass. Older generations deal with it because we don’t know any better, it’s just what we do. But Gen Z isn’t about to stop what they’re doing just to watch a game. Why would they? They can get the highlights later.
Gen Z is about dropping in and out of entertainment options whenever they feel like it. In other words, why would they sit around waiting for their favorite song to be played on the radio when they can easily pull it up on YouTube or Spotify.
Pro sports leagues can create all the social content and tout billions of views. They can tout engagement with Gen Z because a bunch of kids bought NFL related skins in Fortnite.
Awareness of their leagues isn’t the problem. It’s getting Gen Z to care enough to watch the game. Take my kids, who are fully aware of what’s going on in the world of sports, but getting them to sit down and actually watch the game is torture. Throw in the increasing cost to attend sporting events, I’ve started leaving them at home because it’s a waste of money given my 13-year-old is just gonna play Clash Royale in that $75 seat.
To be clear — I’m OK with my kids just not being into sports. It’s not like I didn’t try. It’s simply understanding we’ve transitioned to a world of niche communities. You can still thrive within those niche communities. Just look at sports talk radio as an example, where you’re not winning with cume, but with passion around sports. That’s what great sports talk radio stations sell. Pro sports leagues will be fine doing the same.
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