FOX Sports Radio host Jason Smith is a smart dude. It dawned on me during my discussion with him that he’s not just playing chess or checkers, he’s actually playing both games on the air each night. The checkers approach is simple; find ways to entertain listeners and make them laugh. We aren’t splitting atoms and solving the world’s problems. Let’s loosen the collar and enjoy some figurative dessert together. That’s the easy part.
Due to Jason’s timeslot — 7-11pm PT — it would be foolish to discuss the biggest stories of the day while using the same angles as daytime hosts. He and co-host Mike Harmon have to figure out new ways of approaching the top stories. That isn’t easy. Daytime shows can afford to be like pop music while taking a straightforward approach. A nighttime show is more advanced like jazz with key changes midsong. Straightforward becomes repetitive and stale. Fresh and unpredictable is king.
It takes a special talent to blend checkers and chess together. Jason is one of the few that is up for the challenge. An emmy-award winning producer and author, Jason talks about the best piece of sports radio advice he’s received, which is actually quite funny. The worst piece of advice he’s gotten is a great lesson for everybody in the industry. Jason also shares an awesome story about how wood, yes wood, played a major role in his radio career. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: How did your path unfold to where you are now?
Jason Smith: I don’t recommend my path for anybody. [Laughs] I don’t know that it works anywhere but in Los Angeles. I did radio in college at Syracuse. I got out of college and I got a job at ESPN. I was a production assistant, associate producer and I was really enjoying life. It was a great job and I loved it. Then I became a producer at FOX when my wife and I moved to Los Angeles. Everything was awesome. I was going to be a TV person, producer, executive and do all this stuff.
Then something happened — this was the moment where I realized I have to get back and I have to do radio. I was producing Monday Night Live, which was a TV show that aired in Los Angeles after the Monday Night Football games. This was back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. It was a variety show. Bill Weir was the host. We were doing the first show that night and Bill’s co-host was Ellen K who was on with Ryan Seacrest and before that was on with Rick Dees. This is when she was on with Rick Dees. Bill was going out doing these appearances and as a producer of the show I was there with him to help with the talking points.
We go to — back then it was 1150 in Los Angeles, the only sports talk station I think at the time. We walk in there and Bill does a hit with the people on the air there. Then we go and do a hit on Rick Dees’ show. I’m like wow this is cool. Rick Dees is doing a national morning show. We walked into the studio and I met Rick Dees. I think radio people will understand this, but the smell of the studio — the wood, the equipment, took me all the way back to everything I did in college. At that moment I said to myself I’ve got to get back into radio.
All the things that happened after that, it was the smell of the control room and specifically the wood and seeing the carts, which is what they used to play songs off of. It was just one of those epiphany moments where I knew okay what I’m doing now, I’ve got to stop doing this. Within the next year, I segued from doing that. I was filling in doing sports talk radio in L.A. Ellen K helped me get an introduction with the program director at 1150. That’s where my career went from there. If I don’t walk into Rick Dees’ studio and smell the studio, I’m on a different career path.
BN: Wow, that’s crazy, man. Were you married at the time?
JS: No, my wife and I have been together since the mid-‘90s. We met in Connecticut and we moved out to L.A. together. Then we got married in 2007. We had been together for like 12 years before we got married. We were just lazy.
BN: [Laughs] Okay but you were together when you had this radio epiphany. How did your now-wife take that?
JS: She was incredibly supportive because she knew it was going to mean me quitting my job. Right away she said to me okay well then you have to quit. I said really? She said yeah. I said wow; I was expecting more of a conversation. She said well the first thing I’m going to tell you is your mood is going to change because you seem much happier.
She said producing and what you were doing, you just don’t seem as happy. You’re a little bit shorter with your comments. I can tell at times the way you talk you’re not the happy-go-lucky person that you were.
She was so incredibly supportive because she knew if I was going to leave and do this I had to be open at any time they could call me to fill in. I needed to say yes every single time. They couldn’t call me to fill in and I say, I can’t, I have to work, because they’re going to call somebody else and somebody else is going to get that. So I had to quit. I had to go with no job and just hope that when I was filling in they would keep calling me. They called me enough to fill in where we were able to stay afloat for a while.
Then FOX Sports Radio started and I got in there as a part-time update anchor overnight on the weekends. That was at least a steady paycheck. She was really supportive. Without that I don’t know if I would have been able to do it. Right away there was no conversation. It was okay good. You want to do this? Let’s do it. Without that, I don’t know.
BN: Were you listening to the hosts as an update anchor thinking, ‘This guy stinks. I could do a way better job’?
JS: [Laughs.] I knew I could do it. I had to bide my time because I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was like okay I have to pay my dues. I have to be an update anchor. I was doing what I wanted to do so I was okay with that. I would get chances here and there to co-host. It was good.
As I noticed what was going on, I was like okay; I’m not seeing anybody reinvent the wheel here. I think I can be pretty good at this and start to figure out my own personality. I knew that I would have my own path. Everybody has their own personality and their own way they do the show. I knew the way I was going to do it, my interests, I had a feeling it was going to hit and it was going to resonate.
BN: Are there things you’re incorporating in your show during the pandemic that you anticipate continuing once more sports return?
JS: Absolutely. I think that we saw the landscape change a bit when it comes to where we’re going to be after COVID-19. Everybody still wants the hits, but you don’t have to play all the hits. You can get outside the box and do something that is fun, that is entertaining, that may be something that everybody is talking about that’s outside of sports because it’s still a hit.
I look at it this way; I did radio as a DJ in college. There were different stickers on all the songs you played. There was a red sticker that was on the hottest songs. Every two hours you played a red. Then every four hours you played a song with a white sticker on it because that was a song that was either on the way up to being popular, or it was popular and now it’s on the way down. I think in sports talk radio it used to be where we’ve got to play all the reds and we’ve got to play the whites. But really you just have to play the reds.
The reds can be all the big sports stuff going on and outside of it because the more time goes on, the more the line is blurred between sports and other topics. I’d rather spend two minutes talking about how it’s the big 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back than if I’m doing a story about something that Dwight Howard may have said earlier in the day. I think that appeals to more people. It’s more fun for me and I think it’s something that is a little bit outside the box that gets a little unpredictable.
BN: The “stick to sports” crowd used to be a lot more vocal in the past. Now that we’re unbuttoning the top button and straying outside of sports during the pandemic, do you anticipate listener habits changing where they might want hosts to loosen up if sports conversations get too serious in the future?
JS: Oh yeah. That top button, then the next button, then the next button, and suddenly it’s chest hair, and it’s a big medallion. What’s going to happen is we’re going to see when sports returns there’s going to be that initial rush just to get back to what people are used to and that is the breaking down of games. Obviously with the NBA playoffs coming up really quick it’s going to be okay, what do we think about that? But once we get past that it’s going to be you know, I kind of like sometimes when it’s not so serious and every topic is not life or death.
I think people deal with a lot of negative stuff now and everybody’s lives have changed forever. Can you still listen to people screaming at each other for three hours? I don’t think you can.
I think you can listen to people doing that for a little while, but eventually you’re going to say okay I’m ready for something else. I think that something else is going to be much more in the form of entertainment and doing things that are going to make people laugh. I’m glad about that because I know we can do that well. I don’t know that everybody can, but I think that’s going to be the way that sports talk radio kind of segues. A morning show type atmosphere might permeate itself into a midday show, an afternoon show, a night show. I think you might see the tone of shows change.
BN: In what ways does your approach differ between your normal nighttime show and when you fill in on daytime shows?
JS: The biggest thing is that when I’m doing the show during the day — if I’m in for Dan Patrick let’s just say — the big stories are there. It’s meat and potatoes and we’re eating. We’re driving opinions and entertaining and you’re not really thinking as much. When I do the show at night, I have to sit back and think what’s a way to talk about something that’s still a big story, that everybody wants to hear, that is 10 hours old? While I can’t just go completely off the deep end and talk about something that really doesn’t relate, I have to find different ways to bring up the same big story. I’ve got to give you more at night to make you think about it and do it a little bit different.
BN: What’s some of the best advice you’ve gotten over the years?
JS: Oh, I’ll tell you the best piece of advice I got was from JT the Brick. We were at FOX together. This is when I was coming up and I was trying to get opportunities. One thing I couldn’t figure out was how could I get myself in the position to get an opportunity to succeed. How can I go from part-time update anchor to fill-in show host? How do I go from fill-in show host to weekend show host? How do I go from weekend show host to five-day-a-week show host? How do I do these things?
He said let me tell you something, you will get more opportunities because people in front of you blow up and can’t handle success than you will on your own merit. I said you’re kidding. He goes no, trust me; you will get more opportunities because of that.
This advice he gave me was probably 15 years ago. Sure enough I look up and I go yep I got that job because a host and a co-host got in a fistfight and I got a job the next day. I got the next job because the host of the show didn’t want to do the whole show live and put the whole show on tape and they didn’t like that, so okay I get it. That has been true for 15 years is that people will blow up in front of you and that’s the opportunity you get to move up more so than hey, this guy’s doing a really good job, what can we do for him?
BN: What was the worst advice you’ve received?
JS: One of my managers at ESPN. ESPN was tough because when I was there they really only wanted to promote three shows. They wanted to promote Mike and Mike, Colin, and Dan Patrick. That was it. I understand that these are the moneymaker shows, but I still wanted a chance. I wanted to move up and I wanted people to know what we were doing. Being on overnight I wanted to make sure people knew hey we did this. We had this interview on. This is doing really well. We would send down information to our bosses. Here’s what we did last night and just let people know what our show was doing.
I had a manager tell me listen I understand that but don’t do that. Let me praise you. Let me go into meetings and praise you because that’s what’s going to cut through is if I go in and say something good about you. I said okay.
After that my career just stalled at ESPN. It absolutely stalled. I didn’t really know where to go from there. It was tough. I was at the point where I’m like okay I’ve been doing AllNight for a long time and I can’t light myself on fire. It was very difficult to get noticed. I said okay let me back off. I backed off and nothing happened. That was the worst advice ever.
Whenever I talk to someone and they ask me a question about hey what’s a piece of advice, one of the things I tell them is you have to make sure people know what you’re doing. You can’t trust anybody else. You’re going to be the best champion of yourself and you have to make sure that you’re the one in charge of that. If you want to make sure people know something you’re doing, you have to make sure to tell them. That was just horrible advice. It really hurt and it stalled me out of ESPN.
BN: Is there anything in the future that you want to do specifically or is your mindset more about the next show, the next day, the future will take care of itself?
JS: Well I kind of have a short-term and a long-term. I think mainly toward the next show. I’m a content guy and I concern myself with what are we doing tonight. How are we going to cut through? What are we doing in this next segment? What are we doing in the next hour? That’s the main thing. I know because of that a lot of other things take care of themselves. We’ve been on a very good run the past few years. It’s been a really great ride.
In the future, there are a couple of things I think about. At some point I think I would love to do mornings. Whether it’s locally here in L.A., I’d like to do that, but I’m having so much fun with what I’m doing now. It’s terrific. It’s really fun doing this at night. I’ve done nights most of my life.
Outside of that, I’ve been writing a lot. I love to blog about TV. That’s another big passion of mine and something I would really like to be able to do. I’d like to get my second novel published too. Those are the things that I look at in the future.
Mainly it’s every day what are we doing with the show and obviously now how we’re going to navigate COVID-19 and post COVID-19 realities. Down the road those are a couple of things I’m thinking about. I kind of wonder what that would be like. It’s not something that actively I’m looking at and going okay what are we going to do to make this happen? Where I’m at right now I really enjoy it and just enjoy the day to day.
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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