Analysis: Sports viewing shifting to online

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Findings from target audience company GWI’s new data set, GWI Sports, indicate that consumers are increasingly turning to streaming services to watch sports events.

The service aims to give sports teams, brands and agencies unique demographic and psychographic insights into the new sports fans. Based on a sample of over 23,000 Internet users aged 16-64 who are interested in sports or say they watch, attend, or participate in sports across 15 countries, GWI says the research will help the sporting industry better understand their fans’ attitudes and behaviours.

The online threat to broadcast supremacy

The portion of consumers watching sports on broadcast TV has seen a steady decline over the last year, with the majority of televised sports having less TV viewers at the end of 2020 than at the end of 2019. However, many sports have been able to mitigate against this loss via online viewership, which soared during lockdown.

Although broadcast TV is still the main medium with which consumers are viewing sports, online platforms are threatening that supremacy – with an abundant market of digital services now offering live sports. Swimming, for example, has seen a decline in TV viewers but a slight uptick in online streamers since 2019.

Cricket has gained the biggest share of those watching on both broadcast TV and online, 14 per cent and 19 per cent increase respectively, while ice hockey has suffered the biggest loss in live broadcast TV viewers, down 19 per cent. Cycling enthusiasts have remained the most constant, with no change at all to those watching on TV and a small increase (3 per cent) in those watching online.

The fans of the future

The shift in sports consumption from broadcast to online over the last year has predominantly been driven by younger, more tech-savvy Gen Zs and millennials. While 74 per cent of millennials and 71 per cent of Gen Z fans stream sports events online, just 46 per cent of boomers use streaming services to watch sport.

The gap closes slightly for traditional broadcasting, though more boomers and Gen X fans tune into TV to watch sport (84 per cent and 83 per cent respectively), than millennials and Gen Z (79 per cent and 77 per cent respectively). This notable generational divide is an indication of how important it is to get younger fans on board with so much viewing displaced to digital.

“Understanding the sports fan has never been more important,” states David Melia, VP Sports and Gaming at GWI. “With our newest data set, GWI Sports, we put the focus squarely on sports fans. Specifically, how they’re watching, what they value in a team, how they’ve stayed engaged – and what it all might mean for the future.”

Online sports highlights key for international market growth

A massive portion of the consumers who are watching sports events regularly also watch highlights with the same frequency. Nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of sports fans watch highlights online every week, including over half (52 per cent) of boomers, suggesting that older fans see online as a highlights-first medium, whereas the reverse is true for younger fans.

Without the ability to watch a sport on traditional TV, many overseas fans are also turning to online channels and highlights in particular are seeing great success.

Sports fans are engaging most with video content online. YouTube is their most preferred platform to follow sports, and viewership of highlights online is surprisingly evenly spread across the generations. With time spent on social media peaking during the pandemic, sports teams and leagues are also using highlights to widen their fan bases to global audiences.

“We decided to launch this report specifically around sports due to high demand from a lot of our current customers wanting sports engagement and viewership insights,” advises Melia. “In particular, teams and sporting organisations’ partner managers and audience researchers were calling out for highly-focused fan data that helps them understand sports fans globally. We’re seeing a transition from teams or clubs to brands, and as such, sports brands need to make sure they have an identity beyond the pitch.”


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