What Is The Future Of Sports?
A couple of months ago, I attended a conference for my job that inspired nothing but yawns from me before I went. How wrong I was! The topic ended up being fascinating. It was essentially about how Millennials (those born between 1982 and 2000) will shape the workforce in the coming years. It also went into how they will mesh and clash with my Baby-Boom Generation, along with Generation X.
Although I found it fascinating as it applied to what I do for a living, I found the topic to be frightening as it applied to sports, motor racing and more specifically – the Verizon IndyCar Series. Based on what was discussed, sports in general do not hold the fascination of the upcoming generation that they did when I was in my youth.
When I was growing up, there was nothing that garnered bragging rights more than attending a major sporting event. Whether it was attending the Indianapolis 500 every year as a kid, a Tennessee Vols football game, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, the Liberty Bowl or even a pre-season NFL game played in Memphis in the early seventies – nothing elicited envy from my friends than attending a sporting event live and in person.
So many things were different back then. Televised sports as a medium was unrecognizable compared to now. There was no ESPN. There were no Superstations. There were a handful of bowl games and the NCAA tournament was an afterthought compared to what it is today. We got to watch one Major League Baseball game per week and one…maybe two college football games per week. To see your team on television was a big deal, so seeing it in person was sometimes considered the chance of a lifetime.
Obviously, that is no longer the case. Sports has approached, if not passed, the point of saturation. On any night or weekend, viewers can take their pick of a variety of sports offerings. The price of tickets has put attending many events completely out of reach. Throw in the fact that huge HDTV’s, DVR’s and surround sound systems make the at-home viewing experience better than ever. That is one of the theories as to why attendance is down across the board at all sporting events.
But getting back to the conference I attended, the lecturers that hailed from the Washington DC area went into great detail about what makes the Millennials tick along with what didn’t. For years, we parents scoffed as we watched our kids play soccer or T-ball as the officials did not keep score and when the event was over – everyone got a trophy, ribbon or some sort of recognition simply for participating. We all laughed at how they are going to have a rude awakening as adults.
Well guess what? It has come true to some extent, but it is also believed that their outlook on life will eventually become the norm in society. The Millennials that have entered adulthood have let it be known that they find competition repugnant. They have grown up thinking that there should be no winners and losers. We should all take part in the success of the team and we should share that success with everyone.
Sports and sporting events are looked upon as evil and archaic, because they celebrate winners and ridicule losers. The new generation likens an NFL game to ancient times and gladiators, where spectators cheered as competitors died. I am not writing this to pass judgment on this way of thinking, although if you know me – you know how I personally feel. Instead, I am exploring this outlook to bring attention to what sports properties will have to contend with in the not-so-distant future.
Another trait of Millennials is that they care about the planet and are very conscious of the environment. They look upon the lifestyle of the Baby Boomer as frivolous and wasteful as well as doing damage to the world in which we live. While my generation looked at cars with awe and amazement, while growing up – the upcoming generation sees the automobile as a necessary evil and one where we should try to minimize our usage. Millennials feel better about themselves by catching a bus or some other form of mass transit. My generation felt best when we were able to speed to our destination, while finding the closest possible parking space.
There are many other traits of the Millennials that have me totally baffled, but for our purposes – the loathing of competition and the hatred of the automobile are the two that does not spell a bright future for auto racing.
For years, we have all been beating our heads against the wall figuring out ways to cultivate new fans for the Verizon IndyCar Series. For some bizarre reason we thought that the movie Driven was going to increase ratings and attendance. In retrospect, it may have run fans off. More recently, Turbo was tabbed as the way to harness kids attention so that we could groom them to be the savior of IndyCar.
Gimmicks have been tried and abandoned. Tracks now play music over the loud-speakers while cars are on the track. Concerts before or after the race are more heavily promoted than the race itself. All of these things are done with the idea of cultivating future fans.
But after attending that conference that revealed a way of thinking that is so foreign to me it’s scary – I’m now wondering if all bets are off. Anything that was perceived as normal when I was in my twenties, or when my parents were in their twenties is now out the window. This conference was to let us know that all bets are off in the workplace going forward. Self-satisfaction through hard work is scoffed at and replaced by improving your self-esteem.
But the other foreign concepts of getting rid of a competitive atmosphere and vilifying the automobile is just as hard to swallow. To quote George C. Scott from the movie Patton when asked about wonder weapons of the future that didn’t require soldiers– “…My God, I don’t see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics? Nothing is glorified? Nothing is reaffirmed? No heroes? No cowards? No troops? No Generals? Only those that are left alive and those that are left…dead. I’m glad I won’t live to see it.” Not that I’m advocating war for entertainment, but striving to win and be better than your opponent is the fabric of our society. It is what makes all sports great.
It is also what makes motor racing great. Not to be morbid, but part of the allure of racing is that these drivers do what they do knowing that if they or their competitors make the slightest mistake, it could have fatal consequences. It’s seeing these drivers excel at what they do in spite of the consequences that so many of us find fascinating. But apparently, the new way of thinking is that all sports are an evil waste of time and auto racing is the most evil of them all because it also harms our planet in their eyes.
This conference was presented with no real agenda in mind other than to point out the differences of all three generations in the workplace and how to find any common ground in order to work together. They pointed out that Boomers and Millennials make up the greatest portion in the workplace while Gen-X brings up the rear. Obviously the Millennials aren’t going anywhere soon, but the boomers will still make up some of the workplace for the next fifteen to twenty years. The theme was for Boomers and Millennials to figure out how to get along.
But sports properties from IndyCar and NASCAR, all the way to the behemoth that is the NFL need to take note that the future holds a challenge that may be unbeatable. Unless there is a reversal in the thinking of today’s teens and twenty-somethings, sports of any kind may find it tough going inn the next couple of decades.
We worry everyday about the direction of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and for good reason. But we never think twice about the future of the NFL. But all things come to an end. Remember that in the thirties, the two biggest sports in the US were boxing and horse-racing. Today they are both considered obscure niche sports at best. Those of us that remember the glory days of the Indianapolis 500 in the ‘60s, find it hard to fathom that the general public no longer cares. Baseball has seen a rapid decline in the last few decades to where it hardly gets a look from anyone under the age of forty. Might the mighty suffer the same fate in the next twenty-five years? It’s hard to imagine, but who would’ve thought these other examples would be where they are today?
So what solution am I proposing? None, because there isn’t one. It is the natural ebb and flow of our society. Do I like the trend where things are going? Of course not, but I can’t do a thing about it. I can either be a curmudgeon and tell the world to get off my lawn or I can deal with it as best as possible. I’m not trying to be negative at all, but I’m concerned about what the future may hold.
At my current age of fifty-six, I’d like to think I have about thirty more years or so left in me. My question is – where will sports be at that time? I’m even more curious about the fate of the Indianapolis 500. Will it last another thirty years? Probably, but maybe not much more past then – not if the message from this conference is true. To quote General Patton – I’m glad I won’t live to see it.