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New Study Reveals Young Sports Fans Prefer Highlights Over Real Games

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Today, two No. 1 seeds in action in the NCAA playoffs and four NBA games. Tomorrow, the first two matches of college's Elite Eight and 11 more NBA games. Are you going to watch it all or just the highlights?

Well, a new study says the way people watch sports and support their teams is shifting. About half of young NFL, NBA and MLB fans polled prefer watching highlights over a full game as opposed to the older folks, who still like to tune in for the whole thing. And that could mean big trouble for broadcasters. Gavin Bridge, author of the study and a senior media analyst for Variety magazine, joins us now. Hey, Gavin.

GAVIN BRIDGE: Hey, nice to meet you.

MCCAMMON: So your study indicate that younger sports fans say that watching games is one of their favorite things to do, and yet they're opting for just the highlights. Why is that?

BRIDGE: Consumers, especially young consumers, are used to things being on their own terms. And they're also used to having a lot more options out there. Then you have social media and the impact that that's arguably had on people's attention spans. I think we will find, even if you're watching a sport that you like - sometimes, you just find your eyes drifting to the phone. And you're scrolling aimlessly before you realize you should be watching the game again.

MCCAMMON: But why the generational difference in these responses?

BRIDGE: I think that the older generations - they're much more comfortable doing what they're used to doing, consuming how they've always consumed. They're less likely to be picking up streaming services. Whereas younger folks also don't have as much money sometimes, so that - you know, they don't have cable because cable is a much more expensive package than, say, just having Netflix and one or two others. And it's just - it completely changes the interaction with technology.

MCCAMMON: So this is sort of like the TikTok-ification, in a way, of sports, though, wanting smaller bits, shorter segments, highlights.

BRIDGE: Yeah, I think it's - that's a perfect way to put it.

MCCAMMON: So this month, the NFL signed a number of media rights deals with broadcasters like Amazon, NBC, CBS and others. Collectively, these deals are worth $113 billion over the next 11 years. That's more than a decade away. Given your findings, do you think it's a mistake for these broadcasters to sign these kinds of deals?

BRIDGE: Come 2033, with declining viewership models still happening, they're just - I just can't see a world where the broadcast networks collectively can have the same number of packages that they have now. I think we could see, perhaps, a shared package, a game of the week that shifts networks or is multicast across them. So this is the last opportunity that they have to really milk that cow before the cow leaves for another farm. So it does mean in the long term that we will see a very different landscape for the NFL on television.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. What does this all mean for the leagues in general?

BRIDGE: That's a great question. I think the leagues themselves don't care where they end up. The question is, what services are going to be as uniquely carried in so many homes that, say, broadcast and cable have been? The leagues are always going to push for more money. And it really feels like they don't always care for the fan. They just think the fans will follow wherever they go. So you have this splintering of - right, so even - like, I'm a soccer fan. And five, 10 years ago, you could watch all the soccer tournaments on cable. Now you have a couple. But most of them are shared between cable and streaming services. And you've got to keep paying extra money. All the while, your cable bill isn't going down.

MCCAMMON: And how does the splintering we're talking about factor into all of that?

BRIDGE: It sort of weakens the value of full game rights and increases the value of highlights rights.

MCCAMMON: So the big sports headline right now is March Madness. It's single elimination. So it's all about, you know, the excitement, the upsets. Is this tournament or the NCAA generally seeing the same shift in viewership?

BRIDGE: So I actually did some analysis this week. And I analyzed data for 40 games that were across the same time slot on the same network and - in the same game day. And out of those 40, 24 games actually had a higher audience in 2021 than in 2019. So they're completely bucking the trend that we've seen really across sports since the pandemic came back, that viewership is dipping. And I think this is the nature of a single elimination tournament. You know, it's really - you can't miss. If you don't watch this, like, fixture, then that team might not be in it anymore.

MCCAMMON: That's Gavin Bridge, senior media analyst for Variety magazine's Variety Intelligence Platform. Thanks so much.

BRIDGE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.