By Barry Janoff
September 10, 2015: A Harris Poll from Harris Interactive earlier this year indicated that pro football was the No. 1 sport in the U.S., with 32% of those surveyed selecting the NFL as their favorite versus 16% for MLB, which was a distant second.
A new survey from Mintel, seemingly not swayed by current NFL-related incidents regarding health, domestic violence, child abuse and "deflate-gate," shows an even more profound support for the NFL, with MLB falling to third behind college football.
However, the report, conducted in May, presents a case that leagues and teams must work harder to capture the next generation of fans and also to improve their in-stadium and in-arena experiences.
According to the Chicago-based research and consulting firm, 50% of adults in the U.S. who consider themselves to be sports fans say that pro football is their favorite, with the demographic split 62%-38% men-women.
Meanwhile, college football came in as the second-favorite sport with 35%, followed by professional baseball (32%) and professional basketball (30%).
In the Harris Poll, CFB was third (10%), auto racing fourth (7%) and the NBA fifth (6%).
The NFL also may be benefitting from early activations for its historic Super Bowl 50, being played this February.
"Our research shows that sports like college and professional football have strong fan bases among male and female sports fans and are as much of an American pastime as baseball," Lauren Bonetto, lifestyles and leisure analyst for Mintel, said in a statement.
In demographics surrounding other sports, the Mintel study indicates that 45% of men surveyed follow college football vs. 26% women. Men (43%) are twice as likely as women (22%) to be fans of professional baseball and professional basketball (40% men vs 21% women).
The Mintel numbers support those from IMG College, which show that college sports have 190 million fans, 89 million of whom are women. Sales of licensed college merchandise is a $4.6 billion industry, also according to IMG College.
Regarding the multibillion-dollar category of fantasy, the Mintel survey shows that male sports fans are more likely to play fantasy sports (23%) than women (13%), with men (45%) showing greater interest in game and player statistics than women (31%).
According to Bonetto, "The popularity of fantasy sports illustrates the level of dedication Americans have to sports overall and could lead to increased engagement as those in fantasy leagues may watch additional games to gain a competitive edge."
As for the next generation of fans, the Mintel study shows that sports leagues in the U.S. must step up efforts to get their attention.
In 2014, 32% kids age 6-11 watched sports on TV at least occasionally. That number is down from 39% in 2013, and is a sharp decline from 2008, when 45% children ages 6-11 reported watching sports, according to Mintel.
Leagues and teams must also raise their in-stadium and in-arena experiences to a higher level. Some 69% of fans prefer to watch games from the comfort of their own home rather than in person, per Mintel.
The Mintel study did have good news for beverage and food marketing partners of the NFL, CFB, MLB, NBA and others.
Among sports fans ages 21 and older, 63% report consuming alcoholic beverages while watching sports, with 50% of these fans drinking beer. In comparison, 54% of fans said they drink soda and 64% drink water while watching sports.
On the food side, 83% of fans snack while watching sports, with salty snacks No. 1 at 68%.
Chili comes in as the No. 1 non-snack, with 29% of those surveyed saying that's what they eat during games.
Sports is a great place for social interaction, be it in person or online.
According to Mintel, 46% — including 59% of Millennials — say that following sports is "more about being social than anything else."
Leagues and teams must raise their in-stadium and in-arena experiences. Some 69% of fans prefer to watch games at home rather than in person.
Among all sports fans, 74% agree that "following sports is a good way to bond with family and friends." That increases to 78% among Millennials.
In addition, 67% of Millennials agree that "following sports makes them feel more connected to their community," vs. 52% of sports fans overall who made that indication.
Millennial sports fans are the most likely generation to watch sports with others, including 45% who report watching with friends, compared to 34% of fans overall.
"Millennials tend to agree that following sports is about being social," said Bonetto. "Our data indicates Millennials prefer to watch sporting events as part of a larger group and gravitate towards social media in order to stay connected and engaged both online and offline."
Overall, though, sports fans are not going anywhere far from their TVs, computers or sports venues.
"Following sports is a widely popular tradition in the U.S. due to a rich history at both the collegiate and professional levels, as well as the notion that athletics embody the American ideals of hard work, perseverance and striving for greatness," said Bonetto.
Harris Poll: NFL Takes A Hit But Still Tackles MLB Among Fans
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