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Gen Z Punts On the NFL

By Published on .

Illustration by Pete Ryan

For reasons that are not immediately apparent, the kid a few seats down the row from us is trying to drink a can of Four Loko through one of the eyeholes of the pillowcase he's wearing over his head, and it's going about as well as you might expect. After lavishly splashing his homemade balaclava with the high-octane sugarbooze, our neighbor in Brooklyn's Barclays Center is trying to scoot the fabric around so that his mouth is at least marginally closer to one of the two apertures. As the contraband beverage finds its target, the girl next to him takes a mid-swig selfie of the two of them with her iPhone and, in the owl-inflected argot of her generation, lets out a little "woot!" before returning her gaze back to the palmed screen.

It's the second NFL Sunday of the 2017 season, and as much as I'm sort of mentally scrolling through a list of other places I'd rather be right now, I've committed to sticking out this live eSports thing. Joining your perplexed, increasingly cranky correspondent at the ESL One New York playoff event in Brooklyn are a couple of bemused Gen Z types who are at that age (18 and 19 years old) when the default reaction to any anomalous situation is to pretty much just bombard it with undiluted ridicule.

What's happening is, I've plunked down $87 for three tickets to witness what has been billed as a battle between "the world's greatest CS: GO teams." That stands for "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive," a first-person multiplayer shoot-'em-up that also happens to be the best-selling PC video game in history. So basically, we've punted on the ritual of watching what amounts to around 12 hours of NFL games and various shoulder programming in order to sit here inside Brooklyn's rusty monument to sports mediocrity with around 8,000 other people who seem waaayyy more enthusiastic about their surroundings than are we.

For the record, the 19-year-old is my nephew Joe and the other kid is this endearingly goofy high school senior to whom even his own mother refers to exclusively as "Meat." Their reward for agreeing to participate in this experiment—neither of them are at all interested in gaming, and to say they're a bit taken aback by the entire eSports concept is a dramatic understatement—is a trip to East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Monday night, where we'll take in the Giants' first home game of the season.

But first, to get through whatever this all is. As the Barclays Center sound system begins pounding out a cochlea-rattling noise offensive and the competitors are introduced, the masked Four Loko bandit is back to his old eyehole tricks. Meat turns to me and grumbles, "This is going to suck in ways that aren't even hilarious, isn't it?" On the big screen, the bellicose avatar of someone with a bunch of diacritical marks in his name takes out a terrorist with a head shot, a moment Joe misses entirely, as he's already hunting around on his phone for a pirated stream of the Eagles-Chiefs game.

****

Individuals are not demographics, so it perhaps would be unwise to draw any conclusions about the disruptive impact eSports is poised to have on the greater sports-media market based on the huffy impressions of an aging crank and two dopey teenagers. Other than a few frowning-grampa-type ushers who seem unmoved by all the 64-bit theatrics, pretty much everyone else at ESL One spent the afternoon in a state of blinkered rapture.

Setting aside all the tedious questions about whether or not eSports qualifies as "real sports," the whiplash proliferation of the newish market segment and the equally rapid shift in the media-consumption habits of younger Americans should be giving legacy leagues like the NFL a serious case of the willies. As Gen Z and millennial viewers continue to retreat from the archaically inflexible linear TV model, they're not only making a dent in the Nielsen ratings, but are also setting into motion the existential dilemma any brand faces when the next generation of enthusiasts all but fails to show up. (Not for nothing did R.J. Reynolds pander to the kiddies with Joe Camel.)

In that respect, the TV usage numbers are startling. According to a recent Nielsen report, Gen Z now stands as the biggest pool of would-be TV viewers, accounting for 26 percent of all people in U.S. TV homes, and yet with an average viewership of 2 hours and 18 minutes of live and time-shifted viewing per day, the same group only accounts for 14 percent of all TV usage. By comparison, their boomer grandparents, who represent 24 percent of the TV universe, can be credited with 40 percent of all TV usage.

While audience measurement hasn't kept up with America's lightspeed jump to digital media platforms—and until it does, advertisers at best will have only a cursory sense of how their brand messages are being received—the available data suggests that non-TV deliveries aren't enough to offset younger viewers' ever-dwindling interest in traditional TV. For example, Amazon's streams of 11 "Thursday Night Football" broadcasts this season averaged a per-minute audience of 310,000 viewers, which works out to just 2 percent of the average TV audience of 14.1 million viewers. That ratio is on par with what Twitter scared up last season with its "Thursday Night Football" simulcasts.

Determining causality about the behaviors and preferences of an entire generation (especially one that's as fuzzily defined as Gen Z) is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall, but it's probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that traditional sports' waning popularity among younger fans is partly a dual function of the exodus from TV and the rise of eSports. When looking at only the middle subset of Gen Z that has ready access to disposable income, eSports is posterizing traditional sports leagues. A year ago, 16.1 percent of consumers age 13 to 17 had either viewed an eSports event in person or tuned in via cable or a streaming service like Twitch, while 4.7 percent of that segment in the same period either viewed or attended an NFL game. Even the youth magnet that is the NBA couldn't keep up with the gamers, with 5 percent of the 13-to-17 set having viewed or sat in on a pro hoops game, down from 9.8 percent in 2011.

The defection of many younger viewers has begun to become apparent in the median age of the sports TV audience. Per Magna Global, the median age of NFL viewers in 2016 was 50 years, which marked a 14 percent increase compared with 44 years in 2006. With a median age of 42 years, the relatively dewy NBA fan base has been the model of stability, aging just 5 percent in the past decade. (For what it's worth, the median age of the Big Four broadcast networks jumped 19 percent within the same time frame, from 47 years to 56.)

If media buyers aren't too concerned about Gen Z's ambivalence for televised sports (after all, very few of them have aged into the big advertiser-coveted demos), they also note that ratings for NFL and other top-tier leagues continue to all but make a mockery of the general-entertainment shows in prime time. "I can't get too worked up about whether or not a 14-year-old is watching football, because I'm not buying that audience," said one veteran buyer. "That's going to be someone else's problem, I'm afraid. But I will say that when you look at how the non-sports consumption is increasingly moving away from the commercial format, the last thing in the world that's keeping me up at night is how live sports are doing."

For all that, the NFL is demonstrably losing younger viewers at a faster clip than the rest of the populace. This season, the average delivery of adults 18 to 34 across all nationally broadcast NFL games was 2.7 million, down 14 percent versus 3.1 million in 2016 and off 25 percent compared with 3.5 million in 2015. The rate of change for total viewers in both seasons: minus 9 percent and minus 17 percent.

***

One of the pet theories among NFL truthers is that the decline in participation in youth football is contributing to the sport's contracting TV audience. According to a tracking study conducted by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, registration in Pop Warner tackle football programs (boys age 6 to 12) has dropped 18 percent since 2009. Anecdotally, much of this erosion may be chalked up to parents' concerns about the risk of their child developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that has plagued many veteran NFL pros, although it's worth noting that the drop-off at the high school level is nowhere near as steep. Last season, nearly 26,000 high school students hung up their cleats, and while that works out to a loss of around 578 full rosters, it only marks a 2 percent year-over-year decline.

Short of a comprehensive sentiment survey, it's all but impossible to determine exactly how much the specter of CTE has contributed to the decline in peewee football, and why those concerns would appear to mitigate somewhat once the child reaches the high school level. Harder still to establish correlation between waning ratings and a downturn in participation.

***

Days later, as we're filing into MetLife Stadium Monday night for the Lions-Giants game, I ask the twice-concussed Meat (Oklahoma drill, bike mishap) what it's like to have your brain crash against the vault of your skull.

"After the first one, I couldn't run in a straight line for a month," he shrugs, adding that while he didn't play again that season ("there were only two games left anyway"), he probably would've tried to climb into the pads if he hadn't been put on bed rest. In compliance with his mother's wishes ("she said she'd cut both my legs off before she'd let me play again"), Meat quit the team before his senior year.

Irony being what it is, the Giants perform like their moms asked them to stop playing football, setting the tone for the rest of what will turn out to be a miserable 3-13 season. With the home team down 24-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, and Eli Manning beginning to display all the flustered irritability of a startled goose, Joe starts goofing around on his phone. 

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