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Cornhole & Other Non-Traditional Sports Get Off The Bench & Reach New Audiences

June 11, 2020 Melissa Ledesma

After nearly three months without America’s dominant national sports games, some fans might (temporarily) bench the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB to embrace a new variety of unique professional sports. Mainstream sports have sat on the sidelines as cornhole, spike ball, disc golf and stone-skipping drew in audiences during televised socially distant and crowd-less matches. 

Traditional Sports Viewership & Participation Is Declining

Major sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB and NBA have been struggling over the past decade to retain their audiences’ attention. 52% of adults in the U.S. now watch sports only once a month or less. Likewise, a recent university study reported participation in football, basketball, baseball and soccer among 7-17 year olds has steadily declined for the past 15 years. In addition to falling viewership and participation, the technology boom may also be contributing to the decline of traditional sports. While the expansion of streaming services and the growth of social media have allowed fans to watch their favorite teams from anywhere and any device on-demand, technology has also relieved fans from the pressure of having to watch sports games live.

Non-Traditional Sports Rank High Among Younger Consumers

Sports fans are an aging demographic across nearly every major U.S. traditional sports leagues. For the 2017-2018 sports season, the average age of TV audiences was above 40 for each major U.S. sport: 

  • NFL: 50 years old
  • MLB: 57 years old
  • NHL: 49 years old
  • NBA: 42 years old

The experience of watching, participating and engaging with sports entertainment has evolved.  Millennials and Gen Zers are not embracing mainstream sports the same way as prior generations, and younger consumers are not limited to developing sports interest and enthusiasm based on sports offered in school or local programs. Gen Zers and Millennials also want to participate in sports that align with their values of inclusivity and community instead of athletic prowess and competition. According to a recent study by Whistle Sports, 57% of Gen Zers said they feel, “non-traditional sports are more relevant to their generation than traditional sports,” and 52% of Gen Z males said they prefer non-traditional sports overall. The study also revealed that Gen Z prioritized activities they could recreate with their friends and noted traditional sports do not promote the same feeling of participation and inclusion. In 2020, YPulse sports research showed 70% of males ages 13-37 surveyed on their sports viewing habits said they do not need to watch traditional sports to feel up to date or relevant. 

Non-Traditional Sports Have Young And Growing Audiences: 

Disc Golf’s Casual Culture Attracts Consumers:

Since its inception in 2009, disc golf has experienced a meteoric rise in participation. Although disc golf has rules similar to golf, it’s informal and relaxed structure attracts many players without intimidation. According to the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA), in 2019, there were 53,000 active players across the country, with 66% of disc golf players aged 39 and younger. The PDGA has an active social media presence, too, with 105,000 Facebook followers, 31,000 Twitter followers and 77,000 Instagram followers.

Spike Ball Creates An Inclusive Community

Launched in 2008, Spikeball now touts 4 million players globally. In 2015, Spikeball was featured as a product on ABC’s Shark Tank, and the sport has since grown into a community of players and fans. The Spikeball game is recommended for anyone 10 years and older, and most avid players are under 30. According to the brand’s website, Spikeball’s mission is, “to bring people together through competition and fun.” Spikeball’s ten core values promote community, connectedness, inclusion, individuality, creativity and fun. 

Pickleball Goes After Multi-Generational Appeal

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton and can be played indoors or outdoors. According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), there were 3.3 million pickleball players in the U.S. in 2019. And although pickleball is regularly promoted to the silver-haired crowd, 44% of the core and casual pickleball players aged 34 or younger. The USAPA attributes the growth of pickleball to the sports, “friendly, social nature, and its multi-generational appeal.”

Cornhole Grows Footprint With ESPN Partnership

Shutterstock_717048250 red and blue bags on homemade wood cornhole board

Cornhole, once a beloved backyard game and tailgate activity, has grown into a professional sport with pro-players and live coverage. The American Cornhole League (ACL) signed its first contract with ESPN in 2016 and aired its debut professional cornhole match live on ESPN2 in July 2017. Since then, the ACL has extended its contract with ESPN, expanding its content to include nine events and 30 hours of original programming featuring matches between amateur, collegiate and professionally ranked players across ESPN’s platforms. ACL Commissioner and Founder Stacey Moore said, “Our collaboration with ESPN has not only helped to further legitimize the sport of cornhole, it’s given us exposure to a wide audience of sports fans to appreciate the game.” 

ALC relies on digital channels to maintain its growth trajectory, with 94,000 fans on Facebook and 33,000 followers on Instagram. ACL’s Facebook page features videos on trick shots, professional matches, player interviews and cornhole culture. In March, ACL partnered with large sponsors for their #TrickShotsForGood UGC social challenge. For every trick cornhole shot posted tagging Johnsonville, the national sausage brand donated $1 to the Robin Roberts Cancer Thrivership Fund. Furthering it’s digital footprint, in August 2019, ACL relaunched it’s video platform as the ACL Digital Network on iplayacl.com. The ACL Digital Network is a netflix-like experience for cornhole content viewing where users can access live and on-demand content from a variety of platforms and gain access to premium subscription content. 

The Early Return Of ESPN: The Ocho & Shifting Consumer Demand

Since 2017, every August 8, ESPN pays tribute to the cult classic comedy movie Dodgeball with a 24-hour broadcast of “The Ocho,” airing lower-tier, quirky and often non-televised sporting matches. “The Ocho” provides a spotlight on non-traditional sports such as professional arm wrestling, disc golf championships, spike ball tournaments and cornhole matches. With COVID-19 quarantine creating content desperation among broadcast producers, ESPN decided to bring “The Ocho” back on March 22 via ESPN2 in an effort to satisfy its audience's growing need for new sports content amidst the coronavirus and absence of the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA and other traditional pro-sports. The early launch of “The Ocho” could also signal ESPN’s latest audience targeting strategy. In the programming announcement for the 4th annual “The Ocho” day, ESPN said, “There is never a bad time to celebrate creativity and athletes at the top of their sport, no matter how weird or obscure it [the sport] might be. We at ESPN 8: The Ocho salute those who are blazing new trails with marbles and reaching new heights by stacking cups.” 

Brands Teaming Up With Non-Traditional Sports Gain Authentic Access To Younger Audiences

As viewership demographics and fan bases change, brands who team up with non-traditional sports can reach new audiences. Interest in newer sports like cornhole, disc golf, pickle ball and spike ball are growing by the thousands. Similarly, eSports has been growing rapidly, currently captivating a global audience of 443 billion and generating more than $1 billion in revenue. Because both non-traditional sports and eSports rely heavily on digital platforms for promotion, the sports associations and brands that partner with them can gain in-depth insights on their fans and viewers. Brands that capitalize on the opportunity to strategically partner with non-traditional sports and eSports can connect with younger audiences in new ways. 

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About the Author

Melissa Ledesma

An innovative problem solver by nature, Melissa Ledesma is both experienced and passionate about the digital marketing industry. She has held a number of high-level positions within the real estate, mortgage, entertainment and digital advertising industries, including Director of PR and Business Development at NJ Lenders Corp. and Director of Communications & Government Affairs at Eastern Bergen County Board of Realtors. As Director of Content & Communications at Digital Media Solutions (DMS), Melissa demonstrates a strategic, creative and tactical approach when handling the thought leadership programs and marketing and communications efforts for DMS and its family of brands. She manages all conferences, sponsorships and event execution and plays a pivotal role in the creation of written, digital and video content for all campaigns. Melissa has consistently positioned the team at DMS as experts in performance marketing across multiple industries.

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