The Nichification of Sports (and everything)
I grew up in the era of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Back in the late ’70s there were only three network channels, and any televised sport happened only on ABC, NBC or CBS. That was it — no streaming, YouTube or cable TV. As a result, you could only become a hardcore fan of the few sports that were televised: NFL football, Major League Baseball, NHL Hockey and the NBA. That really was it. You might get a college football game (and Keith Jackson’s unforgettable calls) on Saturdays, or Wimbledon in June or March Madness in the spring. And every four years you could watch the Olympics — because they were on network TV. If you loved different, off-the-beaten-path sports (ski racing, track, bowling) like I did, you’d pray that Wide World of Sports might give you a few minutes of that in their 90-minute Saturday afternoon broadcast. This was the one place you could get auto racing, rugby, soccer, gymnastics — all the exotic stuff. But once the show was over, that was it. You had no way of knowing if you’d ever see those athletes again.
As you know, the internet changed all of that. The fact that you can go so deep and get so much information on the most obscure sports is fantastic for fans, but difficult for sports. We’re now in the era where every sport not named the NFL or the NBA is a niche sport. No matter if it’s F1, cycling, running, college softball, you name it. They’re all niches with small or medium groups of devoted fan bases. This is a cultural phenomenon that goes beyond sports: look at music, food, art, technology or anything else with fans and community; they all work this way now.
I credit Chris Anderson and his prescient 2006 book The Long Tail for seeing this phenomenon on the horizon long before I did. As he wrote then: “Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.” This concept applies equally to sports entertainment and participation.
The result is that fans can go way down the rabbit hole of a sport they follow. I’m into cycling, so I watched the Tour de France on Peacock. But not the NBC feed — I tuned into the global feed with different announcers and no advertising. As a true fan, I’d have my Pro Cycling Stats Live dashboard open for up-to-the-minute data, and then follow Twitter for live fan commentary. Each evening I’d listen to The Cycling Podcast for in-depth analysis by the most experienced English language cycling journalists. I was able to take in a huge amount of information every day about the event.
Likewise, during the recently concluded World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, I could live stream just the events I wanted to watch. Then I’d consult FloTrack.org for results data and watch Citius Mag’s daily YouTube recap show for interviews and analysis.
I don’t believe we’re coming back from this. And neither should you. But I do see many sports pining for another era in which mainstream America cared about their niche. “Why can’t track and field break out onto the national radar?” was a refrain I heard often during the World Championships. I understand where that’s coming from, but in today’s media landscape that’s no longer a reality. Governing bodies (USATF in this case) are working overtime to grow their sport among those outside the bubble particularly in the lead up to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Seemingly every sports league is now pinning their hopes for growth on a “Drive to Survive-style show.” While that show has created American F1 fans that did not exist before, it’s foolish to expect lightning to strike twice.
However, it is worth celebrating the upside this diverse media landscape has created for sports leagues and events: there’s now opportunity to create deeper bonds with more passionate fans than ever before: podcasts, blogs, live streams, chat rooms, social media, athletes-as-creators…there’s so much that a fan can consume. Every governing body, event and league should be thinking about a better and closer relationship with fans who care and not about appealing to the non-believer. The consequence of embracing the community will result in new fans because the uninitiated will hear about how great it is inside the bubble. The sports leaders who understand this formula will win in the long run.