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The Attention Deficit Facing All 4 Major Pro Sports in the U.S. Today

Attention is everything today, and across the board, recent research shows that all major American professional sports leagues are facing a very real problem gaining traction in our busy, modern and very cluttered world. Here’s a look at how bad their attention problem is, and some suggestions on what leagues can do about it.

By David WyldPublished 2 years ago 12 min read
The Attention Deficit Facing All 4 Major Pro Sports in the U.S. Today
Photo by Megan Ellis on Unsplash


You wouldn’t know it when you are watching ESPN. You wouldn’t know it if you happened to be at your local Buffalo Wild Wings or favorite sports bar when a big game was going on. And you wouldn’t know it especially judging by the incessant ads for online wagering sites that fill both commercial breaks on TV and your social media feed with ads enticing you to to place your first bet “risk free” on a sporting event, promising that once you do, you will live like a Caesar!

The “big 4” American pro sports leagues - the NFL (National Football League), MLB (Major League Baseball), the NBA (National Basketball Association), and the NHL (National Hockey League) - would seem to be riding high right now. Despite the fact that all four major pro sports leagues have unique challenges in terms of their labor agreements and rules for play, along with franchise specific issues most commonly dealing with stadium/arena arrangements and PR “problems” with badly-behaving players and owners, “Big Sports” would seem to be on a roll today. Franchise values across the major sports leagues are at record levels across the board (into the billions of dollars). Broadcast rights fees are only growing for the leagues, as live sports seem to be the most reliable “tentpole events” to draw viewers to “linear TV” in the streaming age. In fact, last year (2021), according to Variety, 39 of the top 100 programs on TV were NFL games (with, of course, the Super Bowl being #1), with other live sports accounting for more than 20 additional entries on that prestigious - and valuable - list! And yes, other professional sports leagues, from the MLS (Major League Soccer) to the PLL (Premiere Lacrosse League), and even female, the WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association) and the NWSL (National Women's Soccer League), and foreign leagues, most notably the English Premier League, are today nipping at the heels of the established major leagues of American sports, seeking to expand just who the public perceives as being the pillars of pro sports in the United States - and gain even more money in the process!

And yet, recent research shows what would be a surprising and perhaps even strategically dangerous threat to the seeming freight train of growth that is American professional sports and the emerging sports gambling market. This is the fact that most Americans don’t care about the major pro sports today! We live in a world where, as Gary Vaynerchuk famously put it, attention is everything! And yet, there would seem to be a very real, very surprising, and yes, very threatening “attention deficit” among Americans in regards to the major pro sports in the U.S. today! In this article, we will analyze the numbers and explore just what the surprising lack of attention being paid by the majority of Americans today to professional sports might mean for the near and long-term prospects for both the major - and wanting to be major - American sports leagues and for the sports wagering platforms.

The Attention Deficit Among the Majority of Americans in Regards to Pro Sports Today

The data analyst firm, CivicScience, recently released a report regarding online sports betting. Entitled “Online Sports Betting’s Fortunes Closely Tied to the NFL Season,” their analysis focused on the fact that when it comes to those interested in wagering on sports online, interest in - and yes, gambling on - games and other outcomes is dominated today by pro football! As one who closely tracks, writes, and consults in the rapidly developing online sports betting industry, having written a much-cited article (“What the Surprisingly Youthful Demographics of Sports Betting Portends for the Future”) on not just the size, the growth, and yes, the youthful nature of this emerging market, I was not surprised by their principal finding. The CivicScience researchers conducted two large surveys of Americans, one in December 2021 and a subsequent one in May 2022. As you can see in Figure 1 (Percentage of Americans [Adults Age 21+] Who Are Betting on Sports Online) below, they found that the percentage of adults in the United States that were placing online wagers on sporting events fell by 5 points over that 6 month span. What was behind this decline? The CivicScience team said the answer was simple: The NFL season was in full swing in December 2021, while the league was in the middle of its offseason in May 2022. So, the difference could be attributed to Americans who did engage in online sports betting being less interested in placing wagers on the other 3 major U.S. sports than in doing so on professional football!

Figure 1: Percentage of Americans (Adults Age 21+) Who Are Betting on Sports Online

Source: CivicScience, “Online Sports Betting’s Fortunes Closely Tied to the NFL Season,” June 2022 (Used with permission)

The research went on to examine the interest levels that both online sports bettors and non-bettors had in the 4 major American pro sports leagues - the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL. It was here that I found some very interesting findings, ones that should be of great interest - and concern - to the leaders of not just all four of America’s major sports leagues, but to all the entities - the advertisers, the sponsors, the broadcasters, etc. - whose fortunes are tied inextricably to the success of these sports in capturing - and holding - attention today. The long and short of it is this: America’s major professional sports leagues have an attention problem! And if they don’t do a better job of gaining attention for their “products” (i.e. their games) in the various ways live sports content can be engaged with today, they will have significant issues in sustaining, let alone enhancing, revenues going forward. With ever-growing options for leisure time activities and specifically, for entertainment, professional sports across the board will have a tough time garnering attention in general, but especially outside of what is becoming their base audience: Those who are placing online wagers on their particular sport.

CivicScience’s research broke down interest levels in the four major American pro sports leagues between online sports bettors and those who did not place sports wagers online. In the case of pro football, as can be seen in Figure 2 (How Closely Do You Follow the NFL? [Among U.S. Adults Age 21+]), online sports bettors are more likely to follow the NFL very closely (24 vs 19%) or at least somewhat closely (55% vs 36%) than those Americans who do not wager on sports online. At the other end of the spectrum, only 21% of online sports bettors said that they did not follow the National Football League “at all.” By way of contrast, among those Americans who do not bet on sports online, almost half (49%) of those surveyed said that they follow the NFL “not at all.”

Figure 2: How Closely Do You Follow the NFL? (Among U.S. Adults Age 21+)

Source: CivicScience, “Online Sports Betting’s Fortunes Closely Tied to the NFL Season,” June 2022 (Used with permission)

Now speaking as a strategic management consultant and professor, who has had the opportunity to do a lot of work with companies in regards to their marketing strategies, if I were reviewing these numbers in the presence of the leaders of sports leagues and/or their teams, their advertisers, their partners on any number of ventures as is common today, etc., I would point to two things. First, I would empathize that I am not surprised at all at the fact that those who bet on sports online, in general, follow pro sports more closely, both in general and across the board, than their non-betting counterparts. This is true not just in the case of professional football, as it is even more so when talking about pro baseball (see Figure 3: How Closely Do You Follow Major League Baseball? [Among U.S. Adults Age 21+]), pro baseball (see Figure 4: How Closely Do You Follow the NBA? [Among U.S. Adults Age 21+]), and pro hockey (see Figure 5: How Closely Do You Follow the NHL? [Among U.S. Adults Age 21+]).

Figure 3: How Closely Do You Follow Major League Baseball? (Among U.S. Adults Age 21+)

Source: CivicScience, “Online Sports Betting’s Fortunes Closely Tied to the NFL Season,” June 2022 (Used with permission)

Figure 4: How Closely Do You Follow the NBA? (Among U.S. Adults Age 21+)

Source: CivicScience, “Online Sports Betting’s Fortunes Closely Tied to the NFL Season,” June 2022 (Used with permission)

Figure 5: How Closely Do You Follow the NHL? (Among U.S. Adults Age 21+)

Source: CivicScience, “Online Sports Betting’s Fortunes Closely Tied to the NFL Season,” June 2022 (Used with permission)

Secondly, and more importantly, the numbers that would be of significant concern to me are in regards to the relatively high levels of disinterest out there among Americans across all four major American professional sports leagues. Even with the NFL, as was seen in Figure 2, approximately half (49%) of those who were not betting on sports online reported following the NFL “not at all.” The news is even worse for the other major American pro sports leagues, as those not following the MLB (pro baseball) (62%), the NBA (pro basketball) (77%), and the NHL (pro hockey) (75%) make for a surprisingly high disinterest level among Americans across all professional sports. And remember, according to the percentages shown in Figure 1, 87% of adults in the U.S. are not wagering on sports online! So, this means that the vast majority of Americans are simply not paying attention to pro sports, and this “attention deficit” is a major, major problem for everyone associated with these leagues and their teams.

By Isaac Smith on Unsplash


In the end, I think these numbers should be very, very concerning to all of those involved in any way with major pro sports leagues and teams. It is an old adage in marketing and advertising that the worst position to be in is to not be cared about. Being cared about “not at all” is even worse than being disliked. And so as this new data from CivicScience shows, the major American professional sports leagues and the teams in them - despite all the media coverage on these sports and the marketing surrounding them - appear to be having trouble breaking through what is today a very “target rich” environment from which Americans can choose for their diversions. We have unlimited entertainment at our fingertips. We have all the knowledge in the world in the palm of our hands. And yes, between a pandemic, war, inflation, politics, social turmoil, etc., we have very real, very pressing concerns that today make sports seem almost trivial pursuits, rather than a rational diversion. It is unlikely that in 2022 that there are many people - no matter their demographics (age, gender, race, income, etc.) - who would not know about and even been exposed to the “products” of the four major professional sports leagues, (through having at least watched at least part of a game, say the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series, or just a “big game” for their local team[s]). And so while there is a significant part of the population who are just not part of the American “sports culture,” there is also a not insignificant portion of U.S. adults who have lost interest in pro sports (either one sport or all of them) due to whatever “turned them off” (be it rising player salaries, bad behaviors of sports stars, controversial political and social stances, etc.) of caring about the leagues and their teams.

By Project 290 on Unsplash

And so from a marketing perspective, anyone involved in the sports business today should be keenly aware of a significant challenge facing all of American major pro sports. This is the fact that the major leagues of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey are right now in a marketing “no man’s land,” one that no business, whether they are selling entertainment, cars, or milk, would want to be in! With much of the American population simply not caring about you, your teams, your players, your events, your sponsored products, etc., the status, the influence, the power, and yes, the revenues of all 4 of the major American sports leagues would seem to be threatened, if not in the short term as we experience this surge of interest with the rise of online sports betting, at least over the longer term. With a majority of U.S. adults not following (i.e. not caring about) professional sports, this is certainly the number one strategic threat facing all in charge of these sports leagues and their franchises.

By Daniel Lee on Unsplash

How then should those in the 4 major American pro sports leagues best respond to this issue? The most important thing is that everyone involved in and with the 4 major pro sports leagues and their franchises must recognize that they have an “attention deficit” among the American populace that they should, well, must work to overcome. While this can’t be done overnight, creative marketing and public relations efforts will only help. The bottom-line is that the leagues and their teams should work diligently to build more interest in their products. Only by trying to reach the majority of Americans who are not fans - let alone attentive audiences - for what they are selling (their teams, their games, their players, their sponsored products and services, etc.) will the major pro sports leagues and their constituent teams have overcome being in the “marketing hell” of having consumers not caring about what they are offering. It will be interesting to see how the major sports leagues work to overcome this attention deficit. Failing to address this head on would be management malpractice, pure and simple. However, if the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL can do so proactively and at least somewhat effectively, they can look to build an even larger base of fans (i.e. consumers) that will position their respective leagues and teams well for the future. Stay tuned - and not just on ESPN, but on the business pages and sites as well!


About David Wyld

David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.

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About the Creator

David Wyld

Professor, Consultant, Doer. Founder/Publisher of The IDEA Publishing (http://www.theideapublishing.com/) & Modern Business Press (http://www.modernbusinesspress.com)

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