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U.S. Sports Leagues Struggle to Win Fans in Europe, Trail European Soccer Leagues’ Success in U.S.

Silver lining shows European fans of NFL, NBA, & MLB younger than U.S. fan base

Boston, MA – The major U.S. professional sports leagues have targeted Europe as a growth objective but a new survey by global strategy consulting firm Altman Solon shows they have struggled to attract mindshare of sports fans across the pond – and are falling short of European soccer leagues’ success with U.S. fans.

Altman Solon’s Global Sports & News Survey 2020, which gauged viewing and fandom among sports fans in 10 countries across North America, Europe, and Latin America, shows that the NFL, MLB, and NBA—despite stated expansion ambitions and games played in European stadiums—fail to crack the top 25 favorite sports leagues/tournaments in any European market surveyed. Meanwhile, the survey revealed surprisingly strong interest among U.S. fans in Europe’s top soccer leagues: Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, and the English Premier League (EPL). All three leagues are popular among about 20% of U.S. sports fans, a similar percentage of fans in the U.S. who say Major League Soccer (23%) and the US Women’s National Team (23%) are a “favorite” or “somewhat interested” (collectively, “interest level”).

NFL – The top-ranked league in the U.S., which garners the interest of 65% of U.S. sports fans (up from 62% in 2019 survey), was identified by only 10% of UK sports fans as an interest, trailing several rugby leagues and two darts leagues. The NFL was slightly more popular in Germany, with 15% fan interest, but was only the 28th most popular league/tournament overall. The NFL has been very active in Europe, including creating a development pipeline for European players and scheduling several games in London annually, which were canceled this year due to COVID-19. London has also been discussed as a site for a relocated or expansion franchise.

NBA – The NBA boasts young European stars like Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic but is struggling for a foothold with fans in Europe, with only 9% fan interest in the UK and 12% in Germany. The NBA fares slightly higher among Italian and French fans, at 18% and 16% interest levels, but ranks only 25th and 31st among leagues/tournaments tested in those countries.

MLB – While the MLB has focused more on Asia and Latin America with its international outreach, it has reportedly considered locating franchises in Europe. MLB is the second most popular league in the U.S. (with 57% fan interest), but baseball is mostly a sports afterthought in Europe, never reaching 10% fan interest in any country tested.

However, the Big Three U.S. leagues have struck contracts with European TV broadcast partners, including the NFL’s recent deal with Sky Sports, and European fans of U.S. leagues are younger than their U.S. counterparts, which could indicate future growth.  Among 18-24-year-olds, the NFL’s interest level is 21% in the UK and 22% in Germany, double that of older fans. Similarly, baseball sees stronger interest from younger fans, vaulting from 7% overall to 26% (18-24) in the UK. In contrast, the NFL and MLB’s U.S. fan demographics skew older.

“The Big Three U.S. leagues are facing more competition at home, especially for younger viewers, making Europe a logical place for growth,” said Altman Solon Director Matt Del Percio. “While the leagues have more work to do in Europe, they have solid growth potential with new media deals and a younger fan base.”

The European Invasion

Efforts by European soccer leagues to grow in the U.S. seem to be paying off, especially among younger fans.  In addition to having about 20% interest levels among all U.S. sports fans, the interest levels among 18-24-year-olds for the three premier European soccer leagues are on par with MLS and the US Women’s National Team: Bundesliga (31%), EPL (28%), La Liga (25%), MLS (28%), and USWNT (30%). The popularity of the European soccer leagues is still much higher at home. For example, Bundesliga attracts 88% of fan interest in Germany while the EPL manages 72% of interest in the UK.

“Major European sports markets are dominated by national soccer leagues compared to the multi-sport model in the U.S.,” said Altman Solon Partner Christian Esser. “But even in Europe, there are differences, with the U.K. and France showing more traction with non-soccer options like rugby or darts than Italy or Germany. What they share is the success in ‘exporting’ their leagues: Bundesliga, EPL, and La Liga have been successful in showcasing the world’s best teams and players in the U.S.”

Altman Solon conducted the Global Sports & News Survey 2020 in August-September with more than 14,000 respondents across 10 countries. Altman Solon tapped into its expertise across Europe and the Americas following this summer’s merger of the U.S.-based Altman Vilandrie & Company and Europe-based Solon Consulting to form the world’s largest Telecommunications, Media, and Technology consulting firm. More findings from the survey will be released in the coming weeks.

Other key U.S.-focused findings of Altman Solon’s report include (find more data and supporting graphics here):

  • Sports fans still critical to pay TV: 86% of regular sports viewers continue to subscribe to pay TV, compared with 47% of non-viewers. These numbers nearly match last year’s results.
  • Sports fans are avid media consumers: 51% of regular sports viewers use social media daily, 31% play video games daily, and 33% own a VR headset, compared to social media (35%), video games (19%), and VR (20%) for sports non-viewers. Among teens (13-17) that are regular sports viewers, 83% use social media daily and 54% play video games daily.
  • Interest in sports remains strong: Fans, on average, say they have 4-5 favorite sports leagues/tournaments and are interested in 5-6 additional leagues/tournaments. With live sports returning, 59% of U.S. sports fans are as interested in watching live sports as they were pre-pandemic, with nearly one-quarter (23%) more interested than before.
  • Stars attract TV viewers: The top athletes that fans want to watch are NFL quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers), Steph Curry, and gymnast Simone Biles.
  • Sports fans support athlete activism: 42% of respondents agree that “pro athletes should use their platform to raise awareness about social and racial issues,” while just 24% disagree.
  • COVID-19 has changed sports-viewing habits:
    • 49% say they will wait 6-12 months after sports resume before attending in-person, 21% want to wait until a vaccine is developed.
    • Only 23% of teens and 30% of adults say returning to live sporting events is a top priority compared with other activities (e.g., going to restaurants/bars, shopping, visiting family and friends).
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