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  • Is It Really Surprising Digital Won't Woo Millennials to Football?
  • Sometimes surprises may not be as surprising as they seem.

    "What Do College Football Fans Today Want?" is the title of a Wall Street Journal article July 16, 2015 by Ben Cohen. In answer to this question, the article reports about a new survey of almost 24,000 students around the country conducted by the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators and Oregon's sports marketing center.

    According to the survey, the most important factor influencing students' decisions to attend football games is their interest in the sport. Surprisingly, the least important factor is cell phone reception and wireless capability.

    As the article points out, the surprisingly low ranking for digital might seem to suggest that this survey was an outlier, not typical of how college students would respond. But, as the article explains, that is not the case since other surveys of college students' sports attendance had similar findings, with ticket prices, better seat locations, parking, concessions and rest rooms more important than digital.

    And, beyond what's in this Wall Street Journal football survey article, further supporting evidence comes from another survey reported in a white paper by Publishing Perspectives, an online trade journal for the publishing industry (April 2015). According to that survey, millennials prefer printed books, not digital. The latter survey confirms the football survey's findings that digital does not always come out on top.

    Nonetheless, these findings might seem inconsistent with the common perception that millennials are very digitally oriented. The findings might also go against marketers' perceptions that mobile technology can pave the way to greater success in marketing to younger consumers.

    But, after an initial dose of surprise, the survey's findings might not be quite as startling as they appear on the surface. That's why it is important to think through what the data really means. And, in doing so, some good points emerge about interpreting survey data.

    First, it's not really surprising that the number one factor influencing whether millennials go to football games is their interest in the sport. In general, what people are interested in influences what they do. That applies widely, not just to millennials and football.

    Second, regarding millennials and digital connectivity, the survey merely reveals that good cell phone reception and wireless capability are not enough to get young people to attend the games. But, upon thinking about this, is it really surprising that someone with no interest in football still won't attend games if digital access improves? Millennials are said to be the always connected generation. Why would giving them better access to digital connectivity in stadiums motivate them to do something they're not interested in? They already have good connectivity in other places. Why go where they have no interest in going in order to get what they already have?

    Moreover, digital connectivity ranking dead last might give the surprising first impression that the survey says millennials are not all that interested in cell phone reception and wireless capability. But, it's important to remember that this survey actually says nothing about how connected millennials are or want to be. It merely tells us that being digitally connected at the stadium won't get millennials to attend the game if they are not interested in football. And, that's not so surprising.

    Surveys also find that lack of digital connectivity is less important than ticket pricing, better seat locations, parking, concessions and rest rooms. The importance of these other more urgent factors doesn't necessarily mean young people don't want to be connected. It only means that connectivity is less urgent to football game attendance. Furthermore, despite the initial impression given by the surveys, the findings do not necessarily contradict the image of millennials as highly connected. This generation can indeed value and make frequent use of connectivity, even though they still decide not to attend games after digital access is improved at the stadium. They can value digital connectivity in many situations, even if they don't insist on it everywhere.

    What's more, while the survey ranked digital access as unimportant for deciding to attend football games, plenty of other information out there indicates that digital connectivity does play a major role in millennials' lives. So, despite those seemingly surprising findings, it may still be worthwhile for marketers of college football to look for ways to use digital to appeal to millennials.

    But, it could be that applying digital to football marketing might turn out like many situations in technology, where potential users do not yet know what they want because they still don't grasp what's possible. If that's the case for football, someone will have to determine what role digital can play that might ultimately appeal to millennials. And, like in other industries, incorporating digital technology into strategy--whether corporate strategy or strategies for marketing football games to millennials--must be done in ways that fit the business well. Finally, and of course consistent with the survey findings, there is more to marketing football games to millennials that goes well beyond the issue of digital connectivity.

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