League sports for adults – long the bastion of tennis and golf – are an idea whose time has come again. According to a recent report from Sports Marketing Surveys USA quoted in an article published by Athletic Business, adult recreational sports leagues are growing, particularly among Millennials. And that can spell profits for event directors who market to this demographic.
But why this group, and why now? Work choices, for one. More than a year ago, Forbes reported that Millennials are naming working from home among their top choices for employment and in many cases, it’s a non-negotiable issue for them.
As a result, Millennials (whose numbers in the workforce are growing, and who are now on the cusp of being a major spending group in the sports industry) like to combine their socialization with their fitness; for this group, talking between and after tennis, pickleball or racquetball matches or catching up in the clubhouse after a round of golf satisfies that need.
In addition, the report noted, the timing is good. Millennials often want to continue the sports they enjoyed in high school and college and they’re less interested in joining a gym than others. In fact, they are twice as likely as their Generation X counterparts to participate in team sports as adults.
As a result, organizations governing post-college sports Millenials can identify with, such as adult league and club softball, soccer and swimming programs, provide opportunities to keep up with the varsity sports on whatever level is appropriate. And a multitude of sports is available. The Adult Safe Hockey League provides a tiered skill level, from A (pro or semi-pro) all the way down to E (no experience with an organized league, having just started playing hockey as an adult). It also offers divisional play-offs that provide a pathway to national championships. US Quidditch has both collegiate and adult community teams.
Post-collegiate sports teams and activities, says Matt Weinberger of NextGenGolf, are critical to keeping individuals in the sport after college. NextGen manages its City Tour, which has local tournaments in major cities for golfers in their twenties and thirties.
“We see that as bridging the gap after college,” he notes.
The problem, as many sports organizers see it, is that individuals come out of college, having had a regular regimen that often included varsity sports (or in many cases, club sports), but once caught up in the working world and later on, in family life, find themselves unable to participate.
Laura Hamel notes that US Masters Swimming has programs for ages 18 and up but tends to get its biggest membership growth spurt from the several years post-college crowd.
“We do have younger members, those who are just out of high school or college, who are just starting to work or raise a family,” she notes. “What we see most often, though, is people who are in their late 30s, who are established in their jobs and whose kids are more independent. At that point, they have more time for themselves and they are looking for something they'd enjoy doing. They might have gained weight or are looking to get back in shape. A lot of them are former swimmers from high school or college, or former lifeguards and they remember how much they loved the sport. Even the most burned-out Division I swimmers eventually find their way back to the pool."
"In 2017, the USTA saw an eight percent increase in number of adult social leagues. Adult social tennis leagues focus less on rigorous competition and more on physical fitness, team camaraderie and community engagement," said Jeff Waters, Managing Director, Adult Tennis, USTA.
Sometimes, league participation can be tied into ancillary factors. Kevin Heinrich of US SQUASH notes that there has been a slight increse (three percent) since 2014, but an enormous jump (130 percent) in local friendly club play for all ages. This, he notes, is likely "partially due to technology advancements and greater accessibility to entering results."
Moving upwards in the age scale, many Boomers are enrolling in senior games, meant for ages 50 and up. Multi-sport events allow athletes to travel to new locations to compete and to enjoy the company of others; in fact, organizers have noted the opportunity to socialize is a prime motivator for many to travel to attend such games.
Event owners interested in marketing to these individuals need to remember several things that are key to capturing the interest of league players:
Don’t assume all Millennials are the same. “Everyone is different,” says Weinberger. “One person might wear the backwards hat and not tuck their shirt in and another might look completely different. There are so many different types of golfers and consumers. We try to cater to them all, whether they are competitive or recreational.” In addition, he notes, their communication preferences are different, with some wanting calls, while others prefer text or e-mail. All have one thing in common, though: “If you spam them, they’ll get tone-deaf.”
Promote the social aspect of events: Meals, receptions, post-event parties and other scheduled events will be well-received, particularly if included in the registration fee.
Welcome athletes with all levels of skill, remembering that someone may feel ‘rusty’ since college.
Promote the series if your event is part of one. League players may be eager to challenge themselves again.