12 Sports Trends to Consider In 2020

As we look ahead to sports trends in 2020, one can’t help but reflect that we are entering a new decade.

12 Sports Trends to Consider In 2020

It’s hard to believe, but 10 years ago trends included the beginning of hyper localization, real-time interactions, the rise of online video and personal athlete branding.  Back then, more people were watching television than online. (A third fewer teenagers and children were watching TV by 2017 than in 2010.) Esports just started to take off in the mainstream, with Nintendo regaining prominence with Wii Games Summer 2010 and Twitch (released 2011) and with the first League of Legends World Championship held in Sweden in 2011.

In this era of #MeToo, Mary Cain’s “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” video that ran in the New York Times’ opinion page in November still shattered some strongly held opinions that will carry over into the coming months and years.

To understand what’s top of mind, here’s a look at sports trends as we enter into 2020. 

1. Increased competition. 

“The sports marketplace is a crowded one and it’s important for cities to differentiate themselves from the other cities with which they are competing,” says Michelle Perry, senior consultant at BCW Sports Practice—North America.

Dr. Nancy Lough, president of the Sport Marketing Association, echoes that sentiment. “The sports industry is continuing to grow cluttered and splintered, especially with streaming options and access,” Lough says. 

Consumers are more distracted, which challenges the value propositions for sponsors and rights holders. That means the competition for data and the ability to use it will become increasingly important for making targeted decisions and guiding strategies to compete in this marketplace, Lough says.

2. Immersive fan experience.

Many teams, schools and leagues are upping their games for the die-hard fans who want great sightlines, more comfortable seats and better parking, says Janis Burke, CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

Fans don’t want to just sit and watch the game but want to immerse themselves in a total experience. That means more concentration on the period from arrival to departure, not just game time. 

“Events and games are becoming not only great sporting events, but places where people can meet, mingle, try new foods and unique cuisine, stream on Instagram and Facebook, and a find novel photo or engagement opportunities,” Burke says. “The better a team knows its target audience, the more complete the experience.”

3. Think outside the stadium.

“Build an experience to influence fans to stay longer and spend more,” says Theresa Belpulsi, vice president of tourism and visitor services at Destination DC. 

For example, during the 2019 World Series, Destination DC passed out 5,000 “Finish the Fight” posters at seven Metro stops the morning of the first World Series game to share the excitement with local businesses and commuters, Belpulsi says. The giveaway came with 50 deals and discounts across the city to help visitors and fans discover “the real D.C. experience” with museum discounts, Nationals-themed food and beverage items and unique hotel packages.

4. More data collection.

Think wearables that measure endurance, heart rate, steps taken, speed and more for participants, and apps that help fans access real-time stats and background historical information as a television viewer at home says Perry and Dale Neuburger, director of BCW Sport Practice-North America. 

5. Think locally. 

Burke says she knew there was a large and growing interest in BMX and biking in Houston, which is why the city built the $25 million Rockstar Energy Bike Park as part of a 30-acre sports complex. It’s designed for every level from beginners to pros, with mountain bike trails, various pump tracks, urban plaza riding area, a tot track and professional BMX track. The site is why Houston will host the 2020 UCI BMX World Championships. 

“It’s all about knowing your group, audience, crowd or sport,” Burke says. “Once you understand that, you can begin to sort through the experience you want to give them and anticipate what best fits the event.”

Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission, says multisport complexes need to go beyond large-scale travel events which only fill a limited number of dates to continue to generate revenue. Many new sites, including the Panama City Beach Sports Complex and the Salt Lake City Regional Athletic complex, emphasize local events. 

6. More accountability. 

Lough calls this the “time of awakening and reckoning.” “We will continue to see National Governing Bodies facing allegations of abuse they have ignored in regards to female athletes, and then being forced to contend with their lack of concern for the treatment of women athletes,” Lough says. “USA Swim, USA Gymnastics and USA Skating will be followed by additional NGBs unless there is a concerted effort to shift the longstanding cultures and policies.”

She also sees corporate partners taking note of the challenges Nike has encountered in the wake of revelations about its treatment of female athletes.

Look for more CVBs to obtain certifications from the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the Olympic community’s nonprofit organization funded by Congress (via the Safe Sport Authorization Act) to the help flag abuse and use technology to track it. “We are moving in a direction where it will be very likely that any and all organizations involved with sports tourism will need to go through SafeSport training,” says Clay Partain, CSEE, director of sports market sales for Visit Salt Lake.

7. Participation push. 

More than ever, there’s a growing need to keep kids participating in sports. Sports and Fitness Industry Association and The Aspen Institute are raising the alarm on rising costs, declining participating and growing number of unqualified coaches in youth sports as athletics becomes more specialized. 

“There is a real concern about drop-out rates of those 11 and older that might impact some sports leagues,” says Jamie Patrick, vice president of Madison Area Sports Commission.

It’s a concerning trend that affects the health of our youth, but also affects companies who produce gear and host events who are concerned about their revenue streams drying up.

One way to keep kids playing: flag football, which avoids most of the contact risks and has been popular with high school girls in Nevada, Lough says.

“Those concerned with the declining participation would be wise to be looking at alternatives to sustain levels of play, and not lose more kids to other sport options, or sedentary options like video games,” she says.

8. Continued proliferation of unique sports.

Besides esports, think cricket, rugby, lacrosse, cornhole, ultimate Frisbee and pickleball. Burke also points to a growing interest in BMX and biking in Houston. At the college level, the number of schools offering triathlon is growing, making it on pace to be the next championship sport for women in intercollegiate athletics. To do so it needs to reach the magic number of 40 college varsity teams, which will likely happen this year or at the latest 2021.  

Lawrence Hamm, senior manager of sports development and strategy at Destination DC, says he’s seen more youth girls getting involved in sports such as wrestling that were traditionally pegged for boys. The FIFA Women’s World Cup should maintain popularity in traditional sports like soccer, Burke adds.

In Utah, Partain says he’s seeing “an explosion in ice sports,” a trend that Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing at the Fox Cities CVB in Appleton, Wisconsin, says he’s also witnessed with growth in ice hockey.

9. A rise in fitness sports and experiences. 

Look for fitness-related events coupled with one-time passes—think Burn Boot Camp and Cyclebar type classes—as well as events like the Reebok CrossFit Games—held in Madison since 2017—to become bigger as sports experiences grow.

Events like Madison Fitness Week, which began two years ago, are booming, Patrick says. More than 25 area gyms offered classes to nearly 500 ticket buyers in 2019. 

10. Be more adaptive.

The United States Olympic Committee changing its name to the United States Olympic and the Paralympic Committee is a strong indication of the growing recognition and importance of adaptive sports being held in a more unified fashion. 

“Unified sports are continuing to grow at a local level and soon at a national level, with adaptive athletes and able-bodied athletes participating together,” Patrick says. “CVBs should also pay close attention to the requirements of ADA compliant websites.”

11. Home rentals vs. hotels.

Those who stay together, play better together. “Airbnb isn’t just for leisure travel anymore,” Patrick says. “More sports teams are choosing to put their team members in a house and stay together.”

Partain says Visit Salt Lake saw its largest events start to drop some on the hotel room nights consumed in 2019. “We know these attendees are still coming to the event, but we have seen a continued rise in more and more VRBO usage,” he says. 

It’s a trend that will only continue and a reason Visit Salt Lake switched to an attendance-based measurement vs. the traditional room night measurements.  

12. Sports betting.

Major organizations will continue to look at gambling as a potential revenue stream and how they can best capture it, similar to alcohol sales and other new revenue streams. 

Revenue opportunities will shift from a limited number of markets to mainstream nationwide communities, with growth both in private companies and public entities as a new tax revenue stream for cities, counties and states, Morton says.

Many including Patrick and Haken echoed similar comments: Regulators and officials will have to be more diligent to enforce fair play and to protect the integrity of the game at all levels.