Factors Influencing Sports Consumption in the Era of New Media


By Brad Schultz and Mary Lou Sheffer

WJMCR 37 (October 2011)

Literature Review Research Questions and Methodology Results Discussion Limitations and Future Research Conclusion


The age of new media technologies, including social media and mobile delivery systems, has affected the way people consume sports. In order to assess these changes, this study focused on the relationship between sports media interest, consumption and new media. Analysis was based on data supplied by The American Pulse™ survey collected by BIGresearch® (N = 5,130). Results suggested that the social media are playing an increasingly important role in sports consumption. The results also shed new light on the consumption patterns of two traditionally underserved sports audiences—women and older consumers. Such audiences have more complex consumption habits than previously understood, in part because of their increasing use of social media.


Much has been written about the troubling state of media economics in the 21st century, particularly regarding traditional media such as newspapers and television. Newspapers and television stations are struggling with how to reach consumers who have multiple media options and the ability to create their own content. The economic downturn of 2008-2009 was a disaster for media companies such as the New York Times, which fell $1 billion in debt, and the Tribune Company, which filed for bankruptcy. Several other newspaper groups faced shutdown and liquidation, and those that survive may do so only through massive layoffs.1 In 2008, the Seattle Times announced cuts of 190 jobs, while The New York Times eliminated 100 newsroom positions through buyouts and layoffs.2 Venerable media outlets such as the Rocky Mountain News and the Cincinnati Post ceased publication, while others, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, went to online-only formats.

Many experts say the underlying issue is the growth of new media technologies. More than two billion people, roughly one out of every three on the planet, are now using the Internet3 and social media usage has exploded. In June of 2011, Facebook reported 683 million users4 while Twitter, the social-networking site that lets people share 140-character messages, is now used by 13% of all online adults in the U.S. Use of Twitter by people in the 25-34 age group has doubled since 2010.5 “Twitter and social media represent a new, powerful platform to broadcast news, crowd source leads and stories, and expand the media’s role and earned relevance in the new age of media.”6 Gillmor noted, “The collision of journalism and technology is having major consequences for three constituencies: journalists, newsmakers and the audience.”7

Those consequences include a shift in the way audiences use media content. Specifically, consumption has transitioned from a one-way, static model to a two-way, interactive communication process in which audiences play a much more powerful role. Papper8 reported that more than 40% of the public has an interest in creating its own newscast and more than 60% want more interaction with television news. Recent information from the Pew Research Center shows that half of Americans say they rely on the people around them to find out at least some of the news they need to know, while 44% of online news users get news at least a few times a week through emails, automatic updates or posts from social networking sites.9 In many cases, audiences are using these technologies to bypass the mainstream media and disseminate their own content to the public.10 Some research11 suggests this content rivals the traditional news media.12

These changes are particularly evident when looking at sports media audiences, who often use the mediated experience to build strong attachments to their favorite players and teams.13 Because of this, Gregory notes that Twitter and other new media technologies have the potential to “change the athlete/fan interaction forever.”14 From the athletes’ perspective, as of June 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers had more than 1.56 million Twitter followers, while the Orlando Magic had 1.01 million. As just one example from the audience perspective, in the early 2000s Marc James started a blog as a personal homepage offering sports news. It now has grown into a sports commentary content site with more than 120,000 postings and a staff of about 40 people who publish original sports columns three days a week. “I think blogs are the wave of the future because they give a voice to the ordinary fan that has an intelligent opinion, but in the past didn’t have the medium to voice it,” James said. “People want to hear less of what the so-called experts have to say and more of what the sports geek down the street thinks.”15

The purpose of this study was to more closely examine how the social media are impacting media consumption and usage, particularly as they apply to sports audiences. One of the advantages of the research was access to an extremely large database, the results from which created a more accurate modern picture of sports media audiences and their consumption habits.

Literature Review

The research on sports media audiences has been fairly consistent over a long period of time. Early studies16 found that men were much more interested in sports and consumed more of it, and this has been supported by recent work. ESPN estimates that 70-75% of its audience is male, and even for sports such as women’s professional basketball, 60-70% of the television audience is male.17 A Pew Research Study18 indicated that of those who closely follow sports news, 74% are male and only 26% are female. Research further suggests that men and women have different reasons and gratifications for consuming sports19 with men more interested in competition and women more interested in style.

Correspondingly, the sports media treat men and women quite differently. Media coverage of female sporting events has been virtually non-existent.20 Tuggle’s21 analysis of the effect of sportscaster’s gender on the proportion of men and women sports stories covered by ESPN’s SportsCenter and CNN’s Sports Tonight, found that despite an increase in female sports reporters, women athletes still received only 5% of airtime. In a similar assessment of content on ESPN, CNN, the New York Times and USA Today, Eastman and Billings22 found men’s coverage was greater than women’s coverage by a ratio of 15:1.

Newer research on sports audiences has focused on the growing influence of the Internet and social media. The demographics for new media audiences and users (mostly young, white and male) correspond with the dominant audiences for mediated sports content.23 Globally, time spent on sports sites has increased 25% in just one year, while males account for 70% of Internet sports content page views.24 The different motivations for sports consumption between men and women seem to carry over into the new media, especially in terms of social media. Pedersen and Macafee25 determined that females used blogs as a means of social interaction, while males were more information-focused.

However, there are important differences in the way men and women use social media. Fallows’26 research showed that men participated more in online fan clubs or community groups than women, and that women valued the positive effects online communication brings. Correa, Hinsley, and de Zuniga 27 note, “Expect women regardless of their demeanor to be drawn to social networking sites” more than men. In regards to online/social media knowledge sharing, Chou28 posits that perception of self-appraisal or a sense of self-worth/recognition determines participation. Chou officially refers to this as performance expectancy and perceived identity verification (PIV). Since social media users seek to be understood, which correlates to one’s self-worth29, it is possible that women who feel stifled in the world of traditional sports media may turn to the social media for validation or to fill a content void.

But at the same time, these new realities have not as yet resulted in significant changes in regards to traditionally underserved sports audiences. Hardin30 observed that “although the technology has presented liberating possibilities for women’s sports, those possibilities aren’t being met. Instead, the new media platforms are replicating the discrimination and bias that has always been a part of old-media framing of women’s sports.” Older sports audiences are similarly ignored despite a growing presence with new media. The 74 and older group is the fastest growing in terms of social media use, increasing from 4% in 2008 to 16% in late 2010.31 For adults 50 to 64 years old, the use of social networking sites has jumped by 88 percent in the past year; for those 65 and older, it has doubled.32 “It’s a mistake to think that all the new media tools are in the hands of the young,” said David Lougee, president and CEO of Gannett Television. “Older people are adopting, but unlike younger audiences they are very loyal. We’ve got to get aligned with advertisers on that.”33

This research sought to go beyond these studies and broaden the connection between sports audiences and new media. Current research seems to be somewhat narrow and focused on only niche audiences, such as with Internet sports communities,34 sports bloggers,35 those who watch streamed sports events online,36 highly identified sports fans,38 and sports fans seeking violence. This study sought to increase both the breadth and depth of current understanding related to sports media audiences.

Research Questions and Methodology

The literature led to the following research questions:

  • RQ1: What is the role of new media in sports media consumption?
  • RQ2: Are there consumption differences between men and women in terms of new media?
  • RQ3: Are there differences between other demographic groups (based on age and income) related to sports consumption and particularly new media?

These research questions were investigated through survey data provided by BIGresearch® of Worthington, Ohio. Two times every month The American Pulse™ survey is collected online by BIGresearch® exclusively utilizing Survey Sampling International’s (SSI) U.S. panel covering topics such as sports, politics, pop culture and the economy. For the May 2010 survey, the researchers had the opportunity to attach six sports media questions which addressed the research questions. Specifically, the six survey questions were:

  • On average, how much sports (in hours) do you watch, read, hear and/or consume through the media on a daily basis?
  • How often (regularly, often or never) do you use the media to interact (talk, share, etc.) with others about sports?
  • How often (regularly, often or never) do you use social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc.) in regards to sports?
  • How often (regularly, often or never) do you create and/or contribute sports content (such as blog postings, videos, fan website material)?
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “low interest” and 5 being “very high interest,” what number would you use to describe your interest in sports?
  • On average, how often (regularly, often or never) do you pay to access sports content through such things as Internet subscription services, pay per view, magazine subscriptions, etc.?

The May 2010 sample included 5,130 respondents, which made the results accurate within +/- 1%. The researchers believed that such a large sample, drawn from a cross-section of American homes representing all 50 states and some territories outside the U.S., addressed the research questions and provided important new information related to sports media audiences.

However, the researchers caution that there are some important differences between the sample and the U.S. population as a whole. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the median age was 36.8 years, the Caucasian population was 72.4%, and females (51%) slightly outnumbered males (49%). In the sample, the median age was 55 years, the Caucasian population was 87%, and females (56%) more substantially outnumbered males (44%). The researchers acknowledge that such differences make the generalizability of the data more difficult. A more complete look at overall sample demographics can be found in Table 1.


In terms of RQ1, the overall response group (N = 5,130) did not report much use of the social media in terms of sports. Within this group, 75% said they never used the social media for sports, while 17% said they occasionally did and 7% said they regularly did. Regarding social media use, there was almost no difference in this overall group between men and women, t(5,057) = 0.20, p = .84. In terms of age, older groups (45+) were more likely to use the social media for sports than younger age groups, F(6, 5,070) = 63.8, p < .001.

Analysis was also conducted on those respondents who identified themselves as “regular” or “occasional” users of the social media for sports purposes (N = 1,283). Using a Likert scale where 1 represented the most negative value and 5 the most positive value, female respondents in this group had higher levels of interest (M = 2.97, SD = 1.47), consumption (only 45% reported using less than 30 minutes per day), interaction (the highest reporting group was “occasionally” at 47%), creation (65% reported “never”) and pay (67% reported “never”) compared to men. Women also reported significantly higher levels of social media use for sports compared to men, t(1,267) = 2.00, p < .05.

This finding directly relates to RQ2. When looking at the overall response group men were significantly more likely to have a greater interest in sports, t(5,057) = 20.17, p < .004, consume more sports media, t(5,057) = 7.17, p < .001, interact more with others using sports media, t(5,057) = 6.36, p < .001, create and/or distribute their own sports content, t(5,057) = 4.00, p < .001, and pay for sports media, t(5,057) = 6.06, p < .001 compared to women. The one category where men and women were almost identical was usage of the sports media for social media, t(5,057) = 0.20, p = .84. Analysis was also conducted on those who considered themselves heavy sports media users, defined by those who consumed three or more hours of sports media per day (N = 477). In this group, regression analysis showed that women consumed significantly more sports than men, M = -.06 (SD = .014), p < .001 (see Table 2).

Regarding RQ3, there were no significant differences found between groups based on income or ethnicity, but some differences were observed for age. Of the overall response group, younger groups had significantly higher levels (p < .001) in all categories except interest, where the 65 and older group (M = 2.63) had the highest interest based on the scale mentioned above. (The second highest interest group was 18-24, M = 2.59). This difference was not significant, F(21, 11,049) = 1.60, p = .13. In the overall group, age was a relatively good predictor of using the social media for sports, {M= 2.49 (SD = .016), p < .001.]

Because older age groups dominated the sample, the researchers wanted to look more closely at data for younger respondents, ages 14-44 (N = 758). Interest in sports for this group (M = 2.56, SD = 1.46) was marginally higher compared to the overall group (M = 2.54, SD = 1.48). The majority of younger respondents indicated that they consumed less than 30 minutes of sports media per day (60%), never interacted with others through the sports media (55%), never used the social media for sports (54%), never created/distributed their own sports content (76%), and never paid to consume sports content (74%). Age was also analyzed for the group that described itself as heavy sports consumers. Among those respondents, age was an even stronger predictor of social media use, M = 2.89 (SD = .016), p < .001.


The results of the study do offer new insights into sports consumption, especially in regards to new media. Gender and age do seem to be strong predictors of sports-related social media use, but not necessarily in a conventional sense. If traditional patterns of consumption held true, one would expect men to have greater social media use, but the opposite was found here. To the extent that women are using the social media for sports, they could be using it for social and community purposes rather than for information, as many women do in general.39 Exactly what women want from the social media in a sports sense is speculative and was not the focus of this study, but the point remains that women sports audiences are increasing consumption through the social media.

These results become even more compelling when one considers those who identify themselves as heavy consumers of sports media. In this group, women actually consume more than men. This suggests that the difference between men and women is at the low end of the consumption scale, not the high end. Heavy consumers of content are always attractive to advertisers, marketers and programmers, but because this consumption is taking place through a relatively new platform, it may not be easily identified or measured.

Thus, approaches that focus on traditional consumption patterns tend to ignore female audiences40 or try to appease such audiences through “women’s programming,” such as stylistic sports like ice skating41 or half-hearted attempts to increase coverage and visibility of female athletes.42 Not surprisingly, these approaches have failed. “It is frankly unfathomable, and unacceptable, that viewers are actually receiving less coverage of women’s sports than they were 20 years ago,” says Diana Nyad, a former athlete turned sports journalist.43 There is similar outrage among others in the media who decry the lack of coverage of female athletes. But these approaches frame the issue in the wrong way. If females are consuming just as much as men, at least among heavy consumers, the approach should focus on what these women want to see, read and hear in their sports media, especially in terms of the social media.

The results of the study further suggest that older audiences are increasingly turning to the social media for sports consumption. Such audiences have just as much interest in sports as younger audiences, but that this interest does not correspond to similar levels of traditional (i.e. newspaper and television) consumption, interaction and willingness to pay for sports content. As a result, older audiences are typically ignored by advertisers and sports content providers, and considered commercially unattractive, much like older audiences as a whole.44 However, even as the overall U.S. media audience grows, the size of the older audience grows even faster. When considering television viewing, the 55+ group has the fastest growth rate (2.7%) of any age group.45 This older group is also willing to devote its time to any medium that will pay it attention. Khan46 reported how older audiences in Britain felt ignored by television, and thus turned more to radio.

Limitations and Future Research

As already noted, the researchers acknowledge that the demographics of the sample make it difficult to generalize the results to the population as a whole. Thus, we view this study as a starting point for further research regarding sports audiences and the social media. More specifically, the relationship between these groups and the social media can be explored beyond the raw numbers. We know that women and older groups are using the social media in larger numbers, but we do not know exactly how they are using it. If Pedersen and Macafee47 are correct, women are using the social media in a sports context to interact with one another, and not so much to access information. A more comprehensive audience survey could be conducted to either confirm or reject these assumptions.


It has long been understood that the Internet can empower previously underserved audiences. New media technologies have shown the ability to narrow the digital divide in terms of income and standards of living.48 Ngwainmbi49 found that even in some of the poorest areas of Africa, increasing access to the Internet and media content raised levels of business activity and advertising. The study further found that greater access for African-Americans had caused advertising targeted specifically for that group to have risen substantially since 1990.

The continued viability of these audiences finally leads to recognition and empowerment. In some cases, this empowerment is political, if unintended. Even in a restrictive media environment such as China, the growth of access to the Internet has increased citizen communication, participation and interaction.50 In 2011, the people of Tunisia used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to help stage a “wireless revolution” that led to the removal of the nation’s president.51 From a more conventional media standpoint the empowerment is economic, as content providers begin to recognize, identify and target growing numbers of groups gaining access.

In a sports media sense, social media may be the key to empowering previously ignored audiences. Older audiences, which seem to have as much interest or more in sports as younger groups, are one of the fastest growing groups in terms of social media use. As a result, women and older consumers may gain empowerment as advertisers, programmers and marketers realize their growing economic value.

So far, not much has changed for either group, especially women.52 According to Nolting, “Female Millenials are a viable and profitable sports fan market for sports media, but sports media currently do not seek female sports fans on their terms. Sports media professionals talk about fans and think that ‘sports fan’ is an unproblematic term for any gender, but it actually comes with some gender-specific baggage with a longstanding history.”53

It is economic viability that will ultimately lead sports content providers to recognize and reach these audiences, and the searching has already begun. “We need to measure and identify audiences of exotic demographics” says Mark Piesanen, Director of Strategic Partner Development at Google.54 It is a stretch to call women or older consumers an “exotic demographic,” but in the world of mediated sports they have been marginalized for decades. But at least the conversation has started, and those in the media are beginning to recognize how the social media are impacting audiences.

Table 1: Demographics of overall survey response (N = 5,130)

Category% ResponseN
      Male43   2,197
Age (in years)  
     45-5418  888
     65+31  1,585
Marital status  
     <$15,000 (K)13671
     $75K-$100K9    454
     $100K-$150K6  315
     Black 6286
     Native American147

Note: Missing values and respondent error account for the fact that not all responses add up to 100% and not all N = 5,130.  “Unmarried response” included divorce, living together and widowed/widower.   

Table 2: Regression Results for Heavy Consumers of Sports Media

Dependent VariablebSE
Use of social media sites for sports-.051***.011  
Create sports content -.020.016
Interest in sports.234***.005
Pay to access sports-.064***.016

***p < .001. 

Note. R = .60, R2 = .360. Gender was defined as 0 = female and 1 = male, Sports Interest was defined using a 5-point Likert scale with 1 = very low interest and 5 = very high interest. Use of social media sites for sports, pay to access sports content, and create sports content were based on a 3-point Likert scale with 1 = regularly, 2 = occasionally, and 3 = never.

Brad Schultz is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Mary Lou Sheffer is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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