The Big Debate | Will younger Asians be as engaged with sport as their elders?


Sport around the world faces a greater challenge to engage young people in an age where there are more distractions and entertainment options than ever before. In Asia, sport’s roots in culture, history and everyday lives are not as deep as in many Western markets. So sport in the region potentially faces an even tougher task to grab and hold the attention of young people.

Sport in Asia has been growing in popularity in recent decades, spurred by a host of factors including growing interest in overseas leagues and competitions, increasing availability of sports media content, encouragement from governments, and the hosting of major events.

But in today’s fast-moving world, with media habits and cultural tastes changing rapidly, will today’s teenagers be as enamoured by sport as the generations that went before them?

SportBusiness asked industry insiders and academics for their thoughts.

Robbie McRobbie, chief executive, Hong Kong Rugby Union

The challenge is not so much engagement as inspiration – are we managing to capture the imagination of this generation? What creates inspiration? What fuels passion? Where does the love come from that compels the football fan to turn up week after week, in rain, wind and snow, to support his local team in a dilapidated ground, clutching a cup of tepid Bovril and a dodgy meat pie, win or lose, because that’s their team?

Engagement is still happening, often very successfully. Last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, the first hosted in Asia, saw over one million new players introduced to the game across the region through the associated ‘Asia1M’ initiative, and broadcast figures showed a record viewership in Asia.

However, major events like World Cups often result in only a short-term boost in interest – the ‘Wimbledon effect’ [in the UK, interest in tennis ticks sharply upwards during the Wimbledon championship, subsiding quickly afterwards]– and it has proved more difficult to then convert that into a lifelong love affair with the sport when there are so many other attractive activities competing for our affections and dollars.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that ‘sport for change’ is one sectors that is thriving in Asia-Pacific, with programmes such as Child Fund’s Pass it BackMagic Bus, and Kampuchea Balopp the very epitome of inspiration and passion.

Let’s not forget that the very word “fan” is short for fanatic, coming from the Latin fanaticus, which means “inspired by god”. The terminology used by supporters themselves still references religious-like fervour – being a ‘believer’, one of the ‘faithful.

We need people to believe in sport again – believe in the integrity, the purity, the excellence, the respect. We need to believe in our deities, the sportsmen and women whose posters we stuck on our bedroom walls as children, the figures we aspired to be, or at least to be like. We need more Siya Kolisis to inspire a new generation.

Finally, we need to remember that the other root of ‘fan’ is fanum, Latin for a temple. When the fans come to pay homage in the temples that are our stadiums and arenas, we need to make sure that the experience we provide is nothing less than sacred.

Malcolm Thorpe, managing director South East Asia, Sportfive

The younger generations in Asia are still passionate about sports. When the Covid-19 pandemic was disrupting sporting events, a global survey of young people showed that they had ranked watching live sport as what they were missing most during the shutdown. And this latent demand will definitely cause a surge in interest in sports events post-shutdown.

In fact, in countries where live matches were allowed to resume, sports attendance has far surpassed that of the turnout pre-Covid-19. When Vietnam’s top domestic football league, the V.League 1, returned in June, young Vietnamese fans filled up stadiums to re-experience the thrill of cheering on their favourite teams. Over 400,000 spectators are reported to have attended the first nine rounds of V.League 1 this season, up 33.3 per cent year-on-year.

Beyond the live experience, it is important to note that what is changing is the way that young people consume content of all types, not just sports. Brands and rights-holders have realised that digital streaming, and especially mobile streaming, have forever changed how young sports fans consume content. As a result, they are providing more ‘snackable’, short-form content on more accessible platforms, and thereby driving more meaningful engagement among Gen Z and Millennials.

Apac’s young people are known to be digital natives and have wide access to media platforms. Such fans are more engaged than ever in consuming sporting content on streaming services as compared to their older counterparts.

While young people have different habits and preferences across the region, any new approach should centre around digital accessibility, creative story-telling and interactivity, and should position sport firmly in the context of the broader entertainment choice.

Itaru Kobayashi, professor at JF Oberlin University, Tokyo

The general consensus is that current younger generations participate in sports activities less than previous generations. Younger generations tend to spend more time on social networking, Netflix and video games, and less time on sports activities.

In Japan, every sport has been losing participants. Japan is the top runner in terms of low birthrate and ageing population, but sports have been losing more participants than even the demographic trend suggests.

Digital transformation can in theory free up time, giving people more time for leisure activities. The key will be whether sports can attract younger generations during this freed-up time.

I think sports can, but the sports have to cater more to their preferences. They have far more options to choose from. As a result, younger generations are less patient. You have to be creative to keep them entertained.

Mark Thomas, managing director, S2M Consulting

Like many things in Asia-Pacific, when it comes to understanding youth engagement in sport there is no simple scenario that fits all. Different sports activities in different countries and regions all have a different story to tell.

When engaging in sport through the media, there is no doubt Apac youth are far more engaged than their parents, as they are barraged 24-7 with content on digital and social media platforms.

With regards to participation, it is a bit more nuanced. Traditionally, sport has played second fiddle to academic success pushed by zealous parents who only want the best for their kids. This was exacerbated in China by the one-child policy, which focused the attention of six adults – the parents and grandparents – on one child’s development.

However, we must factor in that, in general, sport as an organised collective activity across Apac, from professional leagues to grass roots, is still in relative infancy in comparison to the West.

It is important to note that over the last few decades there have been conflicting mega-trends at play. One revolves around more choice for young people in terms of how they spend their time. Physical sports compete with a plethora of choices, including study, esports, music, entertainment, social media. In this ever-increasing world of choice, it is easy to see sport being squeezed and to therefore assume participation will decrease.

The second is the development of a growing middle class with more spare time, that is developing holistic lifestyles which put more focus on quality of life, health and fitness. In this scenario, sport plays an important role and as such we have seen a huge increase in anything from mass participation sports to grassroots kids coaching courses.

With the current crisis, interesting trends emerged. During lockdowns, sports participation was impossible but there was a massive rise in digital engagement with sports. As we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, we expect to see broader awareness of the importance of health, sports and fitness, as well as the development of new variants of sport, such as in the virtual space, which should stimulate a growth in physical sports activity.

The are other positive macro factors, such as governmental policies to build sports infrastructure and increase sport’s importance on school curriculums. The participation legacy of major events such Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022, and associated media coverage, will likely have a profound, positive effect on engagement.

Julien S Baker, professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong

Only a small percentage of Asia-Pacific adolescents can be classified as “physically active”, meaning that they had participated in 60 minutes or more of moderate or vigorous physical activity daily, according to World Health Organisation figures. This trend is not only related to APAC populations, but can be classified as a global problem with massive health-related consequences.

Girls tend to fare worse, with only 18.5 per cent recorded as being physically active, compared to 38.3 per cent of boys. There is a large percentage of adolescents that do not participate in any form of physical activity. If adolescents are not physically active, they tend to be physically inactive adults.

The reasons for inactivity are multi-faceted and also include time spent on computers and mobile devices, poor diet, and lack of facilities and physical education in schools.

With the growing absence of physical education, governments, health and fitness professionals, schools, clubs, and parents have an opportunity and obligation to play a major part in increasing levels of physical literacy among children and adolescents to help reverse the current trends of youth inactivity.

The decline in physical activity levels are a major concern, and with a clear understanding of how children develop, enjoy and adopt physical skills for life, we need to provide them with the necessary tools to create a long-term relationship with health, wellness and physical activity.