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10 Sports Trends Shaping the Future

Kamran Rosen headshot
Kamran Rosen / Mar 4, 2022
The world of sports is undergoing a historic change.

With the globalization of sports audiences, the ongoing streaming wars, the evolution of sports as a business and media product, the industry is changing faster than ever before. Looking at both the technology side—as well as landslide recent legal developments in both sports gambling and collegiate player compensation—the next decade will witness exponential change in how we view, consume and engage with our favorite sports.

For 2022 specifically, we distilled 10 of the most immediate and impactful trends that will unfold through the year, setting the stage for the future of sports:

Together these trends will grow, diversify and evolve sports without diminishing what exists. This year will be monumental for athletes, fans, trainers, broadcasters, businesses and league owners.

1. Infinite Alternative Telecasts

Anyone who’s watched the Manning brothers chum it up with A-list celebrities during their Monday night “ManningCast” can attest: it’s great television. The program helped boost Monday Night Football ratings 17 percent from the year before—with up to 1.9 million viewers tuning in to see the Manning brothers each week.

The Manning Cast is the most successful in a slew of recent alternative broadcasts (altcasts) that range from Nickelodeon’s kid-themed “Slimetime” (featuring augmented reality slime cannons and kid sports analysts) to ESPN’s betting-themed broadcast, “The Daily Wager”—which features commentary and live betting analysis from pro bettors. ESPN Deportes’s Spanish-language casts have become a broadcast mainstay, and MLB debuted an advanced metric—“Statcast”—which was voted more popular than the traditional broadcast by thousands in a Twitter poll. ESPN’s MegaCast of the New Year’s Six college football semifinals—offered in 40 different presentations across 8 matchups—was the most-watched New Year’s Six in the College Football Playoff era.

CGI slime cannons celebrate a touchdown during the Saints and Bears Game January 2021 (CBS/Viacom via AP)

CGI slime cannons celebrate a touchdown during the Saints and Bears Game January 2021 (CBS/Viacom via AP)

With the next decade of NFL broadcast rights packages set to kick off in 2022 and 2023, we expect alternative casts to proliferate. This year’s Super Bowl was the first ever to simultaneously air across a major network (NBC), a streaming platform (Peacock) and a Spanish broadcast (Telemundo). And with major cable networks scrambling to add competitive offerings to their digital streaming slates (such as CBS with Paramount+, Fox with Tubi), altcasts for football, along with other live sports, are a big part of the gameplan. Look for an explosion of not only alternate commentary, but sideline streams, coach cams, miked-up players and more.

2. The Proliferation of Simulated Racing

Netflix’s Drive to Survive racing reality show achieved the seemingly impossible: it got Americans to care about Formula 1 racing. Last year’s F1 ratings were up a whopping 40 percent in the states—with 1 million Americans watching at home and another 400,000 showing up in person to the Grand Prix. Over the same period, the subreddit r/Formula1 grew from 150,000 to over 1.8 million—a 12-fold increase.

There’s only one problem. Unlike nearly every other sport, F1 is impossibly expensive for fans to actually participate in. For context, the cost to compete in a single race at lower level F3 races runs from $2,000 to $10,000; maintaining your own car will bring that cost into six figures.

However, the cost for unlimited races on the identical track on a simulated gaming rig? Between $600 and $1800 total, depending on your setup. And this isn’t just some clunky video game. Racing simulators like iRacing are so realistic the pros temporarily used them to compete during Covid, and Red Bull driving sensation Igor Draga even went from winner of the simulated Gran Turismo Nations Cup in 2018 to competing in real life F3 races (like the highly regarded New Zealand Toyota Racing series). Simulated F1 racing translates to the real sport better than anything we’ve seen — with the possible exception of simulated golf.

Drivers compete in a simulated racing event promoted by Formula 1 (Sopa Images/Getty Images)

Drivers compete in a simulated racing event promoted by Formula 1 (Sopa Images/Getty Images)

As F1 racing continues to build its audience in 2022, we expect interest in simulated racing to rise in lockstep. With popular iRacing tracks already recording up to 45,000 races per week—and F1 fandom and viewership rising across the board—we wouldn’t be surprised to see Thrustmaster racing wheels become a top gift item this coming Christmas.

3. The Ascent of Sport Climbing

Last year, an estimated 61 new climbing gyms opened across the country, topping off an incredible decade that saw the number of climbing gyms more than double, adding at least 20 every year. Acclaimed documentaries like National Geographic’s Free Solo, Netflix’s The Alpinist or Amazon Prime’s The Dawn Wall have ushered in the era of celebrity climbers like Alex Honnold (2.4 million Instagram followers), Kyrie Condie (Olympic climber) and climber and filmmaker Jimmy Chin. The surge in interest has also converted existing celebrities like Zac Effron and Jason Mamoa into climbing evangelists. Colleges have even joined the fray, adding roughly 100 climbing programs in under two years.

A women’s sport climbing event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Doug Mills/The New York Times).

A women’s sport climbing event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Doug Mills/The New York Times).

Buoyed by major milestones like a multi-year broadcast deal with ESPN and an Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo games, we think rock climbing will continue to ascend rapidly into the lives of Americans. Kid-friendly (2.3 million of whom climb) and statistically one of the most equal sports for men and women, rock climbing is naturally inclusive and safe (these factors are two of the biggest threats to participation in traditional sports like football).

4. The Increase of Black Viewership in Hockey

As of 2020, roughly 75 percent of the NBA was Black. In the National Hockey League? Less than 3 percent. This lack of player diversity, with the lowest rate among all major league sports, is also reflected in hockey’s fan base, which at 6.5 percent Black, predictably lags the NBA (24.3 percent) and NASCAR which, though traditionally considered a White sport, reports that Black fans make up (16.7 percent) of its audience.

The NHL knows this, and as the league finishes the first year of its new billion dollar distribution deal, it’s making intentional—if not public—attempts at fostering Black participation in hockey. NHL-sponsored events like “Hockey Is for Everyone” and “Hockey on Your Block” are attempting to bridge the accessibility gap for Black youth in hockey. Pivotal moments like the 2020 formation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, last year’s first ever all-Black starting lineup and this year’s NHL first all-Black announcing team in the broadcast booth for the Seattle Kraken will continue to bring visibility to Black and minority players.

A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos Poll shows Hockey having the least diverse fan base of all major sports

A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos Poll shows Hockey having the least diverse fan base of all major sport

While the league awaits the arrival of the Tiger Woods of hockey, it can be proud that Black fans are now the fastest growing segment of the NHL fan base, increasing at 1.4x the national rate. With sports leagues across the world taking firm pro-diversity stances, we believe hockey’s holdout as a largely white-only sport will begin to melt away in 2022 as the league skates hard to catch up to its peers.

5. Live Betting In Your Living Room

In 2021—the third year following the Supreme Court decision to eliminate a federal ban on gambling— the American Gaming Association estimated that 45.2 million Americans wagered on the NFL—up 36 percent from the year before. This number is expected to grow even further as more major states (notably New York and its $1 billion online betting market) look to legalize betting in 2022. While this certainly benefits sports bookies, the biggest beneficiary of sports gambling may actually be the sports broadcasting networks.

Quite simply, people watch more sports when they bet. According to a 2019 study by Variety, 88 percent of bettors were likely to watch more sports if they had placed a legal bet. The correlation has been well documented by major networks, who have been salivating at the chance to enhance their viewership options with dedicated live betting interfaces. DISH Network partnered with DraftKings to integrate their sportsbook into the DISH Hopper platform. FuboTV launched their own live streaming/mobile betting platform in November 2021. NBC’s Peacock partnered with PointsBet to create one of the first betting alternative casts, the “NBC Sports Edge BetCast,” which included odds and bet analysis as part of the commentary, alongside a dedicated betting interface.

A screenshot showing live bet odds side-by-side with live footage on the DraftKings DISH Hopper platform.

A screenshot showing live bet odds side-by-side with live footage on the DraftKings DISH Hopper platform.

With major networks such as Disney set to enter the fray in 2022, it’s inevitable that integrated live sports betting will become a common facet of sports viewership. With the proliferation of mobile and online betting (as opposed to physical casinos), fans can now watch games and simultaneously place bets on the same device—creating a singular combined betting/viewing experience. We predict the effect from this on overall viewership to be as dramatic as it is immediate.

6. The 24/7 Live Stream

Live sports are carrying traditional TV viewership. Over the last five years, 24 out of the 25 most watched programs on TV were sports. In primetime, non-NFL shows trail football viewership by a staggering 33 percent.

The problem? TV Networks and primetime slots have no context in a globalized market that spans every country and time zone. As major sports leagues continue expanding into lucrative foreign markets (the NBA distributing games in 215 countries), TV viewership is losing out to live-streaming platforms like Twitch (whose sports channel grew by 10x in its first year) or NBA League Pass, which has seen marked recent growth in Europe and the Middle East.

In China (the NBA’s largest international market) over half of viewers (53 percent) already access sports via live-stream. Similar patterns exist in other big markets like Indonesia (50 percent) and the Philippines (42 percent). While domestic numbers lag (only 17 percent of Americans access sports through a stream) all signs point to increased adoption among younger generations. An estimated 47 percent of 18–24-year-olds live stream their sports—twice the rate of those over 55.

The rise of sports streaming: Where is it most popular?

With developments such as Amazon Prime’s $1.3 billion-a-season deal to exclusively stream Thursday Night Football games—and Twitch’s partnership with NBC to serve Olympics content—live streaming via Internet (apps or Web) is on a clear course to rival traditional TV sports broadcasting. As streaming channels increase their viewership, we believe smaller sports (such as Sumo wrestling or Japanese Major League Baseball) will also benefit from visibility to an international audience, who can browse and watch a plethora of sports all from the same streaming lobby. Rabid sports fans will soon be able to find live sports at any time of day, as major and minor sporting events from across the globe converge on global streaming platforms.

7. The Millionaire High School Athlete

Last year—in perhaps the most monumental shift in NCAA history—the Supreme Court ruled that college athletes could no longer be prevented from making money off their “name, image, and likeness (NIL).” Within the first year of the decision, NCAA endorsements reportedly reached upwards of $1.5 billion (according to NIL licensing company OpenDorse). University of Alabama coach Nick Saban said endorsement deals for his quarterback Bryce Young had reached “ungodly numbers”; Tennessee State basketball player Hercy Miller inked a $2 million endorsement deal before even setting foot on campus.

These enormous sums for such young players begs a question: why wait? Top athletes like Zion Williamson or Lamelo Ball were already A-list celebrities by their sophomore years of high school—why not cash in then? Back when 17-year-old Lebron James famously graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, the Ohio High School Athletic Association prevented him from profiting off his fame. Now, with the NCAA NIL precedent cascading into high school sports, basketball phenom Mikey Williams, an 11th-grader with 3.5 million followers, has signed a record-setting deal with Puma. In the age of social media, high school athletes have unprecedented global exposure. To endorsers, that exposure translates to dollars.

Overtime Elite is the first league of its kind to pay high school athletes six-figure salaries (The Athletic)

Overtime Elite is the first league of its kind to pay high school athletes six-figure salaries (The Athletic)

Beyond endorsements, increased access to sports viewing has meant new leagues like Overtime Elite can for the first time ever pay high school players six-figure salaries, while enabling them to grow and benefit from their social followings. With such massive developments in the commodification of youth sports, we will come to see 2022 as the year that million-dollar high school athletes become commonplace.

8. Rise of Robot Referees

On April 12, 2022 The Sugar Land Space Cowboys will become the first minor league baseball team to have robots calling their balls and strikes. While a human umpire will still be present behind home plate (receiving calls from the Automated Ball-Strike system via earpiece), the development marks the first time in baseball a human is now second in command to a robot. Chelsea FC will also trial a limb-tracking system using cameras mounted above the field to assist with close offside calls. If successful it may make an appearance in the upcoming World Cup.

Tennis made a similar foray into robot refereeing in 2020—when the Hawk-Eye Live system (nearly two decades after its invention) replaced 15 out of 17 chair judges as the primary line-caller due to Covid restrictions on headcount. The World Cup has used automated systems since 2014 to determine if balls had indeed crossed the goal line in close situations. The NFL—while resistant to robot referees—has been voracious in the placement of RFID chips in everything from footballs to player helmets and pads to better understand player movements. Soon sensors will be used to track often obfuscated footballs, replacing the flawed and old methods of chains and index cards to determine first downs.

A screenshot of the Hawk Eye 3D diagram for analyzing if a ball was in or out (via UbiTennis)

A screenshot of the Hawk Eye 3D diagram for analyzing if a ball was in or out (via UbiTennis)

While purists (and certainly, professional umpires) may reject this version of sports, we think baseball’s 2022 experiment will likely be a catalyst for future automated officiation. The benefits in accuracy and fairness will be undeniable. This will also free up a lot of space on the internet where fans spend their Mondays complaining about unfair calls.

9. The Billion Dollar Sports NFT Market

On November 2019, a clip of Trae Young’s handles against the San Antonio Spurs became the first-ever sports highlight minted on NBA Topshot. Just two years later, the annual transaction volume for sports NFTs was estimated to be $1 billion. In 2022, this number is set to double.

Sports NFTs—which include highlight reels, collectible fan playing cards, virtual commemorative tickets, digital sneakers and even tokens tied to the value of franchises—are hotly debated in value. Mark Cuban thinks they’re the future, as does Tom Brady, who co-founded Autograph.io, which sells digital user experiences and NFT memorabilia on the blockchain. Critics say these highlights are free to watch on YouTube, and the NFT market at large is worthless.

To us, one statistic really stands out: while total monthly sales for NBA Top Shot grew from $8,000 to $38 million within the last 18 months, the average sale price went down. This means unlike the NFT art scene—which has been buoyed by eye-popping seven-digit valuations of collectibles like the Bored Apes—the increase in sports NFT value has been driven by robust user growth (from 265 monthly transactions to 1.8 million). The consistent, low average price point (between $20 and $45) means participation isn’t niche and remains accessible to all fans—importantly, young ones. With January 2022 already doing 1.5x December’s sales on Top Shot, we believe this year will continue to be strong for sports NFT growth, even amid a cooling period for crypto assets overall.

10. The Workout App Era

If you think workout apps might be a pandemic-only “boomerang” fad, think again. Granted, Peloton’s gravity-defying stock price has accelerated downhill since the first Covid Christmas (2020). But despite a late-Covid pothole in usage as gyms reopened, workout apps are a full decade into a usage boom that has transcended nerdy early-adopters and permeated the mainstream, fundamentally changing the way people approach getting and staying in shape. Zooming out, we can see that between March of 2016 and March of 2021, downloads of the Peloton app ramped up 350 percent, to around 18,000 a day. App-based workouts go hand-in-hand with increasingly popular trackers including Fitbits, Oura rings and the Apple Watch. Socialized fitness apps—including Under Armour’s MapMyFitness app and Nike Training Club—have followed similar trajectories, skyrocketing in membership over the last six years. Workout-tracking app Strava is currently adding a whopping 2 million new users each month.

A diagram showing a concurrent explosion in downloads for all social workout apps (via Apptopia)

A diagram showing a concurrent explosion in downloads for all social workout apps (via Apptopia)

While most new exercise programs have an estimated 50 percent dropout rate in the first six months, social workout apps appear to have found a way to sustain participation by harnessing the power of community. Peloton’s customizable leaderboards (which allow filtering by factors such as age, location and gender) allow for constant mini-competitions among similar users, and Strava’s “king of the mountain” feature has created a fanatic desire to post the top time on select parceled hill routes. Much the way team sports often push us to work harder, working out with a group has shown to increase workout time, enjoyment and longevity.

With a quarter of the US population now working remotely full time, finding one’s place in location-agnostic communities will become more important than ever. With the concept proven and the groundwork laid, we strongly believe 2022 will solidify personal workout apps as a legitimate competitor to traditional gym exercise.