The Millennial generation, with its unprecedented digital savvy and ethnic, cultural and social diversity, is changing the face of sports in America. Just look at the fan next to you—and the sport on the field or on your phone
FLUSHING MEADOWS-CORONA park, built on an old ash heap, illustrates a truth about ashes: The new has a way of rising from them. If you wandered through the largest stretch of parkland in Queens, New York City's most diverse borough, late last summer, you might have caught a glimpse of the future. Volleyball courts buzzed with Latinos playing the Ecuadorian game, with its high net and three to a side. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival went off by the Boathouse on Meadow Lake, and Chinese immigrants practiced tai chi at the Al Oerter Rec Center. Park police chased off a brace of West Indian immigrants trying to play cricket without a permit, a reminder of how the city has repurposed some lightly used baseball diamonds as cricket grounds. For every yarmulke you could find a hijab, and there was pickup soccer all over. Seventy-five and 50 years ago, respectively, World's Fairs took place right here; today this same patch of Queens again serves as a midway for the world.
Steps away, at CitiField, Mets second baseman Dilson Herrera began the Labor Day weekend sitting for a dugout interview with a reporter for the outlet Phillies en Español. Herrera ended the weekend by slapping a single through the infield to beat Philadelphia with his first big league RBI. The 20-year-old infielder was the youngest player in the majors and a native of Colombia, a minor headwater for the Latino talent flowing into the sport. He vowed to present the game-winning ball to his family back in Cartagena, but it would have been just as prized by members of the huge Colombian community within walking distance of the ballpark—not just in Flushing and Corona but also in Jackson Heights, home to the North American headquarters of Colombian TV network RCN, and in Elmhurst, one of the most ethnically variegated zip codes in the U.S.
Across a boardwalk from CitiField, at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the U.S. Open junior boys' tournament hinted at how American men's tennis might pull out of its current swoon. Three U.S. teenagers sat in the Top 15 of the International Tennis Federation rankings. Stefan Kozlov emigrated from Macedonia and Michael Mmoh from Saudi Arabia. Francis Tiafoe was born in Maryland to refugees from Sierra Leone. Go further down the rankings and you could find Alex Rybakov and Dennis Uspensky—two American offspring of Russian émigrés—and Henrik Wiersholm, who's just your average California-born Filipino-Norwegian-American.
As much as baseball and tennis and all the pickup sports in the park offered a snapshot in time, they foretold what is to be: the games we watch and play remade by a rapidly changing population. All around were the sounds of movement: the squeal of subway cars in the Willets Point switching yard, the roar of jets from LaGuardia Airport, the cries of seagulls as they wheeled over Flushing Bay. And in case anyone missed the point, two artists had hammered it home in Jackson Heights with a mural on an outdoor handball court off Northern Boulevard in which a subway train flies at you beneath the words QUEENS IS THE FUTURE.
America is barreling forward, and sports, so tightly braided into our national character and culture, are along for the ride. Latinos accounted for more than half the population growth in the U.S. during the 2000s, and with an Asian population that's now growing even faster, the U.S. figures to become a "majority minority" country well before mid-century. But change won't follow from only the nation's ethnic makeup, which currently includes 46 million Americans born elsewhere and another 37 million born to those immigrants. The U.S. population is now composed of more members of the Millennial generation—adults and teens born since 1980—than of the baby boom generation. And as more and more Millennials come of age, their habits, attitudes and expectations will alter sports from the grass roots through the pros.
You can see the new normal in the Cambodian-American who plays high school football in Louisiana and in the Mexican who wrestles in California despite having to couch-surf through high school because his parents have been deported. It's there in the Chinese-American kid who steps onto a playground with a newfound swagger he owes to Jeremy Lin; in Texas Friday-night lights illuminating stadiums filled with Mexican-American players and fans; in the football rosters at Ohio State and Penn State, mostly bereft of Eastern European immigrant surnames as manufacturing dies and population stagnates in the East and Midwest; and in Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's moves to add Maryland and Rutgers to his conference, open an office in Manhattan and play the Big Ten's 2017 basketball tournament in Washington, D.C.—a three-card hedge as a growing, diverse population on the East Coast promises a more reliable supply of recruits and fans.
The new normal is there in the sports world's growing embrace of socially responsible practices, from diversity initiatives to environmental programming, because marketing studies show that Millennials don't want to patronize businesses that stigmatize gays or teams that aren't good corporate citizens. It's there in the consumption of the Olympics as a pan-national festival of striving, in which young Americans follow Usain Bolt on Twitter and cheer for him without a care that they don't share his citizenship.
The new normal is there in the soccer loyalties of countless Chicano families now split generationally between El Tri and the U.S. Men's National Team. And it's there in network boardrooms, where executives are making huge bets on soccer: The U.S. Spanish-language rights to the next two FIFA World Cups went to Telemundo for $600 million—$200 million more than Fox ponied up for the same rights in English.
So many Millennials claim a multiethnic background that they tend to be comfortable with an increasingly nonwhite America. And given the times in which they've come of age, they are increasingly free of cold-war-era attachment to American exceptionalism. Factors such as these, among many trends detailed in the latest surveys from the Pew Research Center, help explain why Millennials are leading the conversion to soccer, a game once thought too alien to break through in the U.S. They want to see the best in the world play a sport that has been demystified for them, and the digital technology with which they've grown up permits them to do so across borders. When not gathering in big-city taverns on weekend mornings for live telecasts, they catch the English Premier League or La Liga or the Champions' League on smartphones or tablets. They're different from their parents, who in the 1960s and '70s grew up on sports-page tastemakers such as New York Daily News columnist Dick Young, who derided soccer players as "Commie pansies."
If he were still alive, Young wouldn't know what to make of the lengths to which sports marketers now go to reach Latinos. In 2007, alarmed by stagnant growth in the NBA's Latino fan base, Saskia Sorrosa, then the league's vice president of multicultural marketing, overhauled the league's approach. She ditched the "NBA en Español" banner, with its straight translations of team names (Toros for Bulls, Calor for Heat), which weren't resonating because U.S.-based Latino Millennials didn't speak that way. In its place she introduced a campaign called éne-bé-a: a phonetic rendering of NBA in Spanish. Some of the league's 31% growth in Latino engagement since then is tied in part to the success of franchises in Latino-rich markets such as Miami and San Antonio. But the knowing, almost tongue-in-cheek quality of the gesture counts for enough that the NBA sold out its ÉNE-BÉ-A T-shirts within a week. "On the website, if they read the story, it's in Spanish," Sorrosa says. "If they watch the video clip, it's in English. It's cultural and generational. They like that nod, some indication that you're trying to connect with them."
Even as most U.S.-based Latino viewers of ESPN watched the network's English-language channels, an "Esto es SportsCenter" promo featuring Robinson Cano sent a similar message of outreach and inclusion. So did ESPN's decision to assign announcers such as Jorge Ramos and Alejandro Moreno to English-language broadcasts involving Latin American teams during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Their accents and enthusiasm were features, not bugs, and not just to bicultural Latinos. When even Anglo Millennials partake of something from another culture, whether it's food, music or sports, "they want the most authentic thing they can find that's still palatable," says Bobby Jones, who runs Octagon Worldwide's Access Group, which markets to Millennial and multicultural audiences. "And [Ramos and Moreno] are a more authentic version than if Brent Musburger were trying to announce soccer."
Efforts to reach Latino fans can sometimes be ham-handed. The UFC markets Mexican-American heavyweight Cain Velasquez as a symbol of "brown pride," after a tattoo he wears reading exactly that. But campaigns that don't differentiate between Mexican and Cuban heritage, or Dominican and Argentine, presume that Latinos are some sort of monolith. They're not. Smart marketers can slice and dice the demographic, telling the acculturated from the nonacculturated and the bicultural from the first-generation.
Soccer and mixed martial arts enjoy passionate Latino followings, and Major League Baseball should, too, as it pours millions into developing Latino talent. But the sport isn't refreshing its graying fan base with young Latinos at a replacement rate. Conventional wisdom also holds that the game is too slow for a digital generation that likes its sports briskly paced and quick-cutting. But Millennial habits may contain the seeds to baseball's resurgence. The sport has been a pioneer in adding Wi-Fi to its ballparks and Spanish platforms to its websites. With the game's built-in lulls and culture of statistics, banter and argument, it's well-adapted to both the fan at the ballpark with a smartphone and to the TV viewer at home eager for a "second-screen experience." Young Latinos are even more likely than their Anglo counterparts to have a mobile Internet connection, and the Florida Marlins spend half their marketing budget reaching out to the ethnic market (with its substantial population of baseball-oriented Cuban-Americans). For the Marlins, as senior VP Sean Flynn puts it, "Every day is Hispanic Heritage Day."
Indeed, the Millennial generation hasn't had to go to the trouble of adapting to digital technology, because its members haven't known anything else. Fans under 35 are changing sports media with the content they create: tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates. (Some websites essentially expropriate, aggregate and monetize it.) Pew reports that Millennials are also strikingly tolerant. That won't just influence the sports that they and their kids follow and play; it'll also prod the world of sports to make more radical changes than its stodgy nature would ordinarily permit.
The widespread backlash against the NCAA and its regulations syncs up with Millennials' evident enshrinement of personal freedom, distrust of institutions and reluctance to be forced into what they see as false or hidebound choices. The 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs might be the perfect expression of the Millennial ethic. "They didn't stand for assimilation but celebration of 'We're better because we're all different,'" says Octagon's Jones. "Seven out of 10 Millennials say they float in and out of different groups and cliques, and the Spurs embodied the whole idea of and over or—I can be a proud Argentine or Frenchman or Australian and a great Spur."
Meanwhile, the gay-rights revolution wouldn't have gained its recent foothold in sports if not for the attitudes of Millennials, who are at the center of The Athlete Ally movement in solidarity with LGBT rights. After he came out in 2011, when he was president of the Phoenix Suns, Rick Welts notes, his teenage niece couldn't wait to get on the phone and share the news with her friends. "Her coolness factor shot up by a factor of 10," says Welts. "That was a wake-up to me, that kids don't look at these issues the same way—that it's an irreversible trend."
One irreversible trend, it's safe to say, among many.
THE CHANGING FACE OF AMERICA 1960--2060
% of the total population
[The following text appears within 2 charts. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual charts.]
SOURCE: THE NEXT AMERICA BY PAUL TAYLOR AND THE PEW RESEARCH CENTER
Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg
ANDREW SAVULICH/NY DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES (CRICKET)
HERE, NOW As its handball-court mural and park cricket games imply, Queens is a laboratory for American diversity.
BENJAMIN NORMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KIDS)
[See caption above]
JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
BANNER TEAM From left: Tiago Splitter, Manu Ginóbili, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills are the Spurs' foreign legion.