Thursday December 7, 2023

Emerging Sports and Leagues Defining The Next Decade

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
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On Fridays in 2021, we are shifting the popular “Question of the Day” poll section at the bottom of our FOS AM newsletter into an open-ended question, and welcoming FOS subscribers to weigh in with their opinions, thoughts and predictions.

The responses below came from our March 5th question:

Which emerging sport or league do you think will become significantly more popular over the next decade?


If you examine any of the metrics of measurement, esports is going to be a significant player in the sport business industry.  For example:

Worldwide revenue ($776 million in 2018 to projected $1.6 billion in 2023)

Worldwide audience (395 million in 2018 to projected 646 million in 2023)

Overall engagement with esports is only growing and youth involvement and gaming is very high. Look at NBA engagement to extend their brand into the esportsworld with NBA 2K League as well as some big NBA names investing in the future of esports. I think it’s here to stay and will continue to increase in popularity and engagement.  Consider legalization of betting in so many states and continuing to engage fans.

– Scott Huckaby
Assistant Professor of Business, Sport Management, Cornerstone University

Esports will continue to evolve and grow exponentially. Although not a huge fan myself, I think we’d be remiss to ignore how far esports have come and the potential it has to further evolve. Esports revenues were $856 million in 2018 and are expected to be more than double that by next year. The barrier to entry is relatively low and in a day and age where remoteness is the new norm (albeit hopefully not permanent), esports can continue to thrive. Further, if esports continues to be embraced at the collegiate level, this will provide an even further growth opportunity moving forward. 

– Nick Ferry
Solutions Associate, DRUM Associates

Lacrosse. Where I live in Massachusetts, people extremely passionate about baseball, yet lacrosse has never been more popular at the youth + HS levels — and with no sign of slowing growth. I think what’s held the sport back in North America is a lack of a singular pro league that captures the market. What the PLL is doing encourages me that lacrosse may finally break through in this regard, just because their approach has been so unique and fresh. Things like hometown-less teams, barnstorming tours and open-sourced highlights are radical, but they’ve opened the PLL up to activations and collaborations we never thought possible before. This is important, because the consumption habits of Gen Z — especially coming out of the pandemic — are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

– Brendan Hall
Content Producer, Hudl

I really think the premier lacrosse league (PLL) has the potential to see huge growth in the next several years. The sport of lacrosse itself is growing in America and the PLL is taking a very tech-savvy and fan-oriented approach to marketing their players, league, and sport. By heavily utilizing social media, they’re bringing the players closer to the fans than any other sports league and allowing for more interaction between players and fans. I went to a PLL game in their debut season in 2019 and the buzz and excitement in the stadium is comparable to any of the 4 major sports leagues. They’ve added an additional team each year so far and don’t show any signs of slowing down. 

– Alex Levine
Data Analyst, NielsenIQ

I believe over there next decade there are 2 leagues that have great potential to push into the spring sport schedule.  I believe that Ice Cube’s Big 3 League could take a different form and evolve into a major viewership sport.  I believe that the public’s ability to identify with 3v3 games and halfcourt games will make for a great product.  The money and the minds to make it happen are there and with 3v3 being an Olympic sport during the decade I believe it can be something that folks 10 years ago would have never predicted. 

Also, I believe that the NCAA FCS Football schedule may be moved to Spring or there will be an emergence of a “spring football league,” that sticks around and has staying power.  Football brings in advertising and viewership, if the FCS or Dwayne the Rock Johnson can figure out how to make spring football work and not go head to head with the big boys in the fall, I believe a league that can have staying power for 1-3 years will emerge and give fans something to hold them over until fall.

– Bart Westmoreland
Program Manager, Merieux NutriSciences

I’m cheating a little bit because it is an already established league, but I believe the NBA will continue to “emerge” and become THE most popular sport in the U.S. during the next decade. Baseball is no longer America’s pastime, and football will continue to see a decline in participation and popularity due to concussions. The NBA has always led the Big 4 leagues in terms of marketing, and it showed it will continue to think progressively under Adam Silver after being the first league to embrace sports betting and blockchain technology. And even as LeBron James eventually walks away from the game, the Association’s crop of marketable players is unending. I have no doubt that the NBA will be the most popular sport in the United States by 2030.

– Scott Cooley
CEO, Cool Media PR

Easy answer. MLS.

58% of MLS fans have become fans in the past 10 years (no other top league even comes close to this), youngest and most diverse fan demo that will lead to greater revenue share in next 10 years, and be a better reflection of the typical U.S. sports fan. World’s most popular sport, 2026 World Cup hosted in North America, explosion of lower-level league teams (44 USL/affiliate teams have joined since 2015), 850% Forbes valuation increase since 2008, Over 3X increase of major media mentions in the past 5 years on TV/Earned Media, ~35% increase in avg. attendance since 2009 (140% increase in total attendance sin ’09), league becoming a platform for young North/South Americans to start careers before moving to Europe and thus gaining more global & national attention, and lastly, fan experience at MLS games is unparalleled to any other top 5 sport with the “ultras” playing a significant role in game experience and organic fan communities (See LAFC, ATL United, Portland, Minnesota, etc).    

– Kevin Kane
Sr. Manager, Client Strategy, Navigate

After decades of hearing it will happen and never seeing it come to fruition I think soccer is finally ready to break through in America. The MLS continues to gain popularity, and many Americans (like me) have chosen a favorite team and closely follow the Premier League.

Add in how many kids play soccer and play FIFA I think soccer is close to breaking through. 

– Patrick Daily
Relationship Manager, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce

When it comes to an emerging sport or league that will experience significant growth and popularity over the next decade, I believe it won’t be a specific sport or league that benefits, but the privatized section of youth sports over traditional community-based leagues.

Private and organized youth sports teams and clubs were already experiencing significant growth over the previous decade. Kids were leaving traditional programs like Little League Baseball and AYSO Soccer for private clubs and travel organizations. You also had youth sport tournament organizers taking advantage of the increase in popularity by creating additional tournaments across the country at every time of the year resulting in more year-round club teams and families opting out of the local league where they once participated.

Post pandemic, many expect private club sport growth to continue as local community-based sports like Little Leagues or local parks & recreation youth sports programs have struggled since the pandemic began. Lost revenue, lost interest from kids, budget cuts, and lost support. Not to mention local leagues that have already been permanently shut down or eliminated and the leagues that could still end up folding. Forcing more kids to choose to play for private clubs.

The pandemic has and will continue to push families toward privatized youth sports clubs. Overall popularity will ultimately come down to whether families continue to follow the trends or local community-based leagues adapt to reverse the popularity private clubs have experienced.

– Adam Zubiate
Founder, Zubie Five Sports LLC – Youth Sports Sponsorships

We also received many responses focused on leagues or sports which weren’t mentioned above.

Below, a list of the emerging sports or leagues for which we received several replies:

  • Rugby
  • Esports
  • Lacrosse (specifically Premier Lacrosse League)
  • Pickleball
  • Breaking (Breakdancing)
  • Major League Cricket
  • Ball hockey
  • Level Next (Learfield)
  • Soccer (specifically MLS)
  • Disc golf
  • Overtime Elite (Basketball)
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