The Next Generation in Sport: Y

Choonghoon Lim and Douglas Michele Turco (Illinois State University)


Americans born between 1979 and 1994 have been labeled by marketers and demographers as Generation Y since they followed Generation X. At 78 million strong, they are more than three times the size of Generation X, rivaling Baby Boomers in size and spending power. Considerable attention has been focused in sport marketing literature on the participation patterns of these preceding generations, but to date, little has been revealed about Generation Y. The purpose of this article is to describe the leisure and sport behaviors of this population cohort, using secondary data obtained from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association and U.S. Bureau of the Census. Analysis reveals that Generation Y is the only generation in the U.S. to experience a decline in overall sports participation, due, in part, to declining participation in traditional fitness-related activities. Alternative leisure interests of Generation Y and marketing strategies to reach and influence this segment are presented.


Leisure and sport marketers have devoted considerable attention to baby boomers because of their shear size and spending power. Home fitness equipment and videos, all-inclusive resort and cruise vacations, casinos, and sport utility vehicles are some of the products and services targeted at baby boomers. In 1995, baby boomers were the largest U.S. birth cohorts, 72 million and 30 percent of the population. However, in next ten years, the number of boomers may be down by more than 1 million people, and by 2025 they will total 65 million, comprising 19 percent of the population (Beck, 1997).

After declining for 15 years, the number of teens is on the rise, growing at a faster rate than the overall U.S. population. In 1995, there were 29 million people aged 12 to 19 in the United States, about 1 million more than in 1994. The U.S. teen population will continue to expand through the year 2010, as the children of baby boomers bring the total number of 12-to-19-year-olds to 34.9 million (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999).

Americans born between 1979 and 1994 have been labeled by marketers and demographers as Generation Y. Generation Yers, also referred to as the "Eco-boomers", "Millennium Generation", or "Generation M" differ significantly from past cohorts. Generation Yers are as young as five and as old as 20, with the largest slice still a decade away from adolescence. At 78 million strong, they are more than three times the size of Generation X

 Characteristics of Generation Y

There are reasons why Generation Y is an important population cohort, deserving considerable attention from sport marketers. The first is money. Teens spent $63 billion of their own money in 1994, according to estimates by Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU). Teenage boys spend an average of $44 a week of their own money, while girls spend $34 (Zollo, 1997). This group is asserting significant impact on their families’ purchasing preferences. Their influence on household spending amounted to $246.1 billion in 1997, an increase of 10.3 percent from the previous year (Rosenthal, 1998). Generation Y accounts for 46 percent of adult spending on audio equipment and 48 percent on athletic shoes (Rosenthal, 1998). One segment of this group, the 41.4 million kids between ages eight and 17, control or influence the spending of $120 billion a year (Cullen, 1997). They have a higher incremental allowance from their parents, and with the growth in the service sector of the U.S. economy during the later 1990’s, they are able to secure jobs easily and at rising minimum wages (Rosenthal, 1998).

Teenagers are also trendsetters, not only for one another but also for the population at large. Younger kids look up to teens to identify and adopt the latest fashion, and adults often observe teens to determine what is "in." The distinctive buying habits they display today will likely follow them as they enter the high-spending years of young adulthood (Neuborne, 1999). As a group, they enjoy a greater level of financial security and material comfort than previous generations (Romeo, 1999). One in nine high school students has a credit card co-signed by a parent, and many will take on extensive debt to finance college. Generation Y will be the primary consumer group in subsequent decades. In a few years, today’s teens will be out of college and spending for their first cars, their first homes, and their first mutual funds.

Beck (1997) described several economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental changes impacting Generation Y are described below:

+ Approximately 60% of children under the age of six have mothers who work outside the home, compared to 18% in 1960. Nearly 61% of U.S. children aged three to five are attending preschool, compared with 38% in 1970.

+ Nearly 60% of households with children aged seven or younger have personal computers.

+ More than one-third of elementary-school students nationwide are black or Hispanic, compared with 22% in 1974. The U.S. Bureau of the Census projects that "minorities" will make up the majority of the U.S. population by 2050.

+ Approximately 15% of U.S. births in recent years were to foreign-born mothers, with origins so diverse that more than 100 different languages are spoken in the school systems of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Fairfax County, VA.

+ Nearly one of three births in the early 1990s was to an unmarried woman. With approximately one in three marriages ending in divorce, that means a significant portion of this generation will spend at least part of childhood in a single-parent home.

+ One-quarter of children under age six are living in poverty, defined as cash income of less than $15,141 for a family of four.

 Changing societal and family structures, combined with advances in technology, will be forces shaping the development of Generation Y (Radice, 1998). The majority of Generation Yers live in households where their mothers work full-time. With divorce reaching new heights, many live in non-traditional family structures where there may or may not have been another parent present. One in four lives in a single-parent household. Three in four have working mothers (Neuborne, 1999). Multiculturalism is another characteristics of the group. They have grown up in racially diverse and mixed socio-economic groups, much more so than preceding generations (Coeyman, 1998). One in four is not Caucasian and more than one-third of elementary school students are African-American or Hispanic (Neuborne, 1999; Lewis, 1997).

To summarize this section, it is important that sport and leisure marketers understand Generation Y so that they may effectively plan services tailored to their economic, social, emotional, and developmental characteristics. In the following section, the leisure and sport consumer behaviors of Generation Y will be discussed.

 Leisure Preferences

Reading is a preferred leisure activity among Generation Y, and publishers have responded with an abundance of titles and series for them. Annual sales of books for young readers have more than doubled to $1.4 billion since 1987 (Beck, 1997). Bookstores have become what local libraries used to be, while libraries are becoming more like college resource centers.

Generation Y is also driving the educational-software industry, which has grown to a $600 million business from ground zero in 1990 (Beck, 1997). Baby boomer parents, seeking to give their kids an educational edge, are also fueling the booming business of "educational playthings." National retail chains sell interactive, multi-media games targeting parents who can’t spend enough time with their children, and when they do, want to do something that will help them go to a prestigious college or university.

Like their parents, members of Generation Y believe that they are pressed for time. Afternoons and weekends spent "just hanging out" by preceding teens, have now been taken over by chess clubs, soccer leagues, gymnastics lessons, and piano recitals for Generation Y. With so little perceived free time, kids today may not have enough opportunity to create, experiment, and invent new things. Creativity takes time and time is being spent on other things. An example of the market’s response to this time compression, do-it-yourself supplier, Builder’s Square offers children weekend classes on building birdhouses, toys, and gardens.

Cool Rules

While it may appear that image is everything to Generation Y, a product’s quality actually dictates its appeal or "coolness." Reese (1997) describes the importance of "coolness" to U.S. teenagers.

….cool isn't just an adjective; it's a comprehensive set of life-guiding concepts. "Cool"

is shorthand for all the qualities necessary for a teen's social survival: acceptance, popularity, fun,

and success. In the brutally simple world of adolescents, being thought of as uncool by the social

group to which you aspire is not simply a matter of not making the grade, or even being rejected: it is the mark of The Loser.

Marketing "cool" is more difficult than it may seem, and leisure marketers will find it hard to trick Generation Y into buying something that is labeled as "cool" when it is not. Determining what is (and is not) cool is confounded for marketers by the relative appeal assigned by Generation Y to a product based on its popularity or novelty. Little-known products may be too novel for teens to purchase, and some products or services that are extremely popular may turn off Generation Y because they are too common (Ebenkamp, 1999).

 Electronic Media Consumption

Generation Y has been reared in a society heavily influenced by popular media, more so than their preceding generations. Movies, television, music, electronic magazines and games are pervasive in their environments. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. teens have a computer at home and about half have access to the Internet (Omelia, 1998). The Internet seemed to be a far-fetched notion only five years ago. Today, use of the World Wide Web and electronic mail by Generation Y is as common as the telephone. In the near future, lap-top and hand-held computers rather than spiral notebooks will be in their school backpacks.

Members of Generation Y are developing their interests in a world of technological learning opportunities through computers, video and an array of cable options. With instant electronic access to global communities, Generation Y strongly identifies with each other and shares a "global inclusivism" as to race, gender, religion and state of the environment. They wear similar clothes, listen to similar music, play similar computer games and enjoy the same recreational activities (Omelia, 1998).

While Generation Xers have been hard to reach by television, Generation Y is more influenced by this medium. American children view 500,000 television commercials between the ages of three and 18. In a normal day (6 a.m. to midnight), the average teen will spend 63 percent of his or her total media time with the television (Omelia, 1998). Radio takes up an estimated 28 percent of total media time for teens. Magazines and newspapers are placed at six and three percent respectively (Rosenthal, 1998).

Time, space, and the social bonds that build families and communities are totally different for Generation Y than previous generations (Omelia, 1998). "The electronic community never sleeps and knows no physical boundaries." With consumers focusing so much on their personal ideas of value, advertisers and marketers will need to develop programs that involve one-to-one relationships with individual consumers. The Internet will be an increasingly important tool in developing and maintaining that relationship with Generation Y (Briones, 1998). Computers and the Internet have spawned interactive electronic marketing plans (called, "e-marketing") involving a range of promotional techniques, ordering operations, and prospective consumer databases (Mulhern, 1997). While the Internet is still not a primary shopping venue (being a credit card medium), it may very well be in the future, and presently serves as a key format by which teens can explore new products and trends (Omelia, 1998). Therefore, a well-designed web site may be crucial for any company hoping to reach the under-18 consumer.

 Sport Participation Patterns

Generation Y is the only generation to experience a decline in overall sports participation, basically due to declining participation in traditional fitness-related activities. The number of teenagers participating in physical fitness activity has declined by 21 % since 1987 (SMGA, 1998c). In 1996, 20% of all 12-17 year olds participated "frequently" in some fitness-related activity, compared with 25.5% in 1987. Furthermore, from 1987 to 1996, the number of 12-17 year olds who participated in any sport, fitness, or team activity, on a "frequent" basis, increased by only 2.9 % to 13 million youth. Among youth 12-17, team sports participation was down across the board. Soccer and softball both saw 17 % declines, (hard surface) volleyball dropped 14%, ice hockey was off 11%, followed by tackle football (-10 %), baseball (-3%), and basketball (-2%). Among youth 6-11, participation in baseball suffered a 13 % decline, softball was off 10 % and volleyball lost 2 % from 1996 totals (SGMA, 1998b). A possible explanation for this decline may be the status of K-12 physical education. Mandatory physical education in grades K-12 has been relegated to an elective in most school curricula. Most school districts with severe financial constraints have reduced or eliminated extra curricular activities including clubs, intramural and interscholastic sports. As a result, youth possess fewer physical recreation skills, experiences, and less fit (Turco, 1996)

As revealed in Table 2, the three sports experiencing the greatest increases in youth participation include "In-line Skating", "Mountain Biking", and "Free Weights" (SGMA, 1998a). Also, among young Yers (6-11 years old), soccer participation rose 17%, followed by basketball (+16%) and tackle football (+5%). Basketball remains the most popular youth team sport in America. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that 991,500 children played on high school teams in 1996, ranking it first in high school participation (SGMA, 1997). Over 23 million children aged 6-17 played basketball in 1995, a 35 % increase over the 18.8 million players found when the survey began in 1987. Generation Yers, 6-11 years of age are leading the "hoop-it-up" movement. The SGMA study (1997) reported that small ball and adjustable height goals have accelerated participation growth in the sub-segment and would continue to do so over the next several years.

Generation Y and their parents are behind the growth of youth soccer in the U.S. The success of World Cup ‘94 has convinced many corporations to invest in soccer’s future by supporting youth programs and the birth of a new U.S. professional league. Both Nike and Reebok committed substantial promotional dollars to the sport and have focused the need among soccer specialty suppliers to become more involved in nurturing the sport (SGMA, 1998a). Other favorable factors, such as the success of Major League Soccer (MLS), the affect of Title IX on high school and college programs, and expanded media coverage of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic women’s team will provide further impetus for growth.

Table. 1. Ten most popular youth sports in the United States, 1996.

Sport Activity Level of Frequency Total(000) Sport Activity Level of Frequency Total
1. In-line Skating 25+ days/year 7,980 6.Baseball 52+ days/year 2,638
2. Basketball 52+ days/year 5,812 7. Running/ jogging 100+ days/year 2,532
3. Slow-pitch softball 25+ days/year 3,547 8. freshwater Fishing (including Fly Fishing) 25+ days/year 2,187
4.Touch Football 25+ days/year 3,318 9. Soccer 52+ days/year 2,162
5. Volleyball 25+ days/year 2,260 10. Billiards 25+ days/year 2,149


Source: SGMA/ American Sport Data (1997).



Table 2. Top Three Fastest-Growing Youth Sports in the U.S. (Ages 6-17; based on "frequent" participation).

Sport Activity Level of Frequency 1992 (000) 1996(000) %Gain
1. In-line Skating 25+ days/year 1,893 7,890 +316.8
2. Mountain Biking 52+ days/year 362 761 +110.2
3. Free Weights 100+ days/year 958 1,461 +52.5


Source: SGMA/American Sports Data (1997)


Table 3. Youth Team Sports Rankings, 1996

Participants 12-17 (000) Participants 6-11 (000)
Sport Activity Number of participant Sport Activity Number of participant
Basketball 12,409 Basketball 11,014
Volleyball 7,493 Soccer 8,646
Soccer 4,981 Baseball 4,400
Football (Tackle) 4,879 Softball 4,243
Softball 4,509 Volleyball 3,767
Baseball 4,321 Football (Tackle) 2,740
Ice Hockey 622 Ice Hockey 508


Source: SGMA/ American Sport Data (1997).

Girl Power!

Shopping provides many young consumers with a sense of freedom, power, and socialization. A recent study found that 55% of Americans ages 21 to 62 "enjoy shopping"; down from 58% in 1993 (Zollo, 1998). In contrast, 88% of girls between 13 and 17 say they just "love to shop." Teens make nearly 40% more trips to the mall than do other shoppers, and they often spend their own money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 41% of teens, ages 16 to 18 worked full- or part-time (Rosenthal, 1998). Including jobs not recorded by the government (i.e., babysitting), three-quarters of teens earn at least some money from working (Zollo, 1998).

The number of high school girls who participated in team sports has risen exponentially since the enactment of Title IX (civil rights legislation requiring equal educational opportunities for women and girls) in 1972. More recently, girls playing soccer has increased by 55%, fast-pitch softball by 37%, and volleyball by 22% (SGMA, 1998c).

Shoham, Rose, Kropp, and Kahle (1998) contend that the purchasing power of young women has led a variety of traditionally male-oriented industries, including sport, to re-direct their marketing efforts toward women. One sport business that understands girl power is Nike Inc. Their website for teens is called "Play Like a Girl." On the site is an essay by Karli, a 15-year-old girl in power: "When my mom was younger, if someone said you play (or run or throw) like a girl, it was considered an insult. But I think it's like a compliment now.... So when someone says I play like a girl, I ask which one? Lisa Leslie or Dawn Staley or Mia Hamm?" (Nike, 1998). Women and girls account for nearly 25% of Nike’s product sales.

Generation Y has grown up in a more media-saturated, brand conscious world than their parents. They respond to ads differently, and they prefer to encounter those ads in different places (Neuborne, 1999; Radice, 1998). Teenagers are fundamentally media savvy, and they understand that commercials and advertisements exist to sell product (Omelia, 1998). The old-style advertising that works well with boomers, ads that push a slogan, an image and a feeling, will not be effective with Generation Y (Neuborne, 1999). The keys for reaching this group will be sophistication, sense of humor, and honesty, and it will be hard to fool them (Coeyman, 1998). In the past, marketers could target teens through demographics, age, income, or place of residence as key barometers of their consumer interests. Now, psychographic elements such as music tastes, life aspirations, environmental and social awareness are more telling indicators of which brands can be linked to Generation Y (Rosenthal, 1998). Sport marketers who can attach their product or brand to a consumer’s values system rather than the expression of one, have a better chance of outliving fads. The marketing strategies used for ESPN’s, X-Games, is an example of a successful, integrated sport marketing campaign aimed squarely at Generation Y.


The U.S. teen population began to decline in 1976, after the last baby boomers aged out of their teen years. After 16 years of continuous decline, the teenage population began to increase in 1992. There are roughly 57 million Americans under age 15, and more than 20 million in the peak years between four and eight. The number of children and teens could run to 82 million by 2015. In 30 years, the under-30 population and the middle-aged baby boomlet together will make up the majority of Americans.

This study described the consumer characteristics of Generation Y and provided several marketing strategies for them. It was found that Generation Y differs from other age groups by their preferences, attitudes, and sport participation patterns. It was suggested that different marketing approaches were necessary to lure this large and influential consumer market. The information presented may lead to a better understanding of this generation, and assist those with the challenging task of providing sport opportunities to teenagers.

 References Cited


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Authors:  is Associate Professor, Department of HPER at the same institution.

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