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Leagues Can Expand On-Ramp to Fandom with Reading and Elementary School Integrations

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Leagues Can Expand On-Ramp to Fandom with Reading and Elementary School Integrations

Youth sports initiatives are an effective means of cultivating future players, executives, and fans. But many kids will never participate in organized athletics for a variety of reasons.

So, teams and leagues seeking to reach a broader swath of Gen Alpha (and eventually Gen Beta) may want to consider additional on-ramps that can further reduce or eliminate barriers to entry.  

“We see reading and elementary education integrations as necessary top of the funnel marketing, Michael Gold (co-founder, Future Fans) said. “If you’re not a fan by a certain age, the probability of becoming one later drops precipitously; and it is before the end of fifth grade.”

Future Fans has its sights set on becoming the ‘preeminent brand’ for how young kids (ages 5-10) learn about sports. The company has created a storybook experience, embedded with parallel games and toys, that teaches children core rules and concepts–often without the reader even realizing it.

Its debut product, Future Fans Football, has won six toy awards since its Labor Day release.


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Historically speaking, children that did not play football picked up the complicated game via osmosis.

“When we were kids, what was on the TV was the entertainment that everybody [in the household] was going to consume,” Mike Schroder (co-founder, Future Fans) said. 

But that has changed over the last 20 years. 

“Today, I put on an NFL game and my kids can watch 100 other things [because they] have access to so much more media [and second screens],” Schroder said.

And young kids who do not understand football and its rules do not stick around to watch and learn from parents. Eventually, the league loses its opportunity to convert those individuals into fans. 

Of course, the earlier a person becomes a fan the greater his or her lifetime value is to the NFL too. 

So, the fundamental question is how does the league go about exposing more young people to the sport at a younger age?

The NFL has invested in growing flag football participation and its efforts have seemingly worked. The International Federation of American Football reports 2.4 million kids under the age of 17 now play organized flag in the United States–including the ~700,000 taking part in NFL FLAG leagues. And that number is rising.

“But [youth sports is] not the most scalable approach to getting people exposed to [the game] broadly,” Schroder said. “There has to be a league. There has a be a parent [to sign the child up]. There has to be a kid that is interested in [playing]. And [organized leagues] usually start around [age] six.”

The NFL has introduced more accessible initiatives designed to drive broad awareness (think: Toy Story simulcast). Those efforts, however, have not focused on teaching kids the rules of the game. The assumption is if more children understood the game, more would be engaged fans of it.

The most scalable approach is through everyday activities, like reading.

“Anybody can do it,” Schroder said. “You don’t have to [be an athlete].” 

And integrations within the public-school curriculum would ensure widespread exposure.

Future Fans isn’t the first attempt to help young children understand the complex game.

However, “all the books at the library and SI for Kids books are direct explanation,” Schroder said. 

Future Fans’ core product wraps the information into a fun and rewarding family experience. The child gets to participate in various games/activities that connect back to football concepts, and/or opens toy prizes, after reading each of the storybook sessions.

Editor’s Note: Mads was particularly motivated to read chapters that concluded with a prize.

“The whole concept of gamification and delayed gratification made sense to us [as both a motivational tactic and means of reinforcing concepts learned],” Gold said.

The Future Fans Football box set comes with an activity book that keeps young kids engaged during live games after they have completed all eight sessions (think: scoring worksheets, game-watch bingo cards, a fourth down decision chart). 

The retail product's price point ($59.99) would require adaptation to become a stable of elementary school libraries. But the company has created an abbreviated version of the book that the Cincinnati Bengals used in classroom visits this fall.

“We went from 2 of 17 kids comprehending the concepts we were asking about to 15 of 17 [during one visit],” Schroder said. 

The company could also consider introducing a digital product to make use in schools more viable.

Future Fans has sold 500 units of its football themed box to date. 

“A lot of that has been in the last couple of weeks [as word is starting to get out about the brand and the toy awards has won],” Schroder said. 

Those needing a last minute Hanukkah or Christmas present can find it online (website, Amazon) or in select Ohio retailers. The are plans to sell the product in big box retail stores come ’25.

“When we’ve got multiple sports,” Schroder said.

Football’s popularity and complex nature made it a logical sport for Future Fans to start with. But the company will release a soccer product this spring and it has a basketball product coming out in ‘24 too. Its baseball and hockey focused learning experiences will follow in ‘25.

Future Fans believes once it has a slate of products across all the major U.S. sports that it will be able to sell “tens if not hundreds of thousands of units,” Schroder said. 

It views its TAM as sports fans with kids between the ages of 5-10.

The discrepancy in units sold cited may be determined by Future Fans’ ability (or lack thereof) to turn its tactile learning experience into a licensed product (think: league or team themed). 

“Conservatively, this is a $30 million a year brand,” Schroder said. “If we can get into the licensed side of this, [it] could easily double or triple that potential.”

Time will tell how accurate that prediction is. But leagues without a concerted reading or elementary education strategy are almost certainly leaving future fans on the table. 

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