To Keep Growing, Pro AV Needs to Stop Graying
Fresh off his first InfoComm, Caster’s Robert Simms realizes Pro AV needs to stop graying if it wants to keep growing
CNN journalist Harry Enten wrote the following passage in early April as the baseball season kicked off: “When my father, born in 1927, was my age, Opening Day was one of the biggest events on the sports calendar. For his son, it’s just another day.” Enten’s story is far from unique.
According to data from a 2021 Washington Post poll, only 7% of sports fans under the age of 30 said baseball was their favorite sport. That shockingly small number was less than half the share who prioritize football (24%) and basketball (17%). It was even outstripped by the percentage of respondents who literally chose “something else” (11%). This data makes clear that baseball has done a poor job investing in the acquisition and nurture of new generations of fans, but this revelation is hardly recent news. A quick Google search will find articles about the sport’s inability to engage young audiences from 2018, 2015, and 2013, and attendance figures have felt the absence of these folks: total season attendance dropped by over 14% from 2007 to 2019, the last full season before COVID came into play.
This slow decline in popularity and cultural mindshare will be exponentially harder to reverse than it would have been to preempt. The problem with getting kids to care about baseball is that baseball itself doesn’t seem to care about baseball, a reality exposed in part when the MLB commissioner referred to the league’s championship trophy as, “just a piece of metal.”
The reason I bring this up is because I fear the AV industry has a similar problem. Commercial Integrator’s State of the Industry Report from 2019, the last year where age data was reported publicly, showed that only 15% of the Pro AV workforce were under the age of 35. 38% were 55 or older. That leaves mid-career professionals as the largest segment of the AV workforce, an arrangement that is logical but precarious. If the industry struggles to funnel young people into AV jobs, there will be fewer and fewer aging into that mid-career tier, a shrinkage exacerbated by the fact that mid-career professionals, especially in the tech industry, are the group at the forefront of the Great Resignation.
Just like in baseball, this graying of the AV space is a well-reported problem. Articles from 2018 and 2017 emphasized the industry was “in dire need of more young people,” and asked why the industry wasn’t collectively doing more. The graying of the AV industry could become a major issue for the continued prosperity of both the people and products in the space, especially given the ambitious growth targets projected by trade associations like AVIXA. Labor supply must keep up with product demand but if young people stop entering the industry, longtime AV pros will have nobody to work for them in the present, and nobody to take the torch into the future.
The lack of representation from Millennials and Gen Z could also prove troublesome from a product design perspective. This is true now more than ever given how experiential AV products are becoming. These experiences are designed for the masses, and the masses are increasingly millennial, now definitively the largest generation in the country. The gap relative to Gen X and baby boomers is certain to grow larger in the coming decades, and Gen Z will likely surpass these two in short order as well.
While there are initiatives out there to engage with these demographics, like the Ignite internship program for example, there needs to be an industry-wide movement to get younger – and fast. Oddly enough, AV could take a lesson from baseball. One of the ways baseball has worked to engage with younger fans is by giving them something to do beyond sit and crunch peanuts. The crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, and the taste of a hotdog at the ballgame are still essential elements of the stadium experience but without any sort of digital experiences to go alongside them, the scene feels stale.
Ironically, the solution baseball has embraced is to go all-in on AV, improving the style, sophistication, and scale of digital experiences inside and outside stadiums. When asked about the league’s overall technology plan for last year, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer Chris Marinak commented that, “we really have used AV technology as a core element to growing our fan base and connecting with the next generation of fans.” Each of the four pillars of the league’s fan engagement plan tie into this tactic, including the personalization of digital products, the modernization of the venue experience, the build-out of gaming and fan communities, and differentiated ways to consume the sport. Young people expect experiences wherever they go, and baseball has at long last learned to deliver.
Though I am lacking in specifics, my sweeping suggestion for AV companies looking to appeal to my generation and the ones younger than me follows the same principle: give us something to do. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if AV companies let young people build things, they will come. The Pro AV industry has an incredible built-in advantage when it comes to engaging with younger generations; the technology itself is already highly effective at engaging young people in the field. One would think that interest would easily translate to the design and development of the technology and the businesses behind it too, but yet…here we are.
There are a variety of issues in the Pro AV space, but many of them could be fixed simply by improving the age breakdown of the people who work in the industry. Simply put, Pro AV needs to stop graying. Like it has been for baseball, this will be an enduring, expensive issue to address. Also like baseball, the game is over unless we adapt.