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Red Sox seek younger fans via mobile technology

A young Red Sox fan waits to try and get his ball signed during spring training.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A young Red Sox fan waits to try and get his ball signed during spring training.

The Red Sox have among the most passionate followers in the sporting world. There’s just one problem: They’re getting old.

As the team opens another season at Fenway Park on Friday, it is also launching a new effort to increase fan engagement through digital channels, including social media and streaming video, with an eye toward adding younger members to Red Sox Nation, both kids and young adults alike who may be more facile with a smartphone than a baseball bat.

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The club is partnering with a Back Bay digital marketing firm, Sapient, which has performed strategic consulting for major sports brands such as ESPN and NBA superstar LeBron James.

“We recognize if we don’t connect with the next generation of fans, we are dead,” said Red Sox chief operating officer Sam Kennedy. “We have to be where kids are. I know because I have a 9-year-old and a 10-year-old, and I know where they are — they’re on these mobile devices.”

It is too early to know exactly what steps the Sox will take, but Sapient’s work for other clients offers clues to what fans might expect.

For ESPN’s coverage of the X Games, for instance, Sapient developed HypeMeter, which measures the buzz around an event based on its mentions on social media and the excitement level of people using the X Games mobile app. App users could actually shake their devices to simulate applause.

The idea was to make viewers at home feel closer to the action, and to help ESPN understand what got X Games fans fired up.

The Red Sox hope Sapient will provide insight into what excites its fans, too, perhaps using Twitter as a high-tech focus group, Kennedy said.

One of the team’s chief objectives is to figure out how the Sox can better appeal to an audience that is not content to sit still and give its undivided attention to a baseball game.

Bill Kanarick, Sapient’s chief marketing officer, said the generation of young adults known as millennials has a “different set of expectations” for entertainment and sports.

“You’re watching the game on TV with a second or third screen at your disposal. And then there’s the changing in-venue experience. One of every two people in the ballpark is actively on his or her mobile phone at any time, whether that’s taking video, sending text messages, using apps, tweeting.”

The Sox’s digital focus is not about youth, exclusively, but the club and the rest of Major League Baseball are concerned about missing entire generations of fans. During last year’s American and National League championship series, kids between the ages of 6 and 17 represented just 4.3 percent of the television audience, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from 7.4 percent a decade earlier.

Even as viewership for the World Series between the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals was higher than in the previous Fall Classic, the average age of a viewer continued to climb, to 54.4. That marked a 4.5-year increase since 2009, suggesting baseball is not adding enough new fans to offset the aging of its existing base.

The waning interest in watching baseball mirrors declines in youth-league participation. Little League baseball and softball signups declined 6.8 percent between 2008 and 2012; during the same period, the number of kids playing lacrosse ballooned by 158 percent, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Playing and watching are intertwined, according to Kennedy, who said the Red Sox’s digital initiative aims to spark a love of the game early in life.

“If you fall in love with baseball at a young age, typically you don’t lose that love,” Kennedy said. “We need to make sure we’re available to kids in the space where they’re operating.

In addition to consulting for the Red Sox, Sapient will develop digital media strategies for other Fenway Sports Group companies, including the Liverpool Football Club and Roush Fenway Racing. As part of the deal, Sapient will be one of two new advertisers on the Green Monster at Fenway Park, along with Foxwoods Resort Casino.

John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, also owns The Boston Globe.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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