EXCLUSIVE: Media execs who’ve invested heavily in sports will find some reassuring, and some worrisome, data today in the first study of sports fans from USC Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future and digital sports media company ThePostGame.

The encouraging news? About 86% of the population (92% of men and 80% of women) say that they’re at least “casual” sports fans, including 24% who call themselves “intense” fans, according to the January survey of more than 1,000 people over age 15.

Another 10% aren’t fans but say that they have a friend or companion who is, while 3% aren’t interested at all.

That’s meaningful for media because “sports has always been on the leading edge of technological change,” and the leagues are “the best content creators there are,” says the Center’s founder and director Jeffrey Cole.

The problems arise when you look at how much viewers will pay for sports — especially as they find alternatives to the basic pay TV bundle that requires fans and non-fans alike to pay for high priced channels including ESPN.

Not surprisingly, those who deem themselves sports fans prefer to have non-fans share the cost. Some 59% of fans like having sports channels in their basic cable package “if it keeps price down.” Another 28% say the channels should be an option and 13% don’t care.

If the bundle breaks up, then channels such as ESPN will “never be able to replicate having 100 million households paying $6.50 a month with advertising on top,” Cole says.

Even so, 90% of fans say that they’d pay extra for sports: 53% want to to continue watching on cable or satellite, while 44% opted for online streaming.

Viewers who are 36 or younger will pay the highest amounts for sports, the survey found.

And although men are more likely to be fans, female fans are willing to pay higher prices than their male counterparts.

“There is an expectation that this is premium content and will come at a cost,” says David Katz, CEO of ThePostGame.

The findings were more mixed for advertisers, who like the fact that fans typically watch sports live — which means they can’t zap the commercials. Most viewers say that the promotions detract from sports programming. But one out of five of those under 18 say that the ads enhance the viewing experience.

Katz says that the study’s findings bode well for sports leagues — especially the NFL — who are eager to sell streaming rights to new players such as Facebook. “I expect there’ll be a digital player at the broadcast table at the next contract negotiation,” he says.