Sports has a Gen-Z problem
Leagues continue to lose the next generation of fans
Sports has a Gen-Z problem. Although new streaming options and the legalization of sports gambling has been a financial boon for the industry of late, disinterest among America’s youngest viewers could spell major trouble in the years to come. According to a 2020 report by Morning Consult, members of Gen-Z (or “zoomers”) are markedly apathetic towards live sporting events compared to older generations. The report found that only 25% of zoomers watch sports at least once a week, and nearly 40% watch none at all. In addition, just 53% of zoomers consider themselves “fans” of sports, compared to 63% of other adults. There are plenty of more statistics to cite, but the point is clear: when game day rolls around, Gen-Z can’t be bothered to tune in.
There are plenty of potential explanations for this trend, many of which aren’t easy to control. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has led to a major dip in youth sports participation – historically a major engine for turning young people into active, engaged fans. But the disconnect between zoomers and sports did not start with COVID. Researchers and industry analysts have for years been warning league owners and executives that they will need to adapt if they want to attract Gen-Z. Raised with smartphones and social media at their fingertips, zoomers bring a whole new set of values and behaviors into the marketplace – behaviors that may seem alien to sports executives used to low-maintenance, high-loyalty older viewers.
The findings by Morning Consult and others should ring an alarm bell for any serious players in the sports industry. Though the segment of the economy commanded by Gen-Z is still small, it is poised to grow dramatically in the years to come, as their digital-native ways determine more and more the operations of every industry. Anyone who fails to adapt to this new, rapidly-evolving reality risks losing an entire generation of fans. By paying close attention to the demands and habits of Gen-Z, sports marketers can work towards closing this gap and engaging a new generation of highly energized fans.
Short and sweet.
Just because Gen-Z is watching less live games, doesn’t mean that they aren’t watching sports at all. One potentially lucrative channel for leagues to reach younger fans is through short-form video, specifically on Youtube and TikTok. By this point, it is a well-established cliche that zoomers spend all of their time on their phones. And there is significant truth to this; studies show that Gen-Z checks their phone 23 times an hour, or over 250 times a day. Platforms like TikTok are perfect for this kind of scrolling, their content ideal for convenient, bite-sized enjoyment. As the go-to entertainment hub for millions of zoomers, short-form video platforms present a golden opportunity for marketers to reach this elusive audience.
Many leagues have already begun to take advantage of platforms like TikTok and Youtube. For some, this just means migrating existing content (highlight reels, post-game analysis) onto a new platform. In 2019, for example, the NFL signed a multi-year deal with TikTok to bring exclusive short-form content to fans less interested in live broadcasts. Others within the industry, however, believe that this does not go far enough. Bo Han, founder of a sports streaming app called Buzzer, is one person pushing a more fundamental change in the way sports are broadcast. Using a combination of microtransactions and AI, Han’s app provides fans with a highly personalized feed that caters to their preferred viewing experience. Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, also believes that a major, tech-driven transformation of sports broadcasting is on the horizon. Regardless of which approach wins out, the industry should be optimistic about the future of short-form video: the vertical is projected to grow in value at a rate of nearly 30% in the years to come.
Making a connection.
There is no shortage of marketers and entrepreneurs who, for years, have preached that the future of sports fandom lies in social media channels. Dan Porter, the CEO of Overtime (a sports publishing and influencing company called “a Gen-Z sports oasis” by the Wall Street Journal) is one such evangelist. However, he is just as adamant that this engagement must go both ways; leagues need to be actively interacting with their fans, not just passively delivering content to them, in order to make a genuine connection. Overtime employs “five people who do nothing but go into the comment sections and engage with our followers,” he said in a 2020 Axios interview. Porter’s business strategy – as well as Overtime’s success – point to another lesson that the sports industry needs to learn about Gen-Z: social media can be a powerful marketing tool, but only if brands are able to relate to zoomers on a personal level.
“Personal” is something of a watchword when it comes to Gen-Z marketing. Zoomers expect brands to see them as more than just a customer, and to be personable and relatable with them in online interactions. Any marketer who is not able to nurture these kinds of close, organic connections risks losing out to a more social-media fluent competitor. For this reason, influencer marketing is another area in which sports leagues should see major growth in the coming years. The intimate relationships that exist between zoomers and influencers have been leveraged by many industries as a marketing tactic, and sports is no different. Sometimes, this means partnering with existing influencers; in the run-up to the 2020 World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays teamed up with a pair of popular TikTok influencers to boost their own audience. But athletes, too, can often double as influencers to draw in fans. Many zoomers feel more loyalty to players than they do to specific teams, a fact that organizations should take advantage of in order to develop closer connections with young fans.
Another way that sports can double down on personal connections with Gen-Z is by embracing “cause marketing,” aligning themselves with social issues that young fans feel passionate about. Although taking firm political stances can be risky when catering to a wide audience – and many organizations understandably avoid doing so – it can also be a powerful way to forge closer connections with younger, socially conscious fans. During the tumultuous events of 2020, many brands, teams, and individual athletes chose to support causes through awareness-raising campaigns and charitable endeavours. Although the ROI for this kind of marketing effort may be less tangible, it can increase loyalty from those fans who appreciate seeing the more sensitive, human side of major organizations.
Exploring new horizons.
The biggest secret to capturing a Gen-Z audience, however, might be one that takes traditional sports organizations out of their comfort zone, and that is eSports. With 2.5 billion gamers worldwide and a $150 billion market value, video games have far-surpassed every other sector of the entertainment industry. More people watch eSports than NBA or MLB games, according to a 2020 Forbes article, and any marketer who does not take advantage of this is throwing money away. Gen-Z fans in particular are attracted to eSports, where the personality and accessibility of the players draw them to watch streams for hours on end.
Some leagues have already begun to read the writing on the wall when it comes to the potential of eSports. The NHL has put on a World Gaming Championship in an effort to reach out to younger viewers; Monumental Sports, owner of several Washington DC sports teams, is one of many groups that have added an eSports franchise to their portfolio. Although not every team owner needs to invest in purchasing an eSports team, there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the success of this new kind of athletic organization. By meeting zoomers where they are, and presenting them with relatively unfiltered content with a low barrier to entry, the eSports industry has been able to grow exponentially among a notoriously tricky demographic. Major leagues struggling with Gen-Z apathy should take note of this. By emulating the digital-first, social-centered strategy of eSports, they may yet succeed in turning reluctant younger viewers into fans for a lifetime.
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