On-demand streaming, cord cutting and shifting consumer habits have turned the traditional media world upside down with one notable exception: live sports. In 2021, Nielsen said that sports accounted for 95 of the top 100 watched live programs and the growth of new sectors like esports, legalized gambling and NFT collectables have made a multi-billion dollar industry even more lucrative.
But there are signs that the industry will need to adapt to younger generations’ tastes — according to a 2021 Emory University study, only 23% of Gen Z said they were passionate sports fans, compared with the 42% of millennials. Meanwhile, 27% of Gen Zers said they disliked sports altogether. Gen Z fandom isn’t dead though, it’s just different.
We enlisted five D1A sports fans (and once up-and-coming future MVPs in their own right) to break down the changing nature of sports marketing, discuss who is breaking through and predict how brands can reach and develop new sports fans.
Our starting five:
- Stefen: Montana State tennis finalist.
- Terence: Intramural Ultimate Frisbee champ.
- Mike: 5th grade rec league soccer champ.
- Cam: Threw a one hitter against the number two team in the state.
- Megan: Intramural college dodgeball champs.
What was your earliest sports memory?
Cam: Definitely the first baseball game I went to. I was five years old. I wanted to go see Ken Griffey Jr. He was injured; he was never going to play that game. So I decided to root for the other team that day. But I just remember the Kingdome at the time was the craziest thing I'd ever seen, like imagining playing there was just impossible. How could these guys be so big and so fast? And throw so hard? It was just amazing.
Mike: I would probably also say baseball as well. I used to go down to Florida all the time to visit my grandma. And she lived near where a bunch of teams have their spring training facilities. I remember just going with my mom and getting there early to the game and sitting behind the dugout or sitting behind where the bullpen was meeting a bunch of players.
Stefen: For me, I think it’d probably be the early ’90s. My family, especially on my mom’s side, are big Knicks fans. So I still remember we’d have these big family dinners and get togethers, but then inevitably everyone would gather in the back living room and watch the Knicks basically get eviscerated by Michael Jordan’s Bulls every single playoff series. I still remember the passion my uncles and father had for it.
Terence: When I was in third grade, I went out to Notre Dame for a football game. And I’d been to sporting events before that, but that was a pretty formative experience for me because it exposed me to what a college football weekend is like at a major school.
Megan: The Indianapolis Indians would let us run around on the field on Sundays after games. And the players would stick around and play catch with us even though they were basically minor leaguers for a professional baseball team. So that was always cool, because it felt like there was someone who was like an actual player.
What’s one thing that brands, teams or leagues can do to engage Gen Z more and get them in the fandom loop?
Cam: We've started to see the rise of alt-broadcasts bringing in younger fans, thinking about the Nickelodeon playoff games. Streaming has also become huge. People tend to watch streams for the creators and personalities, a sort of reactionary environment where you’re watching somebody watch the event, but you’re following them because you like the actual individuals that are a part of that. So embracing this, like, sport-tainment versus this three-hour block of a full game goes a long way. I think we’re gonna start seeing more celebrities, and probably more Gen Z type influencers brought into stuff like that.
Megan: It’s also turning those athletes into creators. We’re no longer in an era where someone like Derek Jeter plays for one team his whole career. These players move around and are traded a lot more. And with upcoming esports there are teams, but it is really focused on the individual. So I also really like letting people express their individuality, have a little fun, sometimes poke fun at the league or rules.
If you think about brands that are successful, what are some of the qualities of those that thrive and also reach a non-traditional younger audience?
Stefen: It’s really all about authenticity. Is your brand just yelling about the fact that they sponsor a sport? Or do they like connecting in a cool way? Are they sponsoring something that’s actually part of the culture? Or are they just saying, “Hey, we sponsor basketball, this is why you should follow.” I always think of what Hulu did. They partnered with athletes and were saying, “Hey, we’re giving these athletes a bunch of money to talk about Hulu, but it’s funny, you’re talking about it.” And now people are actually going to go to Hulu to watch the sport.
Terence: Yeah, I definitely agree with Stefen. Another way that brands can be successful is not being afraid to break the mold or step outside of the way things have been typically done. I was thinking about the game that the Yankees and White Sox played at the Field of Dreams. It’s similar to the NHL Winter Classic.
How can brands attract younger fans to attend live events and live sporting events?
Stefen: For me, it’s stats and gamification. Many football fans are also fantasy football fans, so one of the reasons why they don’t necessarily want to go to a game is you can’t follow your teams or your bets because you’re focused on one game. Whereas, at home, you can watch on multiple screens, you can watch Red Zone, you can follow your fantasy team on your apps. So it’s more about bringing that to the venue. And then, I know it's still a little bit hard for people to wrap their head around, but the gambling aspect is not going anywhere—a lot of places are now starting to have gambling in their arena where people can bet when they're there.
We’ve been talking a lot about the in-person experience, and now I want to shift to digital channels. What’re interesting ways that brands are activating virtually in order to connect and engage with Gen Z?
Cam: A lot of the teams have really embraced their own social-first tone of voice and we see a lot of teams bordering this meme-ified social space. The Los Angeles Chargers are one of my favorite teams to follow. The Los Angeles Kings do a great job of it, too. There are some other initiatives league-wide that start to bring in more creators, really putting stuff back in the hands of Gen Z’s favorite creators versus always broadcasting the league’s message goes a long way.
Megan: I feel like the engagement part is huge. A lot of the teams like the Colorado Rockies have a lot of inside jokes with their fans, so you don’t have to pay for a game to feel like you’re part of the club. Allowing the fans to have that reach and connect with each other is really what’s building that community for them.
What’s a “new” sport or new athlete that you have started to follow recently? Or a sport that’s really grown in popularity that you’ve become a fan of?
Terence: I've been watching a little more Premier League soccer and watching Ted Lasso [on HBO Max] really got me into it, too.
Mike: I’ve also been watching a ton of Premier League. In the past 10 years, my fandom has exploded. After the 2010 World Cup, I fully bought in.
Stefen: Formula1 is the sport that I am now much more of a fan of. I've always been a Lewis Hamilton fan, but more just from a social/influence perspective. But then watching the Netflix show [Drive to Survive], I was all in on Hamilton versus [Max] Verstappen. This year, I actually like Verstappen, too. Dramatizing these sports is a good strategy—people want a story.
Cam: I would say the ability to double down on my favorite sports like basketball. There’s just more I can watch. And then one that I’m not a fan of, but I have watched more than I ever have is the Paul brothers’ [Jake and Logan] boxing matches. And that is more of a hate watch. For me, personally, I watch to see if Paul gets knocked. And that’s been something that I never would have expected to watch.
Who’s your favorite athlete that you follow on social and why?
Stefen: Lewis Hamilton I do think does really, really well. He shows the competition, but he’s also one of the most influential people in the world. So he shows not just what he’s doing on track, but what he’s doing off track. And then the world’s best troll, Joel Embiid—everything that he puts out on Twitter is fantastic. He’s gonna say how he feels and the fact that he plays in Philadelphia is a city that wants exactly that. It's just a perfect fit.
Megan: Lando Norris is really interesting on social. He actually has his own esports team called Team Quadrant. I’m into gaming and most people who actually watch F1 are also gamers. If you haven’t watched Drive to Survive, you’ll see they practice on Sims, which is basically a video game.
Mike: I’m not a fan, but I love Kevin Durant’s presence on social media. He’s not afraid to put it all out there. He’s just a real person. He’s very unapologetic. He also allegedly had a couple burner accounts, but I think he owned up to that. For better or for worse, he’s not afraid to clap back at Stephen A Smith, or even fans who say negative stuff about him.
Cam: A lot of golfers do a good job of building their brands and letting you peek behind the scenes. Brooks Koepka comes to mind there. I also personally love to follow minor league baseball prospects before they get big. Julio Rodriguez is one of my current favorites.
If you were the commissioner of a league, or head of a brand, what’s one thing you would do to attract young fans to your sport or to your program?
Megan: It is so expensive to go to an event, and lowering that barrier to entry is really crucial.
Terence: I would see how I could tighten up games to make them shorter. A lot of times, especially in close games, the last two minutes can last 15 or 20 minutes, because there's replay reviews and timeouts. More importantly though, the commercials really drive me nuts when I’m watching a game. So I would be in favor of commercial-free broadcasts.
Stefen: More engaging things to do in the arena. That'd be number one. And then to reach Gen Z where they are. So if they’re using TikTok, that doesn't mean a 45-year-old white director of marketing should be the one doing that. It should be some 26-year-old that you hire who actually understands the ecosystem, and how to actually reach that community. If I was a commissioner, I would hire a bunch of young people that actually understand those channels to help me beef up how we’re promoting on those channels.