Right now, the question is inevitable: How can we make a one hundred and fifty-year-old sport, with rules that have remained unchanged, attractive for a generation that has grown up surrounded by screens, that has easy access to the greatest entertainment offer one could ever imagine, and, according to different research studies, they don’t pay attention for more than eight seconds to anything that does not excite them in that short time period?
Gen Z members are the greatest media consumers that have ever existed. They are exposed to information from the moment they get up to the moment they go to bed. They are 24/7 consumers. They even do it simultaneously with other activities. However, in this context, the great challenge sports marketing is facing is getting this new audience to remain loyal to the classic tv sports broadcasting.
In the United States, the youngsters between 10 and 20 years old represent 40% of the consumers this year, and five years from now, they will be the majority. It’s a big headache to attract them to different forms of consumption as this generation behavioural patterns differ a lot in comparison to previous generations. They are people who have not known a world without social media, and they’ve always lived in a world struggling through an economic crisis.
Two main traits as consumers arise from this situation. They are unpredictable, they change their interests and criteria very quickly and, although they have no problem when it comes to spending money because their consumption has always been digital, they are not willing to pay the full amount for a product. All this benefits business with a culture of paying for what they consume.
Focused on sports, their ability to divert attention is a considerable difficulty for strategies based on fan loyalty. The Gen Z follower of a team may not be faithful to a club for life, as their grandparents – or they might be to a great number of them, which will not stop increasing throughout their lives, just as in fast fashion. They will neither fall into the fan phenomenon, following one particular player the same way as their parents used to do. The sports celebrity world may experience fragmentation and atomisation of the audience, just as it happened before with traditional media.
There is already a fragmentation but of the consumption itself. While older generations watch an entire match on TV or go to the stadium, watching a full match is no longer necessary for the Gen Z. They are satisfied with highlights which combine with social media interactions. According to Sport Business Daily, only 41% of Gen Z’s watch their favourite sport on traditional TV versus 75% of baby boomers. After the final whistle, Gen Z is more interested than anyone in the behind the scenes videos, bloopers, documentaries, or any original content. That is to say, all the information a sports event creates when it isn’t being played. In the United States, the youngster audience passion for football is rising if we look at the consumption percentages, as they spend more than three hours per week watching videos that are not related to the game (MLS, football: 26%; NBA, basketball: 18%; NHL, hockey: 16%; MLB, baseball: 15%; NFL, American football: 13%).
However, they are not passive consumers, they need to participate. On the one hand, from a philanthropic standpoint. The social-political context they have grown up is more extremist and polarised than that of their ancestors. Movements, such as the green and sustainable one, has become a concern that transcends simple activism. A Gen Z principle is to join causes, especially anti-racist, against homophobia and initiatives which regard respect for the environment. It has been mentioned as a motto that Gen Z is only bothered by diversity when it is not present.
The sports industry will have to know how to make all these trends visible, aiming for them to keep buying and consuming goods in a more satisfactory way, in order to avoid losing them.
They want to live in a better world. They are not satisfied with talking about changing the world, what really motivates them is doing it or collaborating actively so that it is done. Sports clubs social projects or the work done by their foundations becomes essential for the future and it can be the cornerstone to attract these fans. It is reasonable to think that in the future, a club will not only be cheered because of its goals, or because its fans belong to the same city or country, but rather because of the cause they are committed which fans feel identified with.
Their need to participate is not just about assigning meaning to their consumption pattern. Nowadays, all kinds of information and content about a sport has to be presented in a way that can be shared on social media. Gen Z, for example, feels the need to show everything they buy, everything they see, listen to and experiment. Something that cannot be shared will be considered a failure. Actually, the source of information comes out from the media and official accounts, but it reaches the Gen Z fan through their friends on social medial. What is more, the trend is to receive the most personalised experience compatible with their friends. Sports broadcasting and the information provided by a club needs to be produced and set up in a way that allows fans to follow exclusively that what is specific to their interest.
Following this idea, baseball has exemplified this trend in the United States. The passion for this sport reached its lowest with millennials. However, there has been a rise with Gen Z. Apart from the successful applications developed in time by the Major League Baseball, what has truly made the difference is that baseball, unlike other sports, its data is key and accessible. The possibility of consulting historical statistics, the speed of the ball or the throwing angles, among multiple parameters, has caught the Gen Z audience, because they can both attend to their favourite sport and be immersed in big data analysis, sharing information easily on social media to be discussed. A win-win for the fan and the club. In this sense, the emergence of smart stadiums makes it even more attractive for these fans to assist and follow their team.
On the other hand, unlike previous generations, Gen Z goes through intellectual stages too quickly. They’ve always had information within reach. They’re young, in their twenties, and some have seen more football from different periods than a boomer could have seen in their entire life and all thanks to Youtube and other streaming platforms. In the end, it resumes to hours of video and Gen Z has an infinite offer which is available to them. The possibility of understanding a game, by breaking it down and understanding the player’s performance, has been within reach since they were introduced into the sports discipline. They have tools at their disposal that not even the most experienced journalists in the past could have enjoyed.
Another key aspect is that none of these strategies can be deployed with traditional advertising. The Gen Z rejects any kind of traditional advertisement, as well as celebrities trying to seduce or appeal to them. They do not trust famous people, and the only way to reach them is through influencers and micro-influencers. In fact, Forbes analysed that for consumers that surf with up to five screens (cell phone, TV, notebook, computer, and tablet) a spot or pre-roll, mid-roll and post-roll of a video are completely useless. On average, a Gen Z spends around six hours a day with their mobile phone in their hand, this is the first thing their eyes fix to when they are not interested in something.
However, this unstable attention not only affects advertising. There is a trend among Gen Z members towards niche sports in detriment of traditional ones. If they detect something is predictable or repetitive, they disconnect. Marketing experts have described this attitude as “entertain me here and now, otherwise I have other choices.” A study from the British consulting firm Image claimed that even when they pay attention, we still don’t get their full attention.
Football’s pureness is an asset and one of the secrets of its attraction. It has remained in its classic form with few changes in its history, but that can now be a problem. There’s the need to introduce new and fresh concepts to keep the attraction of this sport without betraying its essence and somethings are being experimented, such as the hydration pause. But there is a risk that Gen Z’s preferences might go faster than these changes.
On the positive side, Gen Z were raised by parents obsessed with health as no other previous generation. Healthy-life habits are always related to sports activities, that is why, even though people think of them as a sedentary generation focused on screens, it is the opposite, they are more interested in sport due to their upbringing and education. And that brings up another problem. Due to their personality, they are also more interested in practising sports than watching it.
Here it is where the great challenge of sports like football lies on. While short-term tools are used to turn the fan into a super-fan, in the long term we have to consider that the Gen Z have abandoned traditional sports, especially, after the arrival of eSports. To break this pattern, to keep them only as fans, experimental ideas are already on the move. As shown in past editions of Sports Tomorrow, virtual reality and 5G will allow personalised broadcastings by the audience, allowing them to customise players to whatever they like, such as using animated cartoons for players. Unprecedented strategies are needed for a market controlled by an unpredictable generation.