In 2020, a survey of several Gen Z Americans revealed that only 53 percent considered themselves sports fans, and only 21 percent considered themselves to be “avid” sports fans. Both these figures are the lowest of any age demographic. Gen Z has shown a general disinterest toward professional sports with more of their interest being directed toward readily available entertainment such as esports and other streaming options like Twitch, Netflix, and YouTube.
According to the survey, there are only a few sports that have not fallen off in terms of fandom with the increase in Gen Z consumers. For example, 45 percent of American adults considered themselves to be NBA fans compared with 47 percent of Gen Z-ers. The only other sport not to experience a drop-off in fandom is the UFC, which has maintained a 29 percent fandom between everyday American adults and Gen Z. Every other traditional sport, though, has seen drops. MLB has fallen from 50 percent of adults to 32 percent of Gen Z-ers. NFL: 59 percent to 49 percent. NHL: 38 percent to 25 percent.
There is a chance that the COVID pandemic played a role in the decrease of interest in traditional sports. With no live sports on television, young people turned to other forms of entertainment, specifically video games, whether it be playing themselves or watching others. Twitch, a popular video game streaming site, has seen massive growth since the start of 2020 because of its wide array of available content during a time when not much other content was available. However, it’s not just Twitch’s content that has drawn in Gen Z viewers, it’s also its interactivity.
I had the privilege of speaking to Dustin York, Associate Professor of Communication at Maryville University in St. Louis. York says that the lack of interactivity in sports is one of its biggest issues and is the main thing driving Gen Z consumers toward platforms like Twitch.
“Pro sports, traditionally, is an ‘I sit there and consume the media,’ where Twitch and streaming is more experiential. You can be part of the show with Twitch and esports. Donate five bucks, you’re part of the show. Subscribe to the channel, you’re part of the show. With professional sports teams, VIP access, which is oftentimes much more expensive by the way, might get you season tickets and a cool email once a year, but it doesn’t offer the same experience.”
Now, the question becomes “How can sports become more experiential?” It’s the billion-dollar question. How can college and pro sports provide the same sort of interactivity that video game streaming has become linked to? York talked about how certain NFL teams like the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens have experimented with augmented reality in the past to create huge holographic animals in an attempt to engage with fans in attendance. He says those types of attempts are great, but they’re just scratching the surface of what can truly be done with virtual/augmented reality in regards to interactivity.
The first idea that came to my mind as York was emphasizing interactivity was the upcoming Fan Controlled Football League, a league that is being created as we speak with fan engagement as its core principle. Basically, with Fan Controlled Football, fans who subscribe to the league will have the opportunity to call their favorite teams’ plays. They can design the play however they want and the players on the field will run that play. It’s almost like fans can be the coach, if only for one play out of an entire game.
When briefed on the FCF League, York believed it was an interesting concept, but was skeptical that something that could so drastically affect the outcome of a game would ever reach the professional level. He does believe there is a middle ground though, saying “maybe a team could provide an online token that, when paid for, would allow fans with that token to vote on superficial aspects of the game such as what uniforms the team would wear, or what the halftime show performance would be. Ideas could be created out of thin air for fans to decide. Voting, for sure, is one of the easiest ways to increase fan engagement.”
In reality, though, fans don’t even need to vote on anything at all to feel included. The Green Bay Packers are well-known for selling stock in their team. They’ve done so as recently as Nov. 16. These stocks can be bought and sold by anybody in the United States, and while people who spent the money to purchase part of the team may not have any say in team personnel or front office decisions, it gives those people an attachment to the Packers that other teams can’t provide. “You don’t technically have voting rights,” said York, “it still adds a sense of ownership. I have stock in Nike. It doesn’t mean I have any power in that company, but I feel invested in them. I feel involved. I feel like I should buy Nike to help myself out.”
Another concept that sports leagues have relied more on recently is marketing its superstars. Individuals sell much better than organizations. There are certain sports brands and teams exempt from this rule such as the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, but in general, individuals are the best way to market a sport. The Denver Nuggets are not an attractive brand to sell, but a 6'11" Serbian sharpshooter with incredible court vision who was drafted during a Taco Bell commercial? Now that’s something many more people can get behind! The NBA has become synonymous with player marketing, at least among other professional sports leagues in America. Perhaps that’s why Gen Z has maintained an NBA fandom more so than other sports.
The NFL certainly doesn’t market its superstars to the same extent the NBA does, and the MLB has done such a poor job of marketing its stars that Mike Trout could be at your local grocery store right now and more than half the people inside would be none the wiser. Baseball has improved in the marketing department recently with Shohei Ohtani becoming an international sensation last season, but other attempts to allow players to market themselves have backfired, as was the case with the whole Trevor Bauer sexual misconduct situation. However, that poor experience with an outspoken player shouldn’t prevent the MLB from allowing other players to attempt to build their brand in similar ways.
“There is a risk in putting all your eggs in one basket. That player could do something unethical, and that becomes part of your brand, but it’s a great way to get instant access to fans.” York continued, “It sucks, but you gotta take your licks and keep moving if you want to earn money.”
Those individual personalities are what esports is entirely built on. The sport is there but it’s the individual content and the engagement with the viewers that has turned esports into a formidable concept in the near future.
Remember that survey I talked about at the beginning of this article? In that survey, 35 percent of Gen Z claimed they were fans of esports, compared with just 19 percent of American adults. That’s the largest positive difference for Gen Z among any of the 27 sports the survey asked about. Esports has built this popularity off the back of content outside of the actual tournaments, promoting individual players and their personalities, and engagement with their communities. Traditional sports could learn a thing or two from esports in these regards, and if they want to attract the Gen Z market, they might be forced to start taking notes sooner rather than later.
I, personally, am right on the cusp between the Gen Z and millennial generations. Obviously, I have never been disinterested in sports. I watch live action almost every night, and you can just forget about Sundays. I’m out of commission all day. At the same time, I understand the problem that traditional sports are facing. As much as we hate to admit it, the athletes don’t know who most of their fans are. We’re just people they bring joy to.
Esports, and especially streaming, bring a new aspect to consumable media. We, the fans, can interact directly with whoever we’re watching. While we get somewhat of the same feeling while scrolling through social media and responding to our favorite athletes’ posts, we don’t get that opportunity while we’re watching them in action. It sounds like a small difference, but it’s apparently made enormous waves among Gen Z-ers, and I wouldn’t mind if we started seeing similar systems in place for some of my favorite sports.