Mark Beal | Engaging Generation Z is mandatory to achieve future sports business success

Mark Beal, assistant professor of public relations in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in New Jersey and author of two books on Generation Z, shares why sports business executives must engage with that group of young people now

Mark Beal

Recent survey findings sent concern through the sports business industry reporting that only 53 percent of Generation Zers identify as sports fans compared to 69 percent of millennials and 63 percent of adults. Was I surprised? No!

As someone who researches and collaborates daily with Gen Z, my response to those who regarded the survey data point as the demise of sports was to close up shop now. Truthfully, I see great opportunity for sports leagues, teams, properties and sponsors in engaging Gen Z, both now and in the future.

Gen Z is rewriting the rules when it comes to sports fandom as well as other business factors and metrics ranging from marketing and advertising to content consumption and purchase behavior.

Let’s level-set on who comprises Gen Z and why I believe it is mandatory that any entity in sports business must effectively start to engage this consumer now to succeed in the future.

Gen Z was first born in 1997 according to Pew Research Center and I set their last birth year as 2012, a 15-year span. In 2021, Gen Zers will range from elementary school age to those who recently graduated college and joined the workforce.

I believe Gen Z is the next most important consumer segment for the future success of every sports league, team, property, manufacturer, sponsor, and media company. Why? Gen Z is the largest consumer segment in the world. Globally, there are nearly 2 billion Gen Zers comprising almost 30 percent of the world’s population. Gen Z is the next generation of ticket buyers, sports apparel purchasers and content consumers.

Secondly, according to Business Insider Intelligence, Gen Z has an estimated $143bn in spending power in the United States alone, with much of that coming from the influence they have on their parents and other family members especially when it comes to spending on sports and entertainment purchases.

So, how does the sports businesses industry effectively engage Gen Z and earn a lifetime of loyalty and fandom? I went directly to the source and asked. Starting October 5, 2020, I surveyed hundreds of Gen Zers from age 13 to 23. Here are their top-three recommendations for the sports business industry:

#1: Produce and distribute engaging content on the media channels we consume (42 per cent): In my survey, Gen Zers ranked Instagram (35 per cent), Snapchat (20 per cent) and TikTok (19 per cent) as their three favorite social media channels. When asked what media platforms they turn to for news and information including sports content, their top-three included Instagram (56 per cent), YouTube (55 per cent) and Snapchat (38 per cent).

Finally, when asked what type of content they seek most, Gen Zers ranked sports including esports third at 33 per cent trailing only entertainment (45 per cent) and pop culture (35 per cent). Sports business executives need to toss out their traditional media plans and shift their attention to the preferred media channels Gen Z relies on to consume and share content including sports and Esports content.

#2: Create a Gen Z think tank and invite Gen Zers to inform and inspire your marketing, content and fan engagement (27 per cent):There is no one who knows how to effectively engage Gen Z more than Gen Zers themselves. If you are a sports marketer older than 30, put your ego aside because you do not know what engages Gen Z. It’s why leading brands such as Target, as well as the National Hockey League and Converse, have launched Gen Z incubators.

In my recent survey, 53 per cent of Gen Zers said their greatest online influence are their Gen Z friends, far ahead of celebrities. So, don’t incorrectly assume how to market to Gen Z. Instead, invite them into your organization and collaborate with them and empower them to lead your marketing, promotions and content, engaging millions of other Gen Zers in the process.

#3: Offer Gen Z unique virtual and in-person access, experiences and events that they can share on social media (27 per cent): Overwhelmingly, in my survey of Gen Z, 77 per cent agreed the most effective way that a brand, sports or non-sports, can engage them is via unique virtual or physical access, experiences and events. Why? More than a third of Gen Zers, 36 per cent, believe that access results in content their Gen Z followers are interested in, while 27 per cent say it results in a significant amount of likes, 22 per cent agree that it makes for great social media currency, and 15 per cent state that it gives them bragging rights on social media.

If you work in hockey, you probably consider a Zamboni as simply a vehicle that resurfaces the ice between periods.  To Gen Z, a Zamboni is a golden ticket to compelling social media content they could share across TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube endlessly.

Converting an entire generation of 2 billion young adults from casual onlookers to avid sports fans will be the greatest challenge the sports business industry has ever faced. To emerge victorious, the entire industry must throw away the traditional fan promotion playbook. Instead, they need to unify in transforming their mindset from old school marketing to effective engagement. If they can take this innovative approach, they will win over the lifetime fandom of a generation.