Gen Z Sports: How to Win Young Sports Fans on Social Media

How do Gen Z consume sports - and how can sports brands reach them? Here’s all you need to know about Gen Z sports, to make your brand stand out.
Fanbytes | Gen Z sports

In 30 seconds:

  • Gen Z vs. sports could be a tough match: this generation is less likely to call themselves ‘hard core’ sports fans than older groups.
  • But reaching Generation Z now is crucial to any sports brand. We explain why.
  • How can you win Zoomers over? We’ve got the best insights and examples so you’re in the know.

When it comes to the world of sports, getting through to Gen Z can sound tough. And seeing as this cohort makes up 30% of the global population, that’s a worry for sports brands.

Generation Z will soon become the most influential generation yet, with more than $3.5 trillion in buying power by 2030. But surveys have found that only 53% of Gen Zers consider themselves sports fans, compared with 69% of millennials. They’re just not as interested as older generations – or so you’d think. 

There is hope – and companies are already creating modified strategies to get Zoomers involved in the sporting action, with great success. 

New tactics and fresh marketing gameplans will help sports brands get Gen Z jumping into the action. How? That’s what we’re here to cover. By the end of this article, you’ll have the know-how to win over the younger generation. So let’s get the ball rolling.

A generation worth competing for

While 50% of millennials said they watch live sports at least once a week, only 1 in 4 Gen Zers (currently aged 10 – 25) said the same. Other surveys found that Gen Zers are about half as likely as Millennials to watch live traditional sports often, and twice as likely to never watch live sport. 

But that doesn’t mean sports teams, sponsorship brands and sports labels should give up on them: on the contrary, getting through to this generation now is more important than ever. 

As Tim Ellis, the chief marketing officer for the NFL told the Washington Post, “There’s no strategy for bringing in a 35-year-old fan for the first time. You have to make them a fan by the time they’re 18, or you’ll lose them forever”.

That’s why the Gen Z sports marketing landscape can feel a little scary at the moment. Brands need to convince young people fast and keep them as fans, or they’ll lose out in the long run. 

So, why could Gen Z be harder to reach than the generations before them? 

There are plenty of factors here, but one component is particularly significant: technology. The enormous growth of social media, gaming and streaming services, alongside a growing dependency on smartphones for entertainment and connection has transformed the way young people consume media and spend their downtime.

Put simply, live sports as a medium has more to compete with when attracting Gen Z. So, how can you make your brand stand out so Gen Z won’t forget your sports brand?

Shorter attention spans?

You’ll often hear it said that Gen Zers have a short attention span: just 8 seconds, according to some sources. But we’d argue differently.

Gen Zers are fussy about the information they access: they have little patience for content that’s not immediately engaging. However, a new Gen Z survey from Google confirms what we’ve long known: that young people are more willing than ever to indulge in hours-long video content, once you’ve successfully piqued their interest.

It’s true that live sports events are less appealing to this generation, who have become accustomed to social media videos that reel them in quickly, and TV streaming services that they can tune into whenever suits them. But to Gen Z, watching live sports on TV isn’t even a core part of sports fandom. In fact, among Gen Z self-identified sports fans, only 25% of respondents said watching live competitions is an integral part of being a fan. 

Therein lies the point that many sports brands often miss: just because Gen Z aren’t tuning into games, races and matches doesn’t mean they don’t care. This is simply the demographic that’s least likely to watch TV live. But if you can master the digital platforms they do love, you can unlock stellar fan engagement amongst this group – who are vocal about their interests and whose brand loyalties are increasing dramatically

Staying social

Moving to social media platforms is the obvious choice for marketing in the sports industry. More than 66% of Zoomers say social media is an essential part of their lives – and one of the best platforms for reaching them is TikTok. With over half of Gen Zers on the app, and 73% of TikTok users saying they feel deeper connections to brands on TikTok than elsewhere, it presents a perfect opportunity to grab the attention of new, young audiences and turn awareness directly into fandom.

What are the key principles for sports brands starting on TikTok? A good answer comes from a high profile collaboration between NFL and the platform. Mayan Scharf, Director of Global Strategic Partnerships at TikTok, stated, “TikTok is a destination where fans can feel like they are a part of the team, and we look forward to showcasing content from the NFL that is exciting, authentic and surprising to the TikTok community.”

Therein lies a huge lesson for sports brands on social media: they should aim to be exciting, authentic and surprising – and make their TikTok audience feel part of the action. Use these principles to stand out from the crowd and generate deeper engagement with your sports brand.

Let’s look at some key ways you can make this happen.

Get involved in communities and memes

Young people crave community and connection. In fact, it’s one of the principal reasons they are on social media

Every sport has a community of fans, so learn where they’re congregating and get involved in the action. This levels the playing field (pun intended) between you and your community, which strengthens their bond with you – but also helps you stay on top of the conversation, so you can generate swift, reactive ideas for your social output.

This is particularly important for reaching Gen Z. This new generation loves witty, visual responses they can share online – either in the form of video reactions or image memes. In fact, 79% of 13-17-year-olds regularly share memes, and research has found that using memes in marketing strategies has proven surprisingly successful when it comes to winning over Gen Z.

The Mercedes Formula 1 team have tapped into this, regularly creating hilarious content across their social media channels. Their brand tone is quirky, fun and certainly on Gen Z’s level.

But they don’t stop here. Reddit has become a hub of activity for memes, including a comedic F1 subreddit community named “formuladank”. Mercedes F1 took advantage of this and pitched in on the conversation. It’s clear that they routinely keep an eye on memes uploaded there, as they often post about them on their social channels.

The result? Redditors clearly noticed and are loving the fact that the Mercedes F1 twitter admin is clearly “one of us”. Of course, this promotes more engagement, interaction and UGC (user-generated content) as fans spread the word and keep the conversation going.

It’s not just Reddit where sports fans are forming online communities. Discord is another great option. The Sacramento Kings, for example, have created their own Discord channel where fans can discuss games, merch and team news – and they’re far from alone here. Brands wanting to harness Discord should read our article: Discord Marketing: How to Create an Engaged Gen Z Community.

Social campaigns incorporating UGC see a 50% lift in engagement. So get your fans talking and sharing – and respond with humour to what you see. You’ll start seeing the results sooner than you think. 

Think fast

One of the great benefits of being involved in the fan conversation online is that it can help you finesse your reactive marketing skills. Some of the best-performing social media sports content is swift; able to capitalise on a recent sports moment whilst the fan emotions are still fresh.

This is something we were able to do when working with Adidas. We created content for the iconic sportswear brand right after the Lionesses’ recent 2022 Euros win, featuring England footballer Alessia Russo reacting to a viral moment in the match where she was caught sneaking a cheeky peek at Germany’s team instructions. It quickly became the top-performing video on Adidas’ channel.

It’s proof that Gen Z sports fans love it when sports brands can take to social media and get involved in the joke.

Make each moment count

The Lionesses’ recent success in the Euros supercharged a change in how many people view women’s football. But Gen Z was already showing up – literally. 75% of general sale ticket buyers for the Euros 2022 were previously unknown to the Football Association and UEFA, and 39% went to those aged between 9 and 25. Evidently, Zoomers are more interested in sports equality, and will go to see these games in person. 

So why the excellent turnout? A key factor is Gen Z’s willingness to get behind a good cause. 75% of Gen Zers say that being politically or socially engaged is very important to their identity. And they put their money where their morals are. 70% of Gen Zers say they try to purchase from companies they consider ethical.

But we also know Gen Z wanted to feel part of the moment. Young people are leading the return to in-person sports events across the board. Being at the match has a particular allure for young people, who grew up with digital connectivity but hold particular reverence for real-life experiences – especially after the pandemic.

So how can brands tap into this? 

The key is to view events through a Gen Z lens. Bring young people together through group ticket deals and campaigns that tap into young people’s FOMO (fear of missing out). Emphasise the social features of the event and reward social media participation at the event, to encourage young people to post about it. And use your channels to show the significance of the event, so that casual fans feel looped in and excited by the sporting moment – or can tune back in afterwards to see the highlights.

A great example of this comes from our brand partner Bundesliga. Clips from each match fill the German football league’s TikTok feed, highlighting key moments in the game in an engaging way that fosters interaction. It’s not always the grandiose moments that get people interested – sometimes it’s the more relatable slip ups – or seeing the crowd reaction.

Promote inclusivity

Standing up for social issues will always get Gen Z on your side.

Unfortunately, abuse on social media is a fact of many sports people’s lives – and this also extends to fans. In a survey conducted after last year’s European Championships, 1 in 4 ethnic minority football fans reported they’d been subject to racist abuse on social media. The World Athletics Body also found “disturbing levels of abuse” on Twitter following the Tokyo Olympics. Sports fans amongst Gen Z – who are heavy users of social media and are the most diverse generation in history – will feel this the most.

Inclusive campaigns are how your brand can show solidarity with your fans who may be experiencing abuse, and encourage better behaviour. It’s also a way that you can help your fan community support causes they care about.

Racial equality campaigns are a perfect example of this. As Black Lives Matter protests grew in 2020, many sports companies acted swiftly to show their support of the cause. MLB, the NHL and Major League Soccer (MLS) contributed via fundraising efforts, symbolic gestures, social media campaigns, and messages of unity. EA even put an in-game information tab on the BLM movement within FIFA. 

The hugely popular “This Girl Can” campaign by Sports England is another great example of an equality campaign, showing a diverse cast of women playing sports and getting fit. One of the videos showed a tampon string – an even bigger brand sentiment booster for Gen Z, who are at the forefront of rallies for period representation

Whichever way you choose to support these causes, it’s vital that this takes place as part of a wider strategy to promote inclusivity and remove abuse from sport – rather than a one-time stunt.

Sports brands should also be aware of the rise of socially-minded sports influencers, who are very popular amongst Gen Z. Great examples include Kadeena Cox (@kad21), a paralympic champion; and Olympian Tom Daley (@tomdaley) who uses his TikTok to show off his knitting skills – and thereby challenge outdated ideas of masculinity. Partnering with athletes and sports influencers who stand for good causes is a great way to add an extra socially responsible dimension to your sports marketing.

Tell individuals’ stories

Sports stars are on the front line of sports marketing campaigns. In fact, Gen Zers are more inclined to be interested in individual athletes, compared to older generations. They care about people’s stories and what they have to say.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James ranked as Gen Z’s favourite sports figures. Why? They have both shared honest, inspiring words that gel with this generation. They’ve become household names through their association with both gritty perseverance and wild success.

It’s not just household names that resonate with Gen Z, however. We clarify the different kinds of sports influencers, and why Gen Z loves them, in our sports influencer article. The common denominator between all these figures, however, is their ability to connect wholeheartedly with the next generation

Gen Z wants to see the human side of sportsmen and women; to hear about their lives and get inspired by their passion. Whether it’s following the drivers and team principals on NetflixFormula 1: Drive to Survive or Sir Mo Farah’s childhood story in his upcoming BBC program, the incredible success of individuals’ sports storytelling speaks to the hunger to see a more relatable angle.

This kind of hook is perfect for social media. Sports brands can get involved by showcasing the individuals within a given sport, and letting them show off their personality. 

Brands can and should also encourage collaborations built on meaningful stories that are personal to sports stars. Liverpool FC players Joe Gomez, Caoimhín Kelleher and Adrián partnered with Nivea Men to bring forward a campaign based on mental health. In the ad, they share their own mental health journeys to encourage people to speak out. This not only lends a personal angle to the campaign, but also puts their voices behind a cause that Gen Z are known to face and care deeply about.

Give credibility

When Ubisoft approached us to get their new game Riders Republic, an extreme sport adventure out into the eyes of Gen Z, we knew that including real sports stars in our roster of influencers would give the campaign credibility, and get people even more excited to try it for themselves.

Amongst our influencer mix were several professional BMXers, including Team GB Olympian Kye Whyte, who was a silver medallist for BMX racing in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

One of the things Gen Zers love most about seeing sports stars on social media is their relatability. This was perfect for our campaign, as we cut Kye’s video with shots of the gameplay, which allows players to experience similar BMX tricks from a first-person perspective. It closed the gap between Kye’s experiences and the player’s own – and it was hugely successful.  Read more about the campaign here.

Put on your (virtual) game face

One area of sports where Gen Zers are really taking the lead is Esports.

In fact, in a survey that asked Gen Zers about their interest in different kinds of sports, Esports was the one area where this group outranked the general population in terms of “avid” and “casual” interest. And this interest isn’t just because of the pandemic: Esports is the fastest-growing sport globally. 

Young consumers value Esports for their ability to create a wider sense of community and entertainment. Fans aren’t just interested in competing in video games, but enjoy watching broadcast competitions of expert and amateur gamers who stream their gameplay. They also value interacting socially through affiliated communities on Twitch and Discord.

But you don’t need to be an Esports brand to get in on the action. Virtual reality and augmented reality are on the rise, and they’re perfect for engaging Gen Zers

Social media sites like Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok allow brands to create bespoke AR filters, which is great news for attracting young fans, as 93% of Gen Zers say they would like to use these. Partnering with a sports influencer to kick off a gaming campaign (like in our work with Ubisoft) is a great way to make young audiences feel compelled to join in themselves – and as TikTok develops more intricate, gamified AR filters, you don’t even need to steer your audience away from the social media site to have them engaging deeply with your content.

What about VR? The NBA’s partnership with Meta’s Oculus is a great example of this. Users can get a front-row VR seat at an NBA game and see it as though they are really there – giving a whole new meaning to “live-action” sports. 

Other sports brands are getting involved in virtual spaces like Roblox. The NFL Tycoon experience on Roblox taps into platform-native behaviours of creativity and play, and educates players on what it’s like to actually be a team owner. They can develop custom stadiums, build teams, trade cards and compete in a leaderboard that unlocks additional rewards as they climb the rankings.

Sports brands are even dipping into the world of NFTs, where young fans can get a digital piece of the action. For example, AS Roma and Zytara Labs have signed an exclusive product partnership agreement, with support from the DigitalBits Foundation, to create NFT Jerseys that are available to buy with XDB. Were these a hit? Well, they’re already sold out, so you be the judge. 

Whichever route you choose, introducing this kind of immersive marketing allows fans to access a more intimate experience of your sports brand. Gen Zers love interactive experiences, so consider new and unusual ways they can connect with your brand through them.

You’ve got the upper hand

Getting your strategy started sooner rather than later is essential. Gen Z is not about to just change their minds on sports. Sports brands must speak to them in ways that will engage them. It’s a race to win them over. 

Knowing these points about Gen Z gives you a head start on creating a killer campaign. But it’s not always easy. Depending on the hurdles you have to jump, your audience, budget, targets and ROI goals, it can be tricky to know where to start. 

We want to help. Get in touch to find out how we can beef up your strategy and create a sports marketing campaign that’s sure to win young people’s hearts. 

Need some more insights to get your marketing campaigns in pole position? Take a look at our fact-fueled articles below to get more of an upper hand. 

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