The last decade ushered in a boom to the North American sports industry through media rights, sponsorship opportunities, and the legalization of sports betting. The challenge for the next decade is to keep from going bust by attracting more Generation Z viewers.
A recent Morning Consult poll of 1,000 “Gen Zers” aged 13-23 showed they are less likely to identify as sports fans compared to both the general population, and the age group before them — millennials. Fifty-three percent of Generation Z respondents identified themselves as sports fans, notably lower compared to the 63 percent of U.S. adults and 69 percent of millennials in a subsequent survey of 2,200 adults taken among the latter two groups.
The Morning Consult poll referred to Price WaterhouseCoopers, which found the value of the North American sports industry will increase from $71.1 billion in 2018 to a projected $83.1 billion by 2023, an increase of nearly 17%. Some of that increase can be attributed to millennials — often jokingly derided for “killing” various industries in social media memes — who have been given a robust offering of live sporting events combined with the ready availability of social media.
Live sports, though, has not fostered a similar appeal or appetite for Gen Zers, as approximately one in four watch a live sporting event once a week and nearly two in five claimed to “never” watch sports. In comparison, half of millennials surveyed say they watch at least one live sporting event weekly and 15% watch daily.
Can gaming bring Gen Z into sports?
The future of sports media in one article https://t.co/O2Q3X5Napo
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) September 29, 2020
One area where Gen Zers show a clearly larger interest compared to older groups is eSports. The poll showed 35% of respondents identified themselves as “casual” or “avid” fans of the still-nascent sport, almost double that of millennials and adults. It was one of three sports where Gen Z respondents either outpaced or were relatively in line with millennials and adults along with the NBA (47% compared to 45% among millennials and adults) and UFC (29% for both groups).
There was a percentage gap of 18 points in terms of casual or avid interest between millennials and adults and Gen Z respondents for Major League Baseball (50% vs. 32%), 13 points for NHL (38% vs. 25%) and 10 points for the NFL (59% vs. 49%).
According to Monumental Sports & Entertainment senior vice president Zach Leonsis, eSports could be the place where sports franchises and social media intersect in order to bring more young people into the fold to grow audiences.
“Sports properties need to make sure that their games are digestible and available via streaming products,” said Leonsis, whose group owns the powerhouse eSports team Team Liquid in addition to traditional sports teams the Washington Wizards (NBA), Washington Capitals (NHL), and Washington Mystics (WNBA) in the nation’s capital. “They need to make their games engaging by fostering gamification, daily fantasy, free-to-play games and, ultimately, sports betting.”
Capital One Arena, where the Wizards and Capitals play, has retail sports betting available through William Hill, which commenced operations there in August. eSports gained some traction in sports betting venues in select states during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the return of traditional sports at an unprecedented volume in the late summer and fall has pushed it back to second-tier and almost niche status.
Players before teams, celebrity before titles
Leonsis pointed out a key component that makes eSports popular among the Generation Z set is its players’ availability on social media. Its players are often practicing the games they play and sharing that across social media platforms. In those interactions, eSports players show more of themselves and become more accessible to their fans and followers.
“Esports athletes are streaming for hours on end outside of their typical competition, and when they’re streaming, they’re exposing their personality, they’re interacting with their audience,” Leonsis said. “That authenticity and that accessibility certainly has contributed to eSports being a very popular live event category with Gen Z.
“You see this shift in sports where kids are following athletes first, then they’re following clubs and then they’re following leagues,” echoed Heidi Browning, chief marketing officer for the NHL, “because they want that one-to-one connection with the athletes, or athletes that they admire.”
Morning Consult polled both groups for their favorite athletes, and while eight of the top 11 names (there were ties for 10th in both) were common, their rankings were notably different. Millennials and adults had NFL players among four of their top eight, led by Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady, while Gen Zers had NBA players in four of their top five spots, led by former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.