Building leagues for the 21st century

For every sport, refreshing your following has always been fundamental to survival. Today, though, the stakes are high and the path to new audiences is more complicated than it has been for some time.

A Morning Consult survey in August 2020 found that 53 per cent of those in Generation Z – born between around 1997 and 2012 – identify as sports fans, compared to 63 per cent of all adults and 69 per cent of millennials. Yet it would be an overstatement to surmise that Generation Z are just not interested in sport. That interest, however, is often still evolving.

Who are Gen Z sports fans?

According to data released by the Two Circles agency in April 2021 – based on a March survey of 6,000 people – Gen Z actually makes up the biggest number of sports fans in the US: 38 million in an estimated total of 134 million Americans. Across generations, it found that 50 per cent of fans had formed their attachment to sport by the age of 14, so many of those in Gen Z are at a critical age.

That idea is also reflected in the fact that Gen Z respondents had a higher average number of hobbies – 4.4 – and followed a higher average number of sports – 4.7 – than any of the generations above them. That points to competition between sports, as well as outside it, for their attention.

Two Circles also discovered that 20 per cent of sports fans in Gen Z are female, compared to ten per cent of those in the ‘boomer’ generation aged over 58. That could be good news for emerging leagues like the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) or English football’s Women’s Super League, but it also underlines the importance of fostering inclusivity.

League appeal & combat sports

One league appears more effective than others in attracting younger fans. The National Basketball Association (NBA) tends to over-index in popularity among Gen Z in surveys like this. Its long-held crossover status between sports and popular culture, its embrace of technology in distributing content, the visibility of its star athletes, and its willingness to confront important social issues have all created an overlap with other important points in young people’s lives.

A striking finding in Two Circles’ research was that boxing, which ranks 11th among sports enjoyed by boomers, is the fourth-most popular sport among Gen Z. The UFC was sixth in the list. This was attributed to the prominence of athletes within fight sports, with Gen Zers more likely to follow individuals than teams or competitions. The capacity of those sports to create dynamic short-form content, as well as supporting lifestyle content, is also significant.

Meanwhile, the informal match-making process in boxing, long detrimental to coherent competitive structures, ironically allows for the creation of unique events in a space between sport and entertainment.

Video platform Triller has founded Triller Fight Club, which has staged bouts involving iconic former boxers like Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr, as well as up and coming prospects, social media influencers and other guests. That is paired with a focus on entertainment and a ‘hang-out’ feel to the coverage. Elsewhere, whatever its limited sporting merit, the legendary Floyd Mayweather Jr’s 5th June encounter with YouTuber Logan Paul in Miami was the logical apex of this approach.

Changing the content format

Other sports are trying different options. Some are related to presentation. In January, the National Football League (NFL) aired a game on children’s network Nickelodeon for the first time, combining colourful visuals and augmented reality elements with popular characters and digestible analysis.

Across the Atlantic, in July, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) will launch the Hundred, a new short-form competition based on a bespoke short-form version of the game. Much has been made about how the rule-set is engineered to make the sport more accessible, but what might be just as important to its prospects is how far a fresh set of teams and different expectations can give newcomers a cultural space to make their own.

Participation in content is common to many of the most popular entertainment phenomena for Gen Z and is central to community dynamics. That is true of the cycles of sharing and creation in TikTok, of games like Fortnite or the world-building title Roblox, and even of the way sports video games like Fifa are played. Publisher EA Sports made $1.62 billion during its 2021 financial year from that feature, which allows users to trade players take their squads into competition online.

Revising the sports economy

There are leagues emerging that take that level of interaction to its extreme. Fan Controlled Football, for example, is a seven-a-side gridiron concept that allows viewers to make in-game decisions, choosing plays and adjusting line-ups.

Economics will also have a role in the future shape of sports leagues. Blockchain-based technologies that enable collectibles like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could yet give fans a way of buying into their leagues and clubs through new digital products and assets. Nonetheless, more straightforward factors remain at play. For all the conversation about the appetite among younger people for short-form content, it is worth acknowledging that this is often found on free services rather than behind paywalls, and it is easier for older fans to bear the cost of premium subscriptions.

Picking through those trends, and understanding the needs of fans in the present, will be key to success in the future.