The sports biz has something of an obsession with “Gen Z” – constantly analysing, debating and attempting to second-guess what these mythical creatures want, think and do when it comes to sport.
This is perfectly understandable. Children are the future, after all. But what exactly is a “Gen Z” and can we get beyond some of the stereotypes and assumptions that we all make about their engagement with sport?
What is Gen Z?
The main problem with using generations as a demographic is that you are looking at, well…an entire generation of people. This makes any insights into their behaviour by definition pretty broad brush, but done at scale it can give a sense of the direction things are heading in.
The other issue is that there is rarely a consensus on exactly what age group we are talking about. Depending on where you look, Gen Z is people born from 1995-2010. Or 1993-2011. Or 1997-2012.
For the sake of this, I’m going to simplify things and look at 16-24s in the UK (born 1998-2006). Not strictly Gen Z, but it’s the kind of audience that many people in sport are interested in.
(All of the data below is from Global Web Index from Q1–Q4 2021, a sample size of over 7,000 16-24s in the UK).
So what are they into?
Music is the top entertainment interest for our 16-24s, with other fairly predictable things like film, TV and gaming also very popular. Playing sport (38%) also shows up fairly strongly and interestingly fitness is even higher (41%), but watching sport is only an interest for 30% of them. Despite everything we hear about esports, it’s still down at less than 20%, even for this young audience.
Which sports do they follow?
Football absolutely dominates for 16-24s (as it does for any age group). 66% follow the beautiful game, with tennis, boxing, basketball and cycling the only others to register over 20%.
16-24s are the least likely age group to watch sport every day, but they actually slightly over-index for watching 2-3 or 4-5 times weekly.
How do they consume sport?
38% of 16-24s watch sport on TV (slightly less than older age groups) and 23% watch clips or highlights online or on mobile (slightly more than older age groups).
Breaking down which platforms they use to consume sport, YouTube and Instagram are out in front.
Will they pay for sports content?
An assumption often made is that this generation has grown up used to content being free, so how willing are they to pay for sports content?
Fairly willing, it turns out. 40% of 16-24s are willing or very willing to pay for content – a higher proportion than any age group other than 25-34s.
Do 16-24s actually turn up to watch sport in person?
There definitely appears to be an issue here, with 16-24s lagging behind older age groups in the big three sports. Cricket has the biggest disparity between young and older fan (they really should try to do something about that…)
What about participation?
Swimming comes out just ahead of football (but much of that will be for general leisure and fitness purposes rather than ‘sport’ per se). What we might think of as some of the ‘big’ sports of cricket, rugby, netball are all down at less than 8%, with 23% of 16-24s take part in no sport at all.
So how can brands in sport reach this age group?
Unsurprisingly, their media consumption is overwhelmingly digital:
70% spend 2 or more hours per day on their phones, 67% on a laptop or tablet, 53% on social media, 44% music streaming, 36% TV streaming and 30% on a games console. These figures are all higher than for any other age group.
Despite the popular assumption that TV is dead for this age group, live TV still holds up fairly well, with 34% of 16-24s spending 2+ hours on it per day. This 34% figure is well behind other age groups however, and we can see that on-demand/streaming TV is now more popular than live.
TV does still reach significantly more 16-24s than platforms such as Twitch. Just 18% of this audience have watched a live gaming stream in the last month, for example.
Clearly a big part of life for 16-24s, with 40% spending 3+ hours daily on social media (more than twice as likely to do this as the national average).
Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are where you’re most likely to find them, and YouTube is also used daily by 36%.
Facebook isn’t quite dead for this age group, but it is the only major social platform where they under-index for daily use. Not that surprisingly, only 2% are daily users of Linkedin (they have all of that joy to look forward to, I guess).
Impact of sports sponsorship
For 16-24s, the primary benefits of sponsorship seem to be driving a more positive perception, consideration and engagement. This age group over-indexes on all of these, but sponsorship is less likely to drive a purchasing decision than it is for older age groups (perhaps because 16-24s don’t have a lot of money to play with, but this will be category-specific).
What about their values? Gen Z is all about purpose, right?
Sort of. 50% of 16-24s want brands to be eco-friendly, and that does over-index slightly vs. other age groups, but not by much.
49% want brands to be socially responsible, but again that’s no different to the general population.
In fact, if we look at where 16-24s really over-index on these statements, it’s in areas that are much more focused on a benefit to the individual rather than society, such as “helping to improve your image/reputation” (Index 171) and “offer customised/personalised products” (141).
What does this all mean for sport?
There is still a strong interest in sport among 16-24s, but it’s well behind things like music, film and gaming.
From most angles, their engagement with sport isn’t all that different to older age groups. There is a definite trend away from live TV and towards on-demand/streaming, but sport is still one of the few things that can still pull a live audience together (it’s interesting that more 16-24s watch sport on TV than claim to be interested in watching sport).
The main challenge is around attendance at live sport, which definitely appears to be falling away. This could be down to any number of factors – price, time, habit, lack of innovation – but rights holders need to think carefully about how to reverse this trend.
16-24s aren’t as purpose-driven as we might think. In fact, they are mostly looking for brands to help improve their own lives, and sponsorship for this age group is most likely to have an impact on brand perception, consideration and engagement, rather than purchase.
This is just scratching the surface – if anyone wants to dig deeper into how their audience engages with sport, drop me a line at email@example.com
(This is an article I originally wrote for Unofficial Partner).