Gen Z is fostering a revolution in sports watching habits

If they want to attract and retain young viewers, sports leagues and broadcasters will have to provide more customizable, personalized content.

According to Bloomberg, in 2019, Gen Z became the biggest consumer cohort globally, with a spending power of more than $140 billion in the U.S. alone. Companies and brands will have to count them and cater to their needs, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the sports industry. As a digital native generation, Gen Zers, like millennials, grew up with the internet and computers, but unlike their elders, they have been using mobile devices and social media from a very young age. As a consequence, the way they watch and enjoy sports strongly differs from older generations.

First of all, they use a much broader set of devices and platforms. Gone are the days when a home TV was the only option to watch Saturday night’s game. Unsurprisingly, young people, while still watching television, aren’t as strictly confined to it as older generations were. Among those who watch live sports, more than three quarters (77%) of Boomers (older than 56) most commonly watch a TV broadcast, as compared to 57% of Gen X (40 to 56) and just 35% of Millennials and Gen Z, who prefer using their mobile: 65 percent of Generation Z are relying on their smartphones for sports coverage.

Gen Z’s favorite channels

According to Mark Beal, author of the book Engaging Gen Z, applications such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube are particularly popular among these young streamers. “Gen Z consumes sports content unlike any previous generation. In my recent nationwide survey of Gen Zers ages 13-24 in the United States, they consistently rank Instagram, YouTube and TikTok as their 'big three’ for content consumption including sports content.

Snapchat is another popular option among Gen Z. Young viewers appreciate the intimate, one-to-one relationship that the app provides, and the way it is tailored to stream live events. For Jack Settleman, a Gen Z sports commentator I follow and whose Snapchat account has more than 500 million views per year, Snapchat is a perfect platform for talking about sports: “You have a one-to-one comment section, so no negativity is seen by the public. It is also great for in-game experiences. The vertical video is ideal for sports. The audience loves funny clips, debate topics and the top highlights of the day” he says.

And let’s not forget Twitch, the gaming platform which is now broadening its reach. As Mark Beal puts it, “Gen Z is turning to Twitch for content ranging from esports and sports to music and entertainment. In my national survey of Gen Z, 20% of Gen Zers ranked Twitch ahead of cable television and network television for viewing video content and that percentage is increasing by each quarter.

Athletes first

With new platforms come new watching habits. A growing trend among Gen Zers that is directly linked to the rise of social media sports platforms is for many young folks to follow specific athletes rather than a sports team. That’s what convinced Jack Settleman to launch SnapBack Sports to connect with the new-age sports fan caring more about Steph Curry than the Warriors. This will completely transform the relationships between sports teams, sports broadcasters and their young audience in the years to come.

Young people are interested in following specific personalities, and they don’t just want a t-shirt and a photograph, they expect a closer connection with their favorite players. They go through their social media profiles, and they want to know what they do in their everyday life, how they exercise, eat and sleep, to have a more intimate relationship with them.

Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is the most-followed athlete on Instagram with over 287 million followers. Footballers Lionel Messi and Neymar, as well as basketball players LeBron James and Stephen Curry, are all followed by tens of millions of fans from all around the world on their social media accounts. The National Hockey League, aware of this new way to attract sports fans, is currently investing in educating its players about how to effectively use social media to engage fans and grow their profiles. The league has also changed its highlight videos on social media to focus less on actions and scores and more on the performances of a given player.

Naomi Osaka’s recent withdrawal from the French Open after tournament organizers refused to let her cancel press obligations, and the buzz it created on social media, also showed how athletes are now voicing their opinion and taking a stand, and how their audience is ready to support them. In this context, traditional communication channels of sport events, such as press conferences, seem quite outdated, and sports organisations need to adapt to this new generation of athletes and its audience. Mastering communication through social media will be key.

Controlling the experience

Another consequence of the rise of social media and multi-platforms is that young fans, unlike their elders, are not satisfied with being confined to a passive role. Gen Zers want to become participants rather than consumers. They don’t want to be delivered a standardized feed where decisions have already been made for them. They expect to be able to pick up the camera and angle that they want, to follow a specific player, but also to share their opinion and engage in a dialog with other fans about what’s happening during the game.

“Gen Zers want to become participants rather than consumers.”

This appetite from young fans to chat about their experience live led the NFL to partner with Clubhouse and offer a series of draft-themed rooms, while the NBA recently formed a partnership with Reddit. And for a customized experience that allows young viewers to watch the game the way they intend to, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal partnered with Intel to integrate the company’s True View technology to their viewing experience, allowing spectators to pick different camera’s angles or to focus on one single player.

At this year’s European Athletics Indoor Championships, Atos also launched a digital platform that enabled fans to access the competition’s statistics as well as athletes’ personal records and watch live streams. In the future, the platform will collect new datasets of fan interaction to provide them with more personalized experiences and increase their participation.

Offering a new, immersive experience in the stadium will become a key challenge when spectators rush back to stadiums as the pandemic starts winding down. When fans come back to the stadium, will they leave the digital behind or expect it to come with them? To me, the answer is quite obvious, so sports clubs need to have this issue in mind. In the US, the NFL is already working with Verizon to provide fans with an enhanced 5G experience through their phone, such as a 360 feature that allows individuals in their seats to get a view of the game from another part of the stadium.

The next step could be to allow Gen Zers to actually become creators and broadcasters of content. How about spectators being able to take their own video clips from the stadium with their smartphone and to post it on a dedicated channel? Can clubs provide a space for their fans to do that without breaking copyrights? They will have to, because young people are used to communicating at a level that older generations never have. Therefore, they have a much more social approach to sports, they want to be able to participate and share content with others. Sport hasn’t caught up with that yet, but it has to.

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About Marcos Gonzalez-Flower
Global Head of Media Competence Center
Marcos has more than 18 years’ experience in the Media Industry supporting a wide variety of media organizations and industry leaders develop and implement disruptive digital strategies and services. As the Global Head of Media Competence Center, he is responsible for driving innovation and taking ideas from concept through to successful implementation.

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