How Sports Belong to Gen Z


In November of 2020, The Washington Post published an exposé of  Gen Z’s declining interest in sports. The piece predicted that the pandemic would exacerbate this lacking interest — and it was right. Major sporting events were cancelled or postponed in unprecedented numbers. Views and ratings plummeted. 

But the younger generations were certainly watching something. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu saw 50% hikes in viewership. TikTok had the best quarter in the history of

Paying attention? We have been. And as our The Belong Effect’s 2021 report makes clear, Gen Z’s relationship to sports is alive and well. Only… different.

1. Challenge what “engagement” means

For decades, being a sports fan meant donning a jersey, showing up to stadiums, and catching the game on cable TV. If we apply this model to the modern sports environment, it appears to be in crisis: hundreds if not thousands of sporting events were cancelled over the pandemic. As for televised sports games? Gen Z are half as likely as millennials to watch.

But this approach is outdated. The reality is that young people are engaging in sports in a myriad of ways. The fluidity of their engagement is unprecedented, and, for the most part, misunderstood. The Belong Effect 2021 Report indicated that while only 11% of the 8,000 young adults surveyed were season ticket holders, 85% of them engaged with sports on social media. With this in mind, brands must consider what types of content they’re producing, how it’s packaged, and where it shows up.

For example, the NBA leaned into its social media strategy and currently boasts 113 million followers across Instagram, TikTok and Twitch. It’s also had great success posting weekly game summaries on YouTube and Twitch. The NFL has partnered with thousands of sports influencers and recently penned a deal with Fortnite.

2. Take a stand (or a knee) to champion values

One of the report’s most significant findings was that brands must engage in communities intentionally to drive growth through network effects. Gen Z respond well to brands that advocate for their values and beliefs, like racial justice and equity. For Gen Z, it’s not enough for brands to align themselves with causes—they must back up their statements with action. In other words, Kendell Jenner handing a cop a Pepsi isn’t going to cut it.

Nike, the LA Lakers, and the NBA have been excelling in this category by being forthcoming with their values (even in the face of adversity) and backing them up with both philanthropy and clear messaging. Our data shows that Gen Z will mobilize for brands that align with their values. They get more satisfaction, entertainment, inspiration, and joy from them. 90% would encourage others to join.

This is a space with enormous potential.


3. The starting line: youth participation

Research shows that youth participation in sports correlates to fan loyalty later in life. The problem is that sports participation is down, and even more so for girls (of which 1 in 3 drop out of sports by the time they’re teens). Brands have long sponsored youth teams to pay for uniforms, equipment, or other fees; but perhaps it’s time to go deeper. Consider Tennis Canada’s collaboration with National Bank—a ten year, multifaceted plan to engage young girls in sports. Beyond being an investment in youth sports, it’s also a clear marker of National Banks values that has potential to pay dividends down the line through the network effects of values-based communities.

Besides increasing fan loyalty from an early age, there’s plenty of goodwill to be found in this arena. Sports participation has been linked to better mental health, academic performance, and physical fitness in youth.

4. Humanity is key

Gen Zs grew up in a digital world. To them, the status quo is being close to, or at least feeling close to, thousands of people regardless of their geographic location. As such, they’re far more interested in the human element of sports and have a natural curiosity for who athletes are as people. As a 2020 NHL-led focus group concluded: “They want to see our players in their real lives, see them with their wives, know what they eat or drink or are bingeing on Netflix.”

Brands are already reacting to this. MLB’s YouTube channel offers a litany of athlete content. The UFC’s streaming app Fight Pass contains nearly as much history and lore as it does fighting. Fans want to identify with their sports heroes and yearn to experience a sense of shared identity. Olympic athletes are responding to this call by posting both their sports prowess and everyday lives (paired with trending music, of course.) There’s still plenty of potential for teams and Olympic athletes alike to produce this type of much-desired content.
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