Gen Z in sports – how to capture the disengaged?
This September, I had the opportunity to be part of an interesting panel discussion at this year’s World Football Summit in Seville. The conversation was initiated around Gen Z’s content consumption & distribution and how they want to experience modern sports. The topic is one that is frequently discussed and is usually subject to many assumptions. The topic is generally discussed by people from older generations, making assumptions about Gen Z behavior without any research to back their opinions. Conversations around the needs of Gen Z are often based on conference-echoing: repeating what someone else once said at a conference. Fortunately, the large global consultancy firms do a lot of research around the characteristics of Gen Z. Understanding this generation provides the foundation on responding in an appropriate manner. This article will summarize the most important findings and how the sports industry could appropriately respond to changing demands by Gen Z.
Important note: all the research has been conducted before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 which would significantly impact results like mental health and environmental issues.
“Conversations around the needs of Gen Z are often based on conference-echoing: repeating what someone else once said at a conference” – Bas Schnater
Gen Z characteristics
Before diving into the details of this article, it is important to start by identifying who belongs to Gen Z. Although some overlap between generations is possible, generally Gen Z is born after the mid 90’s until the beginning of 2010’s. Roughly between when Ajax won the Champions League and when Bayern Munich and Dortmund played the Champions League final. Therefore, people in Gen Z are roughly between 13 and 25 years old at the time of writing. Generations surrounding Gen Z are the older Millennials (beginning 80’s-mid 90’s) and the younger Generation Alpha (after early 2010’s). People in Gen Z are highly educated, and generally more highly educated than their parents. Logically, their income is significantly higher.
An interesting observation has been made around Gen Z’s interests in sport in the last decade as well. The European Club Association’s Fan of the Future report states that Gen Z have far less interest in football compared to previous generations (ECA, 2020). One of the reasons mentioned is that the competition for attention from other entertainment sources is fierce and thus Gen Z needs to make choices. The New York Times reported earlier that only 23% of Gen Z said they were passionate sports fans compared to 42% of Millennials. In fact, 27% said they disliked sports altogether. This provides a problem as sports fandom is formed in the early years (The New York Times, 2022). If an interest in sports is not triggered during these years, it is likely to never be formed. Therefore, a strategy targeted to Gen Z is a strategy for future interest.
Before diving further into the football context, it is important to better understand Gen Z’s general motivations and considerations to life. This article is built as follows: first, Gen Z’s standpoint towards an item is discussed. Then, some tips on how to respond as a sports organization are shared. This is a list of suggestions and is by no means exhaustive.
Gen Z in general
Sports organizations typically use a technology-based “spray-and-pray” approach to engage with Gen Z, whether it’s via the metaverse, NFT’s or e-sports, but additional research could drastically increase the scope and focus of efforts in engaging Gen Z, since their mindset differs substantially from those of preceding generations. A small list of events happening in Gen Z’s formative years:
- Gen Z has seen religiously motivated terrorism around the European continent with mass shootings, hijacked trucks and bombings in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Copenhagen, Berlin, Stockholm and more).
- Gen Z has experienced times of continuous political tension with Russia, even escalating to war on the European continent.
- Gen Z has experienced a global pandemic which have completely derailed their formative years with lockdowns and severe freedom-restrictive measures.
- Gen Z is the first highly educated generation with all the pressure of having to constantly perform and over-exceed.
- Gen Z has witnessed environmental outcries by scientists and activist communities roughly being ignored and labeled as ‘dramatic’.
Needless to say, Gen Z’s fully globalized mindset has resulted in them gaining full access to all the world’s problems. Since Gen Z is always-on and is in constant connection with the latest news (50% of the news consumptions happens via social media of which 15% via TikTok) (McKinsey, 2022), they have many reasons to be worried. As PwC puts it: Gen Z is not very different to Millennials, they share a need for instant gratification. From a customer experience perspective, Gen Z is also more loyal to brands and companies, they expect a mobile experience first and show higher feel for design (PWC, 2018). This explains many characteristics of Gen Z which are fundamental to understand if you, as a sports organization, wish to engage with this fan segment. This is an area where all the reports from EY, Deloitte, PwC and McKinsey agree: give Gen Z more influence and help them in shaping the future.
For Gen Z, health goes further than gym visits and healthy eating habits. Mental health hygiene is also a key well-being consideration for Gen Z. All reports agree that Gen Z suffers from severe mental health issues. This ranges from worries about financial situation, the environment and even their own careers. This can be explained. Consider this: according to your parents (early Millennials or even Gen X) you have all the power to shape your own future, design your own life and become whatever you want, as long as you put in the effort. That puts an immense amount of pressure on Gen Z. It can be read as the reason for not being successful is your own fault, regardless of circumstances. And this has affected how Gen Z handles the pressure. According to EY, more than 1/3rd of Gen Z says that they usually or almost always experience feelings of anxiety or depression. The most commonly mentioned fears are performing bad on an exam, climate change and other mental health issues (EY, 2022). Other concerns are cost of living and unemployment (Deloitte, 2022). As EY states, “Gen Z carries the weight of the world on its shoulders”. What helps Gen Z in addressing mental-health is having role models. In the past, top Gen Z athletes like gymnast Simone Biles tennis player Naomi Osaka Gen Z have publicly spoken out having suffered from mental health issues. While professional athletes may get professional guidance in solving their problems, this is not the case for everyone. In fact, Gen Z is quite unlikely to seek professional help to solve their issues regarding mental health and substance disorder issues due to affordability. Gen Z falls into the least engaged segment of health-care consumers compared to other generations (McKinsey, 2022). Instead, they seek out for self-diagnosis methods and cures via social media and other digital tools. This does not come as a surprise since Gen Z also use these same tools to collect news (McKinsey, 2022).
“Gen Z carries the weight of the world on its shoulders” – EY
Interestingly, Gen Z takes a different approach to their mental health issues. They are a lot more in touch with their emotions: thanks to social media influencers, the taboo of talking about mental well-being is far lower compared to previous generations. It has made Gen Z more comfortable to discuss these issues.
How to respond as a sports organization
Knowing that Gen Z suffers from mental health issues AND they are more likely to self-diagnose, a huge opportunity exposes itself to sports organizations. The answer: creating more relevant content:
- Be a resource for tackling mental health issues. Many sports clubs or federations have a sports psychologist employed, which helps academy- or first-team players. This knowledge can be used to create a series of short-form content tackling issues Gen Z are passionate about. The result: improved fan attraction and retention in Gen Z, since they show far more brand loyalty
- As the ECA report suggests, Gen Z is more likely to follow football players than clubs, so use key players or academy players (which are also Gen Z) to reach out to Gen Z. Find out who they follow and make this the club’s main social media representative
Gen Z makes up 16% of the population and will grow to a staggering 30% in 2030, making it the largest consumer cohort alive (Cushman & Wakefield, 2020). That also means they are not yet the voting majority which means their democratic political influence is limited. Yet, they are the generation who are expected to take care of the aging population, to fight the worsening environmental conditions (more on that later) and to cope with increasing financial and political instabilities. It has made Gen Z stressed and frustrated. According to EY, Gen Z is largely untrusting to the world around them as they have seen little change over the last decade. They’ve seen the world address many concerns but that has triggered very few solutions. For example, 72% of Gen Z’s agree that the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening. Also, only 11% of Gen Z believes that their country is highly committed to tackling climate change (Deloitte, 2022). Combined with the limited voting power Gen Z has during elections, it has left them largely distrusting institutions and society (EY, 2022). This distrust has triggered an interesting characteristic: Gen Z shows high engagement to the local community by purchasing locally produced and sourced goods which houses important fan engagement opportunities for sports teams.
“Gen Z has inherited a world on fire”- EY
Fortunately, Gen Z is also ready to embody change needed to ensure a better tomorrow. Gen Z has inherited a world on fire but is passionate to take action. The majority of Gen Z (72%) thinks it is either very or extremely important to change what is wrong in the world (EY, 2022). This sense of activism defines the generation and provides opportunities for sports organizations to get Gen Z engaged.
How to respond as a sports organization
- Help Gen Z by empowering them to drive positive change. Help to set up food banks, engage in environmental programs and promote Gen Z’s social initiatives
- Speak up as a sports team against issues Gen Z is worried about. Some small football clubs like Forest Green Rovers and Lewes FC are leading the dance and are taking bold first steps that completely connect with Gen Z’s values. Bigger Premier League clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool are also scoring high in The Green League organized by UN’s backed Sport Positive Summit (BBC, 2022).
- Activism towards institutions is important to Gen Z. Economic Inequality, Climate Change and Racism are highly relevant so a sports team that helps combat these issues (i.e. temporary food banks initiated by football clubs during the pandemic) will receive significant sympathy from Gen Z
- Facilitate Gen Z in helping the local community. As Gen Z is more engaged with the local community by sourcing locally and supporting initiatives, this especially is a great opportunity for local oriented football clubs to tap into Gen Z’s agenda.
|Lewes FC Signs 18th Century Pirates for 2022/23 season|
|Lewes FC is proud to announce that it will provide a home this season to a statue called ‘Inexorable’ commemorating Anne Bonny and Mary Read – trailblazing female pirates largely erased from history.
The piece of art demonstrates a partnership of two strong, independent, rebellious women whom history has tried to ignore.
Initially designed to be in Devon but rejected by a local council as ‘inappropriate’, Lewes FC was keen to house the statue at their home ground The Dripping Pan, where they are famous for being the only club in the world to split resources equally between women and men footballers.
Source: Lewes FC website
Career and behavior
Gen Z has a different approach to what employment means to them. Their number one priority is to actually enjoy what they do. Gen Z finds it important that their employer is aligned with their personal beliefs and that they enjoy the work that they do. 64% of Gen Z says it is important that their employer shares their values. However, only 45% agrees that businesses have a positive impact on society (Deloitte, 2022). It may explain why 40% of Gen Z has rejected jobs in the past when the corporate values did not align with their personal beliefs. Also 40% of Gen Z says they are likely to leave their jobs in the next 2 years (McKinsey, 2022). These numbers expose two very important elements. Firstly, it explains a labor market movement called The Great Resignation where hordes of employees are quitting their jobs. If jobs don’t align with Gen Z’s personal values, they move on or don’t even enter a company. It also exposes why companies should have a strong CSR-profile: not only because Gen Z are their current and future customers but also as Gen Z are the current and future workforce. Secondly, the reason behind these high workplace mobility numbers: dissatisfaction with salaries. Almost half of Gen Z’s live from paycheck-to-paycheck and worry that they won’t be able to cover their expenses. This has resulted in 43% of Gen Z’s having a second job (Deloitte, 2022).
More recently, Gen Z has started to respond to these circumstances. On TikTok the term quiet quitting has become mainstream, describing doing nothing more than the work goals require. Combined with the mental health issues as discussed earlier, it seems a response to the hustle-mentality which has defined its previous generations (McKinsey, 2022)
Fortunately, solutions are also able to be identified. Almost 75% of Gen Z’s prefer hybrid or remote work options. No more than 19% say that always working in the office is their preferred option. Yet, the main motivators for Gen Z to work for their current organizations (and thus motivators for accepting a job) are good work/life balance (32%), appropriate learning and developing opportunities (29%) and higher salary (25%) (Deloitte, 2022). McKinsey also supports these findings and adds ‘meaningfulness of work’ to the list of future job requirements (McKinsey, 2022).
How to respond as a sports organization
- Support mental health in the workplace (pay close attention here, sports industry). Many sports business talents leave the sports industry already after a few years and – from personal observation – mental health seemed to be a common issue. Pay attention to adequately safeguarding the work-life balance like compensating overwork-hours as sports business jobs are consuming and draining
- Working in football specifically is also mentally demanding. It often means working easily 40+ hours and match days with limited to no financial or time compensation. Providing professional mental health support in the workplace can lead to retaining these talents longer
- Making a lot of money is not the most important driver to employment for Gen Z, although it is a very important factor for resigning. In general, the football industry is known for its low pays, so keeping the right talent onboard means installing proper compensation schemes.
- Invest in the right workplace culture. Gen Z prioritizes finding fulfilling careers and if the jobs they’re employed at doesn’t reflect this, they are likely to leave soon again
- Implement hybrid working strategies. Gen Z does actually want to work, it just means that the appropriate work/life balance and recognition needs to be in place.
- If all companies are struggling to attract Gen Z employers, then so are your sponsors. Sports clubs can jump in by gathering their sponsors vacancies and to host a Purpose Driven Job Fair.
The environment: one of the main topics of Gen Z’s concerns. Many Gen Z’s are not happy about how the world is fighting the environmental battle. 75% of Gen Z believe the world is at a tipping point when it comes to responding to climate change. More worryingly, less than half (44%) of Gen Z’s are optimistic that the planet can be saved. It explains why almost 90% of Gen Z’s is making some form of effort to protect the environment. This varies from using recyclable mugs, buying second-hand clothes and items and buying food that is locally or organically produced (Deloitte, 2022). Simultaneously, 75% always recycle. Also, 60% finds it extremely important to buy from brands that take action to preserve the environment (EY, 2022). In summary, Gen Z shows what EY calls Intentional Consumerism. Gen Z gravitate towards brands that share their values, while quickly dismissing those that don’t. In a sports team context, it may be difficult to pick a new team, but it could partially explain why Gen Z is skipping stadium visits more often compared to their previous generations.
Large companies still have a long way to go to play their part. Only 15% of Gen Z’s strongly agree that large companies are taking substantive actions. And as mentioned before, only 11% believes their countries are doing enough. When it comes to employers, Gen Z’s are slightly more optimistic. 18% feels their employer is strongly committed to fight climate change. This may be the result of the activism by Gen Z: almost half has put pressure on their employer to take action. And when the employers listen, Gen Z’s show more loyalty to these employers. Gen Z would like to see their employers invest more on activities like banning single-use plastics at the workplace, offering sustainably oriented employee benefits, providing training on how to make a positive impact and providing incentives to make better environmental choices (i.e. carbon footprint competition with colleagues) (Deloitte, 2022). When it comes to nutrition, Gen Z is also paying closer attention. The younger consumers are the ones changing their eating habits in favor of the environment. 60% of Gen Z has changed what they eat with 20% having undertaken major changes in their eating habits (McKinsey, 2022).
How to respond as a sports organization
- Jump onboard the ecological band wagon immediately. For example, become the first club ever to sponsor or support global ecological initiatives like The Ocean Cleanup who’s mission is to get rid of plastics in oceans and rivers.
- Provide environmental-friendly food alternatives inside the stadium. This can be animal-friendly certified meat options or offering of vegetarian substitutes
- Prioritize climate action as a key strategic pillar and empower staff and fans to do their part. Facilitate recycling inside the stadium, for example by collecting old sports clothes via a clothing sponsor
- Help fans and staff decrease their carbon footprint by providing public transportation solutions to/from stadium
- Get rid of single-use cups and other plastics in stadiums. Many Gen Z’s see this as a major issue and may be a reason for Gen Z’s not visiting stadiums
- Help employees decrease their carbon footprint via logistics plans or a competition to reduce their carbon footprint.
Finances are also a major concern for Gen Z. Gen Z has moved away from a mindset of fame-and-fortune but rather is motivated to work hard to shape a secure, stable, and impactful future. In general, 42% of Gen Z rate that becoming rich is either very or extremely important, a clear distinction is made here for Eastern markets (China and Japan). In total only 20% of Gen Z is looking to become famous. Gen Z has become a lot more conservative: 77% of Gen Z believe it is very or extremely important to save money to buy or do things in the future (EY, 2022). As EY states, this is producing a generation of savers. Deloitte concludes that finances is the top reason why Gen Z is so often feeling stressed, with concerns about the long-term financial future (47%) and day-to-day finances (42%) as main factors (Deloitte, 2022).
It perhaps explains the rising popularity of the FIRE-movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early). Although mostly popular with millennials, Gen Z has also joined the bandwagon with 25% wanting to leave the workforce earlier than the standard retirement age (Goldman Sachs, 2021). It triggers a behavior of constant self-negotiation on how to manage their finances. And it seems that Gen Z is more willing to take financial risks to achieve financial success. Thanks to the recent gamification of trading and the rise of financial influencers, 43% of Gen Z has held cryptocurrency at some point. Though, most Gen Z’s have already stepped out (PYMNTS, 2022). It defines Gen Z’s position towards finances: willing to jump onboard hype trains but as easily letting it go again. An explanation could be that trading in crypto’s have left Gen Z with significantly less disposable income, only increasing their financial worries.
Altogether, it seems like Gen Z is trying to find its way to financial literacy with a few challenges on its path (Forbes, 2022). This can create great opportunities for sports clubs to jump the bandwagon and help Gen Z to become more financially literate.
How to respond as a sports organization
- Support Gen Z’s struggling with economic uncertainty and financial stress. Provide flexible payment plans and financial support to employees
- Provide financial fitness training to Gen Z. Use the knowledge in the academy and the finance department to train Gen Z on how to safely allocate income over assets like savings, investments, and spending.
- Tell the real story behind betting and crypto. Instead of trusting that a crypto-partner will take on this responsibility (?!), help Gen Z make the choice on some basic rules of investing
Overall, it is challenging to get Gen Z engaged. They are demanding and already wanted improvements yesterday rather than today. Similar to how the blog started, ECA has already concluded that Gen Z has to spread its time over many different entertainment sources, partially ditching football interest. Unless football clubs use the available information to drastically re-engage this generation, a permanent gap could occur. Because of what would happen if this Gen Z, with its declined interest in sports, grow up to become parents and passes that declined sports interest onto their children? It will become increasingly more difficult to get fans to the stadiums or engaged in the first place. Therefore, it would be wise to start setting up strategies around Gen Z (like we had at my old club AZ Alkmaar) to keep them engaged.
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