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Gen Z: a lesson for sports brands

The growth in sports brands has been unrelenting: more participants, more viewers, more followers. But, for the first time, this growth is being challenged – by the difficulty in attracting Gen Z audiences

With a few exceptions, we are seeing declining participation in, and viewership of, organised sport. The cause? A seeming indifference among Gen Z audiences.

The uniqueness of this generation represents both a challenge and an opportunity to the sports industry. In a highly competitive world, sports brands and organisations must continually adapt to Gen Z norms in order to – at worst – maintain relevance, and – at best – achieve a positive breakthrough in terms of recognition and perception.

As advisors to leading sports brands and organisations, WPP agencies play a central role in developing and implementing strategies that connect with Gen Z. WPP agencies have led a number of campaigns that were designed to engage the Gen Z demographic. These include:

  • Prism Sport + Entertainment’s ‘Love the Unexpected’ campaign alongside, Velo and McLaren, focused on telling fans’ stories from across the world, helping to reach more than 26 million fans globally.
  • Ogilvy supported the Olympics and Coca-Cola with co-branded virtual experiences through the ‘I belong here’ digital platform, attracting more than 135m video views on Olympics.com.
  • Hill and Knowlton helped HSBC shine a light on women in sport with a documentary on former rugby professional Danielle ‘Nolli' Waterman – there were over 700 pieces of coverage with a reach of more than 650m.

Prism Sport and Entertainment, specialises in engaging sports and entertainment audiences. Frances Wain, Prism’s Executive Director for Growth, provides three key strategies for sports organisations and brands to help them maintain, or even increase, relevance among Gen Z audiences.

1. Develop data-driven content

As the generation that grew up as digital natives, it’s no surprise that Gen Z audiences prefer to consume sports content through online platforms rather than traditional broadcast channels. This has had numerous effects, but ultimately it means that competition for the (notoriously short) attention spans of Gen Z audiences is stronger than ever, not only within sports but also from competing industries.

To get ahead in such an environment, sports organisations and brands must truly understand fan behaviours and preferences, and they should use platforms and develop content with Gen Z in mind. For example, they should use data to identify which of their – and their close competitors’ – news items and social media posts have resonated with the various segments of their fan base.

2. Display your social values

Gen Z has been portrayed as one of the groups most vocal about societal unrest, global instability and the climate crisis. Fuelling their anxiety is the constant exposure to content about social issues and events. While young people have always been catalysts for social change, Gen Z has the technology and skills to communicate and mobilise in digital spaces in a way in which previous generations did not.

Demonstrating meaningful purpose and being transparent about how brands are tackling issues are key to building Gen Z engagement and loyalty. There is no longer a line between politics, societal issues and sport – brands, talent and rightsholders are expected to have a point of view about the moments that impact their audiences, or risk losing touch with them.

3. Follow fan behaviour closely

One of the most characteristic dynamics of Gen Z behaviour is, perhaps, how much it varies. Even within one platform and one demographic, trends come and go rapidly. On a more macro level, the tools and platforms that Gen Z are using now are significantly different from those being used only a few years ago. There is now a proliferation of short-form content (TikTok, IG Reels, YT Shorts and Snapchat Spotlight) and a seemingly unlimited demand for content and innovation, such as the use of generative AI.

Fluctuating behaviour can result in the weakening of brand loyalty. Relevance comes and goes rapidly so in-depth monitoring and swift adaptation is essential. There are three questions to address:

  • Relatability: how are you finding common points with your target audience?
  • Information: what can your audience learn from you?
  • Emotion: how does the content induce different feelings?

By constantly analysing fans’ behaviours – and that of potential new fans – sports organisations and brands can ensure that they maintain and enhance their future relevance.

More opportunity than challenge

The battleground for Gen Z’s attention is still wide open. With digital advances, sport can engage fully with all segments of society, and all parts of the world – and treat everyone equally.

In such a competitive environment, small differences in planning and execution will likely lead to big differences in results. The coming years promise to expose the gaps between engagement that is merely ‘good’ and that which is ‘excellent’. The results could be pivotal.

Dominic Grainger and Frances Wain

published on

10 May 2023

Category

Communications Experience

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