The Gen Z problem: how to convert sports agnostics in the digital age

Sports brands need to work harder to connect with a younger generation that has plenty of other distractions

Sports Gen Z digital age Manchester United

by Adam Mingay, business director at Unit9

2022 is shaping up to be quite the year for sports, with the Commonwealth Games, the return of the Premier League, the hotly anticipated Qatar World Cup – and of course the Lionesses officially bringing football home for England.

But while fandom is stronger than ever among millennials and older generations, some teams and sports are struggling to build and maintain loyalty with the all-important power base of Gen Z – a demographic where only 23% identify as passionate sports fans.

With regular viewership of live sports on TV dropping to just one in four among Gen Z, this group needs more exciting and dynamic experiences to command and maintain their attention.

Sports in general, especially the match-day experience for fans, hasn’t evolved experientially at the same pace as the world around it, and therein lies the problem with engaging tech-driven Gen Z.

The dawn of the metaverse, along with emerging technologies such as VR, AR, AI and NFTs, are the keys to breaking tradition and creating an engaged, active and loyal fanbase; sports teams and clubs need to harness the power of these technologies pre-, during and post-fixture in order to engage digital-native Gen Z at every stage.

In our digital age, support and fan engagement can extend from the terraces into the virtual space, giving teams and brands the opportunity to connect with their global family before a match or tournament even begins.

Niantic’s “NBA World” is a strong example of what’s possible, offering a location-based AR experience that allows users to explore a basketball-themed universe complete with NBA players, gamifying their real world locations to encourage competition and shareability 24/7.

By empowering Gen Z to connect with a sport and its players on their own terms, teams may find they are able to foster deeper relationships with a demographic who love to get personal.

Building experience across multiple Gen Z native platforms and touchpoints simultaneously can also be a powerful tool to build hype before a tournament.

Meta recently launched the World Cup Cities Tour for the 2023 Rugby World Cup with six AR filters, a digital avatar builder, and a connected VR experience where users can embody their newly created characters.

Harnessing various metaverse expressions in this way is a great way to harvest a fan base before the game kicks off, especially by putting Gen Z directly into the centre of the experience as a participant rather than a passive spectator.

When it comes to fans arriving at stadiums, arenas and fan zones, tech-led activations can also be leveraged to elevate the match-day experience. Cisco recently announced the “connected scarf” in partnership with Manchester City, which allows the club to track real fan data such as heart rate, body temperature and emotions.

This idea takes a symbol of fan culture from the past 100 years and gives it a digital makeover to connect supporters with their team on a deeper level, while allowing the club to understand how spectators feel during those 90 minutes and use that data to create even more meaningful match-day experiences going forward.

For the on-pitch experience, Gen Z needs something more exciting than beautiful lighting shows and fireworks; there’s an opportunity here to increase fan engagement throughout an entire match. AR is a great way to use the pitch as a canvas and add an extra layer of interactivity to proceedings, with gamified activations such as EE’s multiplayer foosball game at Wembley or the Carolina Panthers’ mixed reality panther upping the fun factor for fans.

For statisticians wanting to elevate their viewing experience at home, AR information such as AT&T’s Chicago Bulls overlay can visualise performance in real time, helping younger generations to feel more invested and interested in the players on their screens.

And taking this one step further, ESPN recently broadcast the world’s first “real vs virtual” tennis match, with legend John McEnroe facing off against AI-infused digital avatars from his past.

Technology can elevate a standard sports fixture into something that was never previously possible – and for a generation who are constantly seeking the new, this is a huge draw.

The opportunity for engagement doesn’t need to end at the final whistle, with teams able to create limited-edition NFT drops, AR highlights of key moments from a game or even a dedicated Web3 community for like-minded fans to gather, create avatars and analyse how their team is performing.

Never before have there been so many opportunities for clubs and brands to capture the hearts of Gen Z using such a vast array of technologies and platforms. With so many creative avenues to explore, innovation-driven digital and physical experiences must help move sport into the 21st century, turning Gen Z apathy into loyalty among the fan base of tomorrow.